Big Scam Theory

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

In Phoenix, by contrast, the opposition to siting the Arizona Cardinals football stadium in downtown last year, a location that would have destroyed the gallery enclave on Roosevelt, amounted to little more than screaming and stunts. Like Christ, one artist dragged a crucifix into a hearing yelling, "Phoenix, we forgive you."

When photographer Rainey talked to the city and stadium promoters about extracting something for the community, he wasn't viewed as a negotiator, but rather as a traitor who needed to be taken down a peg or two.

The inability of the creative class in Phoenix to coalesce around reasonable goals, to join forces, to come to the table, leaves a vacuum that Colangelo seeks to fill, however heavy-handedly, with a generic master plan executed by a developer with dubious ties to the Disney vision of community.

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.

The Downtown Phoenix Partnership presents a united front in support of its goal for developing downtown with an expanded Civic Center and hundreds of thousands of conventioneers. The creative class, as expressed through First Friday, manages a monthly party, but that is all its organizers manage. In a recent conversation, incoming Mayor Gordon expressed frustration with the incoherent agitating amongst the art types. He observed that no one person or group seems to represent any community consensus.

"They are too busy eating their young," said Gordon.

2003 -- One Last Hustle

Convention promoters claim that excise taxes are paid by convention delegates through hotel and car-rental fees. Thus the claim that the $35 million in tax subsidies are carried by conventioneers and tourists. But a closer examination of excise tax tells a different story. The single largest part of excise tax is paid by contractors. Advertising, job printing and publishing also pay into the excise-tax pool. It is true that restaurants and bars pay about 30 percent of the $35 million in taxes used to subsidize the Civic Plaza. But all of us pay that tax at our neighborhood pizzeria or drinking establishment.

There are more than two million of us in greater Phoenix who pay these taxes week in and week out when we build, advertise, eat or drink.

When six bright guys, who make their living promoting conventions, claim they don't know their business is bankrupt and depends upon Phoenix taxpayers for 75 percent of its revenue, then how can you ask them the obvious: If we triple the size of the convention center, how do we know we won't triple the debt service and expense that taxpayers shoulder?

You have to wonder: What would it take for someone to get fired in this convention promotion business, or at least spoken to sternly?

2003 -- More Than a Tourist Trap

Gabriel García Márquez wrote recently of his beginnings, the days of his youth that had yet to reveal One Hundred Years of Solitude and literary immortality. He described roosting in the cafes of Bogotá where he devoured the works of Jorge Luis Borges, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene and James Joyce.

"Many of these students reserved their tables year after year and received mail and even money orders at the cafes. Favors from the proprietors or their trusted employees were instrumental in saving a good number of university careers, and quite a few professionals in the country may owe more to their cafe connections than they do to their almost invisible tutors.

"My favorite cafe was El Molino, the one frequented by older poets, which was only 200 meters or so from my pension . . . I always arranged for the waiters to put me as close as possible to the master Leon de Grieff -- bearded, gruff, charming -- who would begin his tertulia, his literary talk at dusk with some of the most famous writers of the day, and end it with his chess students at midnight, awash in cheap liquor. . . . Although they tended to talk more about women and political intrigues than about their art or work, they always said something that was new to us."

Is it pretentious to cite Gabriel García Márquez's memories of a Bogotá street life as a template for downtown Phoenix? Yes, of course. But we are imagining possibilities here, and our dreams ought to be expansive and not fenced off by the barbed wire of self-consciousness.

Someone -- why not Márquez? -- must prick the bubble of torpor so acutely ambered by Arizona State University novelist Ron Carlson. In his latest collection of short stories, At the Jim Bridger, Carlson eavesdrops on a couple in a Valley bar. She is a Phoenix newscaster who asks: "Is this a soulless place, or is it me?"

"It will have soul in a thousand years," responds the man in the short story.

"Should we wait?" she asks.

Perhaps the word soul is overblown, too, but why shrink from it? If urban residents cower, someone else will create a downtown that is uninhabitable.

Today, five developments are careening over the horizon.

• When the Arizona Cardinals chose to put their new stadium on the west side in Glendale instead of in downtown Phoenix, business leaders bemoaned the loss and took action. On June 5 of this year, they issued their letter calling for another billion dollars of investment in downtown Phoenix.

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