Big Scam Theory

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

1993 Phoenix Suns/2001 Arizona Diamondbacks

Jerry Colangelo orchestrated the two great public parties that blew up downtown. In 1993, the Phoenix Suns and Charles Barkley played the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan for the NBA championship. In 2001, with America reeling from September 11, the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. After each of these unforgettable athletic confrontations, Colangelo turned his stars loose downtown for mobbed-out parades.

I loved it.

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.

Many in the arts community so routinely fault Colangelo that it is hard not to suspect the resentment surfaces because crowds prefer basketball and baseball to pictures on gallery walls. That's not my issue. My problem with Colangelo is that he let Charles Barkley get away.

Phoenix had the edge of unexpectedness when Barkley ruled the glass. Friends would call you up from the other side of the country to ask: Did he really say that?

Yes, he did.

Barkley was accused once of throwing a midget out of a bar. You have a problem with that? Little people can be annoying. Two of them once beat up author John O'Hara.

But it was seldom what Barkley did that attracted notice. He simply said things that took your breath away because they were point on or because they were vaudevillian rich.

"Thank God for Jerry Springer's show. I thought only Black folks were that screwed up . . . ," Barkley teased in his book I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It.

Barkley is the guy who initiated the subversive Nike campaign "I Am Not a Role Model," perhaps the savviest sentiment ever expressed by an athlete.

He makes room for a good pimping whenever possible.

Again, from his book: "I told someone not too long ago who is short that little people shouldn't be riding in first class during flights. Little people should ride in coach. You know if you're little. I don't fly first class because I need better meals. I do it because of size. I hate when you walk through first class and you've got two-foot people filling up the first-class seats."

It is more than annoying that Barkley continues to float the prospect of running for governor in Alabama when Arizona clearly needs him.

In the fall of 2001, the nation needed a lift and the country got it in downtown Phoenix.

Broadcasters and writers throughout America identified this particular World Series between the Yankees and the Snakes as one of the best ever. The heroics of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the back-to-back tragedies of Byung-Hyun Kim, and Luis Gonzalez's ninth-inning chip shot . . . are you kidding me?

When Colangelo's stars rode through downtown Phoenix in the celebratory motorcades, tens of thousands of us joined them. People who stayed home were strictly the tourists.

2003 -- The Hotel From Hell

If the economic reports from Ernst & Young and Elliot Pollock utilized numbers with more bounce than Olga Korbut to hornswoggle $600 million in tax funds for the convention center expansion, such is not the case with the $300 million needed for a third downtown hotel.

There are no numbers. There are no projections. There are only shocking presumptions.

Mayor Skip Rimsza and the city manager's office are on record advocating that the city itself should open a third hotel because no hotel chains will come into the market.

The best guesses -- and really that's all they are because no one has put a sharp pencil to the plan, certainly nothing as sharp as Elliot Pollock's forecasts -- figure the 1,000-room hotel will cost at least $300 million.

The hotel business is a tough one. One of the two convention hotels downtown is in its sixth affiliation, starting out as the Adams, moving on to the Hilton, the Sheraton, the Omni, the Crown Plaza and, finally, the Wyndham. The hotel emerged out of bankruptcy in 2002.

Is there possibly a reason the good folks who are actually in the hotel business will not build another hotel in downtown Phoenix?

"It is entirely too risky for the private sector," says UT-San Antonio's Professor Sanders. "You've got to be kidding to try to induce private capital."

Press reports quoting Rimsza always note that city-owned hotels are a new trend across the country. Sacramento and St. Louis are cited as examples of cities where this has occurred.

"Sacramento is hemorrhaging money," notes Sanders. "City-owned hotels pull down the rates in the other hotels, and they pull down the occupancy rates."

On October 20, 2003, the new city-owned hotel in St. Louis received bad news. Moody's Investor Service put the hotel's bonds on a "watch list" for a possible ratings downgrade because of poor performance.

The failure of convention hotels, whether owned by a national chain or owned by the city and its taxpayers, faces another threat that has not been discussed publicly.

According to consultant David O'Neal of Conventional Wisdom, delegates are refusing to stay in their assigned hotels.

"The number-one crisis for convention bureaus is the erosion of hotel blocks," says O'Neal. "Planners block out 5,000 rooms at a certain rate and then conventioneers don't use them. They find cheaper rates elsewhere online."

The man who actually sells Phoenix to convention planners agrees.

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