Big Scam Theory

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

"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?

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.

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?

Following one of the interviews inside the Civic Center, I walked across the street to the Hyatt's Network restaurant. It was half full of conventioneers getting lunch. The menu, like every menu for six square blocks, offered burgers and wings. This is why tourists are so disagreeable. They dumb down the restaurants and the streetscape.

The waitress brought me a Cobb salad dominated by the palest yellow iceberg lettuce. Only a tourist would eat such fare. I paid my bill and left.

1989 Sťamus McCaffrey and Fitz

My first boy was born in downtown. During prolonged labor, my wife and I watched the outmanned Phoenix Suns against the Los Angeles Lakers on television.

Pregnant with our first child, my wife had enrolled in a Lamaze class. More accurately, she had enrolled us. A fiendish idea devised (oh, here's a surprise) by the French, the woman is expected to abandon thousands of years of medical advances and renounce all painkillers during childbirth. Instead, the victim blocks out the excruciating pain with deep breathing. The husband, identified as a "coach," pretends to have something to do by uttering nonsense phrases like, "Push! Push! Breathe!" I viewed this as end times.

I showed up at the first class, following a staff party, late, totally ripped, and having to borrow money from my wife to pay the cab driver. The teacher of this Molière farce made me stand up and introduce myself. I did so. I went on to explain that I thought Lamaze was a barbaric practice. I sat down. I stood back up.

"And another thing, don't call me coach."

The next day on the way into work, my wife listened in horror as the entire incident was recounted by one of the morning drive-time shock jocks. The reporting was so precise, so full of telling detail, that my wife considered taking a sick day, fearful the station broadcast might have been heard at her prissy law firm.

She enrolled us in a second downtown Lamaze class in which we were the only participants. Chastened, but no less chagrined, I achieved a perfect attendance record.

On the way to the hospital delivery room in downtown Phoenix, my wife handed me a brown paper bag. Inside was a ball cap emblazoned with the words, "Don't Call Me Coach."

During the first horrifying wave of pain, my wife put all things French behind her and rather insistently demanded an epidural block.

My son arrived. He is a downtown boy. This memory will never leave me.

After leaving the hospital, I met my friend Tom Fitzpatrick at a downtown Irish pub. Fitzpatrick was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and the biggest hellion this town had ever seen.

The owner of the pub, Séamus McCaffrey, sent over a shot of his best whiskey with instructions to pour some on the infant's head (metaphorically). I was still rattled from the sheer brutality of the birth and the looming responsibilities. Fitz did not portray himself as a good father. But like the baseball manager who could never hit the curve as a player himself, Fitz knew what to say to a nervous rookie:

"Children forgive you."

That's not what you read in books. Never.

I hope Fitz was right.

He died a little more than a year ago, but I still see him downtown all the time. We never did have a drink together in any of the convention hotels.

2003 -- Money Is No Object

It might surprise you to learn that the analysis used to secure nearly a billion dollars in taxpayer funding decided that cost was not a factor. Cost is dismissed by Ernst & Young and never mentioned by Elliot Pollock.

Some estimates predict this expansion will be the most expensive per square foot in the history of convention centers. Neither study considered how such expenditures would affect the project. Neither study contemplated what it would cost conventioneers to come to Phoenix's Taj Mahal compared to convention edifices in other cities.

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