Big Scam Theory

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

2003 -- Persistence Required

Straight answers about the financial numbers behind the convention center expansion are available to the persistent. But you won't get the truth just by asking. As consultant O'Neal noted to enthusiastic agreement from both Merritt and Sumner, "Everybody tracks it differently."

Furthermore, no one party even takes responsibility for the numbers, no matter how many billions of our dollars are involved. The economic projections are divided between consultants. Big Six accounting firm Ernst & Young did one part of the analysis while the economic consultants at Elliot Pollock did a second. You can't help but feel that plausible denial is a part of the game plan.

Urban guru Richard Florida spoke to a packed house at the Orpheum Theatre.
Matt Garcia
Urban guru Richard Florida spoke to a packed house at the Orpheum Theatre.
Mayor-elect Phil Gordon says the arts community needs to reach a consensus to make effective changes.
Jackie Mercandetti
Mayor-elect Phil Gordon says the arts community needs to reach a consensus to make effective changes.

When I asked Merritt from the Pollock group how they could justify using a wildly cheerful guess like 375,000 conventioneers to forecast revenue streams, he replied, "We haven't done that part of the study. We took Ernst & Young's number. We didn't look at that."

This is a mighty fine strategy. Elliot Pollock's group then took the immaculately conceived 375,000 figure and for 26 pages multiplied it by every conceivable revenue stream and, at the end of the report, found $86 million in new tax income that had never existed before and exists nowhere else in America.

1980 Century Sky Room

Twenty-three years ago, a group of young attorneys from Phoenix's major law firms gathered at the Encanto Park residence of Brian Muldoon. All of this youthful talent had assembled to consider what they could do about the fate of downtown.

Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, the lawyers are no longer young and they are still debating the future of the urban hub.

I was a mildly interested observer in 1980, until a woman walked into the room.

Today, Jim Walsh is a senior member of Attorney General Terry Goddard's staff, but in 1980 he was the guy in the Encanto Park home who gave me the skinny on Kathleen Ferris. She was the hotshot water lawyer who had recently written the revolutionary "Groundwater Code" that would control allocation of the desert's most precious resource. The negotiations to broker the water-management legislation at the statehouse involved every significant player in Arizona. Fresh off of this triumph, Ferris was weighing her next move. All of the major firms in the room were recruiting her. She was also considering running the legal staff of the new state agency created to administrate her code.

She certainly did not look like an attorney. Smart and accomplished, Ferris was glamorous -- a Law & Order type of attorney before there was Law & Order. I considered my prospects. Every set of expensive suspenders and club tie in the room was after her for one reason or another. I worked at a weekly paper she, in all likelihood, had not yet read. I was broke. I had no car.

I liked my chances.

After all, these people were here to save downtown. But I, in fact, knew all about the hidden gems already in place.

I introduced myself and explained that I was fascinated by the entire topic of water, development in the desert, the Groundwater Code, in fact, her very future as a water czarina. I told so many whoppers in such rapid order that I was lucky not to have been struck dead.

Since she was between gigs, I wondered if she might have the time to, perhaps, educate me on the issues. Nothing too formal, you understand. No need for a meeting in an office she did not yet have. Maybe, say, over cocktails.

I showed up at her door in a car borrowed from a girlfriend.

I drove her to the Century Sky Room, a legendary downtown showcase for jazz and blues. I used to go to the Sky Room after hours to drink. Mary Bishop, a white woman who ran the black club, kept a particular jug of scotch behind the bar for me for those nights when it seemed no saloon stayed open late enough. Mary could talk and would eventually talk herself into moving to Paris.

Raised in Salt Lake City, Ferris had grown up thinking that black music meant Motown. That first night we listened to Small Paul and the Driving Wheel, and I don't think water ever came up. The rest rooms were outside and down a long corridor, and when Ferris excused herself, she discovered that she had to file through a gauntlet of players not used to seeing white lawyers stroll past.

The terrific music, the inherent funk of the scene, it was all there in this insider's hangout downtown; the entire package was a kind of recruitment against which the staid attorneys from the big law firms could not compete. For the next five years, I introduced her to every nook and cranny downtown, including Newman's Lounge, where most of the clientele drank up their SSI checks. Newman's was founded in 1885, and 100 years later, Ferris accepted a proposal of marriage in that bar.

2003 -- Fun With Numbers

Rube Goldberg drew contraptions bedeviled by complexity. But the cartoonist was a simple soul compared to the wizards at Ernst & Young who conjured the blizzard of statistics culminating in the magical number of 375,000 delegates who will fill the expanded Civic Center.

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