Big Scam Theory

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

While it is true that expensive convention towns like San Francisco and San Diego keep busy, Phoenix does not have as much to offer tourists as those towns. It is obvious that for people who come to Phoenix, cost is a huge issue. According to current records of the Phoenix Civic Plaza, 70 percent of all delegates for conventions lasting three days or more are scheduled during the blazing desert summer when conventioneers can take advantage of intolerable weather discounts instigated by daily temperatures of upward of 110 degrees.

The point is, most of the conventioneers who come here are not paying top dollar during their stays, further calling into question the planners' rosy projections.

1990 Club 902 and Romley
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.

Not every bar in downtown Phoenix was a Century Sky Room.

Some downtown establishments, like Club 902, the biggest crack bar in town, were flat evil.

In 1990, I wrote a series on the 902. I discovered that County Attorney Rick Romley had a hidden interest in the saloon that paid him $1,000 a month. At a time when President George Bush was announcing that the war on crack was being won in Phoenix, Maricopa County's top prosecutor held an investment note on downtown's most notorious crack bar. Police Chief Ruben Ortega's officers protected the bar and did not turn over incident reports to the state liquor board as required by law. The cops on the beat made hundreds of busts at the 902, but the paperwork just disappeared. On February 7, 1990, I reported that state liquor chief Hugh Ennis had read enough and was closing Club 902 permanently.

Despite the involvement of downtown's top two law enforcement officials, Club 902 was a small story in 1990 compared to the AzScam sting and its Mafia star, Joseph Stedino, a.k.a. Tony Vincent.

Stedino, a petty Nevada wanna-be, came to Phoenix and posed as a Vegas hoodlum looking to legalize gambling by bribing legislators. Stedino was brought in by County Attorney Rick Romley and Chief of Police Ruben Ortega. It was a disgraceful show from start to end. No evidence existed, none, of statehouse corruption. The prosecutors and the cops created crime to entice the weak. Before Stedino finished emptying out his suitcases of cash, he would snare a clutch of senators and representatives caught stuffing greenbacks into gym bags as they sold their votes. The nuances of entrapment were lost before the stunning images on videotape.

As if this wasn't juicy enough, these events took a disturbing twist.

I sat in a downtown courthouse and listened to Stedino tell a judge that he had interrupted his statehouse probe to try to link me to cocaine dealing. In the trial of a senator who fought the charges against her, the defense attorney sought to show that Stedino's activities were often politically motivated, driven by the desire of the county attorney and the chief of police to silence critics. I was Exhibit A.

Stedino testified that he had hung out at a downtown bar and restaurant I frequented, attempting to coax damning gossip about me from waiters, bartenders and customers.

Records of the sting showed that Ortega and Romley's agent, Stedino, began the investigation of me the day after it was announced that Club 902 was being shut down by the state because of my columns. There were those who maintained that this was merely a coincidence.

2003 -- Ignoring Local History

The astronomical number of 375,000 conventioneers holds hands with another whopper, which is that these delegates will each spend 3.37 nights in a local hotel. You take all of these tourists, conjure up an amount you figure they'll spend every day and you multiply it by 3.37. Well . . . soon enough, you'll run out of fingers and toes.

I'm the sort of obsessive reader who examines footnotes. The average of 3.37 nights used in the Pollock study wasn't determined by researching the history of convention hotel use in Phoenix, though such records are kept. No, this is a number trotted out by a national trade organization whose sole purpose is to promote conventions. The darker side of me could not help but pause. If a researcher wanted to understand the true impact of cigarettes on smokers, would the first step be to utilize data from Philip Morris?

After confirming that the 3.37 number was his and not Ernst & Young's, I asked the Pollock group's senior vice president why he hadn't utilized local Phoenix statistics.

"I don't know where you get that information," Merritt replied.

Merritt insisted that his numbers were Phoenix numbers. Which, I was forced to point out, contradicted what he'd written in his own report.

"If you look at your own study, on page seven it says that the 3.37 figure comes from the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus (IACVB) Income Survey. On page six it reads: Figures on spending by convention attendees during the convention are provided by the IACVB.'"

Merritt actually responded that perhaps I was correct but that I should remember that Phoenix was a member of the IACVB.

As are scores of other cities.

When precise numbers, historic numbers, pertinent and accurate numbers are kept locally, why, I asked Merritt, would he resort to spongy national statistics used in trade propaganda?

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