Big Scam Theory

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

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.

Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson stands atop a fire truck with other players in the 2001 World Series parade through downtown.
courtesy of Bank One Ballpark
Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson stands atop a fire truck with other players in the 2001 World Series parade through downtown.
Séamus McCaffrey's has been around forever, and lately is the new hangout for downtown pols and the hipster crowd.
Jackie Mercandetti
Séamus McCaffrey's has been around forever, and lately is the new hangout for downtown pols and the hipster crowd.

There is a good reason that I cannot locate the sort of success the promoters in Phoenix are hustling. According to one expert, no city has ever tripled its convention center and tripled its attendance.

"There is no such case anywhere," says Heywood T. Sanders, chairman of the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Yet Phoenix City Hall and the Downtown Phoenix Partnership and the morning newspaper led taxpayers to approve $300 million for the expansion. The Arizona Legislature committed taxpayers throughout the state to another $300 million. And Mayor Skip Rimsza is calling for still another $300 million for a new convention center hotel that will be owned and operated by, of all entities, the city itself.

Charles Sumner is the vice president of sales and marketing for the Phoenix Civic Center. Last month he joined Richard Merritt, senior vice president of Elliott D. Pollock & Company, the economic consultants on the convention center expansion. These worthy gentlemen sat for an interview and were bolstered by David P. O'Neal, chairman of Conventional Wisdom, an über-consultant who was drawing up the program, or itinerary, for the expansion's architects.

With little reason for idle chitchat, we got to the point: Where in the United States, I asked, has any convention center tripled in size and thereby tripled its conventioneers? I can't seem to find an example.

A portentous silence filled the room. As time passed, the three looked at one another. I waited. The temptation when you create an awkward moment with a question is to jump in, say something, anything, to relieve the pressure. We all hear our mother's voice speaking of etiquette in these instances.

It is best to ignore your mother.

"You're probably correct," O'Neal Finally admitted.

1984 Nogales Cafe and Little Stevie

The Nogales Café, a wonderful Mexican joint run by Greeks in downtown Phoenix, served the best lengua in the city. But the Greek family that operated the Nogales feuded constantly. The fighting led to a split and a second Mexican restaurant nearby. You had to eat at both places to keep the peace. Steve Watkinson did not fit at any of the tables in either place. Watkinson was the fattest man in any room he occupied. If this was not enough to make him the standout attraction, all he had to do was open his mouth.

Watkinson knew more about anything and everything than anyone. He was discovered (what other word could I use?) by my partner, Jim Larkin. Fully formed legal briefs tumbled from Watkinson's mouth the way that other people say, "Uh . . ."

"Why, this reminds me of the Wells Fargo case in 1835," was Watkinson's idea of a conversational segue.

Because I still see "Little Stevie" sitting inside the long-since-closed Nogales Café, I still remember the restaurant. The memory of the man is part of my architectural archive of downtown.

Despite his girth, Watkinson was not sedentary. He hunted the state's most elusive prey, the desert dove. More frequently, he went deep off-road with a camera and photographed the flowers in the wilderness.

On just such a solitary excursion, Watkinson stumbled upon a dried waterfall. Approaching the precipice, he unwittingly stepped upon a moss-covered rock, lost his footing on the slick stone, and plunged over the edge.

Gone missing for a long time, a search-and-rescue team eventually unearthed the injured Watkinson. Restored to his rightful place in the universe, Little Stevie shed his excess weight and literally became a new man.

It was not enough to save him. His heart gave out, and he was dead in his mid-40s.

Other ghosts keep these bulldozed buildings and defunct businesses open in my mind: the wonderful Luhrs Hotel leveled for a banal parking lot, Valley National Bank, 3 Down Under, UB's, the Palm's Theatre, Jutenhoops, the bar on the third floor of the Arizona Title Building where federal narcotics agents and weekly journalists bought each other drinks, the Adams Hotel, Rosensweigs Jewelry Store, the Deuce, the Boojum Tree, the Ivanhoe, the Century Sky Room, the laser beam in Patriots Square Park, the Playboy Club, and, of course, Estelle's.

I have to stop. You won't read a phone directory. But these places are more than addresses.

On my desk is a yellow packet from 1998. It was distributed at Watkinson's funeral service. Inside are the desert wildflower seeds of forget-me-nots.

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