Big Scam Theory

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

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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