Big Scam Theory

Downtown Phoenix has always had its high points, but the Civic Center boondoggle isn't one of them

In the center of institutionally financed land fraud, water piracy, and more white-collar scams than you could shake a stick at, the only business in town that wasn't bankable was this "alternative newspaper."

This was the sort of thing I took personally and held against all bankers. But Driggs was different.

Driggs impressed us as a wee fellow with wide vision. He was absorbed with academic studies of the future. He personally engineered public trail access to the Valley's geological lodestone, Camelback Mountain. And swallowed up by his chair at the top of Western Savings, he decided, personally, that he'd take a chance on a couple of Irish guys on the make.

We're spending about a billion dollars in taxpayer funds for Civic Center expansion  to attract the likes of these nametag-wearing conventioneers.
Jackie Mercandetti
We're spending about a billion dollars in taxpayer funds for Civic Center expansion to attract the likes of these nametag-wearing conventioneers.
The Phoenix Civic Center.
The Phoenix Civic Center.

For Driggs, it was a gut decision, the same sort of instinct that would send his business to hell and close the doors at Western Savings.

By the time it was necessary for New Times to find another financial partner, Larkin had figured out that there were other individuals in our organization better suited than myself for banking interviews.

Larkin came to this decision following the 1985 Fiesta Bowl, when we were scheduled to share a stadium suite with our new, just-getting-acquainted bankers. Called out of town at the last second, Larkin was forced to ask me to take his place at the big football game.

The problem was . . . the bowl game occurs on New Year's Day, which, naturally, follows New Year's Eve. I had awakened with the thumping realization that spending four or five hours with reveling bankers and their wives would be the chemical opposite of the hair of the dog that I so clearly sought.

A friend and I drove downtown. Then, as now, you could always find transients at the homeless shelter. We found two winos who professed an interest in college football. We hailed a taxi to take them to the stadium. They went up to the suite, stuffed themselves at the buffet, and made a vivid, if aromatic, impression.

Upon his return and following an unpleasant phone call from the bankers, Larkin stormed into my office, having been told I'd scalped the tickets (as if those two hapless fellows could have afforded to pay anything). Set straight as to what had actually happened, an apoplectic Larkin bellowed:

"You did what?!"

Gary Driggs went on to author a wonderful book about Camelback Mountain and today is still a champion of that sandstone and granite refuge.

2003 -- A Second Opinion

I took the Convention Expansion reports, both Ernst & Young's and Elliot Pollock's, to a Big Six accounting firm for a second opinion, if you will. In return for a promise of anonymity, a senior partner agreed to review their financial analyses.

"You'd have to be a complete, cockeyed optimist to buy these reports," said the partner. "It's such pie in the sky."

The accounting partner had prepared 16 questions before reading the work of Ernst & Young and Elliot Pollock.

"They answered maybe three of the 16 areas of concern," noted the analyst.

The senior accountant said the 375,000-delegate figure is highly suspicious because there is no analysis of supply and demand. Every city in America appears to have built a new convention center or expanded an old one. This expanded supply has been met by declining convention attendance for several years predating the tragedy of September 11.

"As far as I can tell, where the 375,000 people are coming from is completely ignored. They are guessing.

"And if this number isn't accurate, the Pollock study is worthless.

"My gut: The statistics used to get to 375,000 delegates, no bank would be comfortable with. If I was a bank or an investor, I'd want a lot more. It's so funny. They just say, hey, they're going to show up.

"You get no warm and fuzzy feeling reading these reports," said the accountant.

2003 -- Richard Florida at the Orpheum

Richard Florida told the 1,300 people at the Orpheum Theatre downtown about how vibrant urban cores attract the sort of young, creative workers who now compose about 30 percent of the work force nationally, and, more impressively, account for 50 percent of personal income. Cities like Phoenix that hope to bring in the biosciences and high-tech industries need to understand, said Florida, that companies are now following workers. He cited the example of Lycos, which began in Pittsburgh but relocated to Boston because a thriving streetscape was attracting Beantown residents and workers to a stable downtown.

2003 -- Bankrupt Convention Center

I spoke to six guys in ties, all with significant job titles in the world of attracting convention business to Phoenix. Each was giving of his time and happy to elaborate upon the glorious numbers deposited in the Ernst & Young analysis. Each was willing to drill down into the giddy statistics in the Elliot Pollock report. Each had whatever time necessary to recount the euphoric projections in the Civic Plaza Expansion Market Analysis.

But not a single one would answer the following question: How much of the cost of importing convention delegates to downtown Phoenix was paid for by taxpayers?

I dunno, said the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau's Steve White, vice president of sales and marketing; James O. Jessie Jr., director of sales; and Marc Garcia, managing director of multicultural affairs.

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