Big Scam Theory

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

I can't say, said David O'Neal, chairman of Conventional Wisdom; Richard C. Merritt, vice president of Elliot D. Pollock; and Charles Sumner, vice president of sales and marketing for the Phoenix Civic Center.

This six-pack of promotional carbonation agreed separately, collectively and spontaneously that only George Keough, director of finance for the City of Phoenix, knew this particular number.

I was not immediately suspicious. At this point, it was merely an itch I could not reach.

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.

Unfortunately, George Keough could not find a moment of time in his schedule for nearly three weeks, long after my deadline.

In fact, the convention business in Phoenix would have been forced into bankruptcy court were it not for enormous tax subsidies from Arizona residents.

Public records show that the Civic Plaza costs more than $40 million a year to operate but only charges convention groups substantially less than $2 million annually.

Concessionaires and other income streams coupled with the rental fees raise the income to just in excess of $9 million annually, which leaves a shortfall of approximately $35 million a year. For every dollar the convention center takes in, it loses four. Excise taxes make up the difference.

The reason neither economic study felt compelled to examine cost was clear. No matter how much it costs to expand, conventioneers will not foot the bill. Taxpayers will.

2003 -- Finding Some Voice

Following Richard Florida's October 21 appearance, I received a letter from Claire Sargent, wife of a retired downtown utility executive. She is not merely well-to-do but rather someone with an opinion, an attendee of weighty-topic conferences and the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1992.

"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw folks at the front door lined up down one sidewalk behind a prominent sign: VIPs -- Reserved seating.'"

Sargent went on to blast the idea of reserved seats for VIPs, despite the fact that everyone, including Claire, was admitted free.

New Times put on the event, and we chose to reserve seats for the many from the arts community and various Valley city halls who worked on Florida's appearance. But everyone who showed up got a free seat. This wasn't good enough for Sargent, who professed that she was horrified at the evening's elitism. This woman who ran for an office routinely identified as the most exclusive club in America was offended by the idea of VIP seating.

"For a moment, I was transported to my childhood in Mississippi, when African-Americans were forbidden to sit with the whites at the picture show, and were required to enter at the side door and climb to the balcony."

A seat at the Richard Florida event? You didn't need your MasterCard. It was free.

A rich white woman with a stick up her butt?


Sargent's self-righteousness, her overbearing sense of political correctness, is emblematic of a problem that surfaced repeatedly during the writing of the downtown project for this paper. She is interested in downtown, she attends a lecture about the future of downtown, she has standing as a leader, yet she can't see the forest for the trees. The opportunity to climb up on a soapbox is more pressing for her than the need to address the substantive problems of downtown development.

Likewise, the artists, the gallery owners, the patrons, the purveyors of cool -- the loudest advocates for Florida's vision -- cannot set aside their grievances with each other long enough to deal effectively with the city.

Wayne Rainey, a photographer who also builds, ambitiously, affordable housing for other artists, has been attacked repeatedly and anonymously in print. The founder of monOrchid was accused of selling out by other artists who launched a publication to monitor not the city, but other artists. Greg Esser, who along with his wife, Cindy Dasch, founded eye lounge, 515 gallery and the Sixth Street Studios, also runs the city's art in public places program. He has been savaged for unsubstantiated conflicts of interest. Again, the libels are anonymous.

Artists lead other communities when they engage the political process instead of each other.

At the beginning of this series, I wrote of the desirability of making Oaxaca, Mexico, a sister city to Phoenix. Oaxaca is a place that owes its soul to the leadership of artists.

Artists in Oaxaca organized opposition to a McDonald's coming into its 16th-century town square in 2002. They gathered 10,000 signatures to stop the chain from occupying a critical spot in the historic zocalo. Protesting chain hamburgers, they distributed tamales, and by December of last year, Francisco Toledo, Guillermo "Willy" Olguin and the other artists of this Indian city had won. It was not the first victory by the creative class.

Led by Toledo, Oaxaca has resisted the coarser effects of tourism at the same time that the community has embraced travelers from all over the world.

In an interview earlier this summer, Toledo explained that for him there came a moment when he had to join political goals to his artistic vision.

"I could not separate the two," explained Toledo. "My art occurred in my community."

In the mid-'80s, Mexican army troops stationed in Oaxaca prepared to leave their barracks to fight insurgents in Chiapas. They'd been housed in the 16th-century rectory of the priests of Santo Domingo. Upon the soldiers' departure, the government intended to turn the stately rectory into a tourist hotel. Toledo organized a successful resistance. Eventually, the church was restored, the rectory became a museum of Oaxacan history, and an internationally famous botanical garden was begun on church grounds.

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