Big Scam Theory

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

2003 -- Biz Leaders' Billion-Dollar Plan

On June 5, nine top executives from downtown announced a plan to revitalize the urban core. They sent a letter to the mayor and city council calling for a billion dollars in spending on top of the two billion they estimated already had been spent. Understand, the business leaders are not announcing that they are committing a billion dollars of their own revenue; they are announcing that they want the city to spend a billion dollars in tax funds. And that ought to make this a public discussion.

So far, ought, ain't.

In the old days, Phoenix movers and shakers held court at the estimable Estelle's.
courtesy of Valley Leadership
In the old days, Phoenix movers and shakers held court at the estimable Estelle's.
Alfredo Gutierrez, then a state senator, made the impassioned plea that allowed New Times to renovate the closed and dilapidated black grade-school building.
Alfredo Gutierrez, then a state senator, made the impassioned plea that allowed New Times to renovate the closed and dilapidated black grade-school building.

"Downtown has made tremendous strides," Neil Irwin, the attorney who heads the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, told the morning newspaper. "But in some sense, the job is just beginning when you look at housing and unemployment."

While the need to get new residents into the deserted downtown gets lip service, the disparity between word and deed is like listening to the promises of abstinence from an alcoholic who cannot walk past a bottle of Jack Daniel's. In the same announcement in which the Downtown Phoenix Partnership mentioned housing, its members also hailed the expanded convention center and the new hotel that will consume the entire one billion dollars in new funding and (if all goes according to plan) would flood the empty streets downtown with 375,000 name-tag-wearing conventioneers, thus producing a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare without any of the appeal of fang, claw or cracked tooth. There are only 7,000 residents currently in downtown Phoenix.

With $3 billion spent or committed to downtown, we have: the Arizona Diamondbacks ballpark, the arena for the Phoenix Suns, the Dodge Theatre, the Orpheum Theatre, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Burton Barr Central Library, the Heard Museum, the Herberger Theater Center, the Arizona Center, the Mercado, the Civic Plaza and no downtown.

In contrast to the $3 billion spent on cultural Wal-Marts, the city has spent a mere $6.7 million on housing, which explains why a vibrant downtown Denver has 75,000 residents compared to our 7,000. In fact, the single largest features of downtown Phoenix are enormous, block-square, empty parking garages.

Richard Florida advocates a different idea for downtown.

1983 Estelle's Bistro on Monroe

Terry Goddard was the new mayor, and the musk of potential filled the air. The reform "district system" swept out the at-large seats for the city council. The firefighters' union had won its fight for respectability against police chief Ruben Ortega, even placing one of its leaders, Duane Pell, on the council. Downtown development was the buzz. Everyone was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fooks for a big dish of beef chow mein.

And on the way, all the players stopped at Estelle's Bistro in the Old San Carlos Hotel. From 1983 to 1985, Estelle Spiros, Lucia Fakonis and Scott Jacobson threw a nonstop party. They'd shut down the street, dump 75 tons of sand from gutter to gutter, announce Brazil night, and play carnival music until endless conga lines snaked through downtown. Had someone forgotten to inform the authorities? Hell, Estelle was the authority.

During the election, Estelle had persuaded Goddard and his opponent, Pete Dunn, that they needed to trump their competition for votes by each making, from scratch, a dessert that would then be judged by the howler monkeys at the bar. And both did it.

The Bistro's trio produced a show every weekend.

Because every politician, bureaucrat and operative that mattered appeared to live at Estelle's, it was impossible to spend a night there and not emerge with a story. It was a Casablanca of sources.

For example?

New Times endorsed candidate Goddard because he spoke to urban issues and attacked his opponent for taking large contributions from the ultimately indicted Charles Keating.

But the wise guys in Estelle's let it be known that Goddard sought the same money from Keating. How did the wise guys know? They'd gone, at Goddard's direction, seeking the same cash from Keating.

And sitting over there in the back of Estelle's was Goddard's top aide, Neil Irwin (yes, the very same Neil Irwin who would later run the Downtown Phoenix Partnership). Irwin was being leaned on seriously by Senator Dennis DeConcini's guys Wayne Howard and Don Moon, who were joined by Pat Cantelme, head of the firefighters' union. The problem seemed to be that the mayor, in his first round of appointments, had betrayed these key supporters. This would be remedied.

2003 -- Convention Center Expansion

Hoodwinked taxpayers will be writing checks into the next millennium for the most expensive project undertaken by any Arizona city, at any time in the state's history, based upon financial projections that are sheer nonsense. The nearly one-billion-dollar Phoenix Civic Center expansion will triple the convention palace's square footage, necessitate a new hotel and generate $86 million annually in new tax revenue, according to the promoters, who, by the way, are putting up none of their own money on this sure thing.

By tripling its size, the Civic Center's backers promise to triple the number of conventioneers annually from 125,000 to 375,000 and thereby generate huge cash streams. But in a review of the last 30 convention centers built or expanded in America, not a single one has hit the kind of numbers Phoenix throws around.

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