Big Scam Theory

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

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.

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.

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.

"People are booking outside the block, and it's a problem," says Scott White, vice president of sales and marketing at the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Hotels get stuck with rooms held for conventioneers who don't show.

How pervasive is this problem?

White admits that he is guilty of doing the very thing that is undermining his industry.

"I did it myself in San Francisco," he says. "Our convention room rate was $180 per night. I got on the Web, got the same room, in the same hotel, for $30 cheaper per night."

It is at this propitious moment that Mayor Rimsza has decided that Phoenix should enter into the convention hotel business with at least $300 million in city revenues.

There is something upside downtown about the convention hotel discussion -- and it is not just the ludicrous idea that the city should leap into a business professionals are abandoning because they can't make money at it.

Let's be plain. I don't like tourists. Do tourists even like themselves? But downtown convention hotels exist to like tourists. Aren't these very hotels the bedrock of the tourism industry? Hasn't the entire tourism-industrial complex evolved because we've been informed that putting tourists into hotels is good for the economy? And if that economy is so distorted that the hotel chains have given up, ought we not listen?

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