Big Scam Theory

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

We returned to silence.

The peaceful interlude was eventually punctured by the ever-helpful David O'Neal, whose name appears nowhere on either the Ernst & Young study or the Pollock analysis.

O'Neal said the records from the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau would have tracked "old delegates" and therefore might be "somewhat off."

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.

This was a stunning defense by O'Neal, a visitor from Orlando, Florida. After all, the trade organization numbers were based, however optimistically, on some sort of national record of old delegates. In fact, the Pollock study states on page six that the IACVB numbers were from 1998.

To O'Neal the questions were all quibbles.

The Civic Center was, he said, "trying to attract the heart of the market with expansion . . . and new numbers."

Very new.

1984 Henry's Shoe Shine Parlo

Henry's Shoe Shine Parlor tucked itself into a crevice in the building that today hosts the Orpheum Lofts in downtown Phoenix. The newspaper clippings on Henry's walls testified to every black celebrity's visit to town.

Henry's staff included the one-armed Lefty, as well as Henry's son, a Korean War veteran who spoke so low and slow that the clarity of his reasoning -- when it eventually pulled into the station -- was as startling as a speckled caboose.

A good shine mixes in equal parts boot black, foot massage and palaver. The guys in Henry's just seemed to know the formula. And if you sat there often enough, someone would tell you a story you could print.

Henry closed the shoe shine parlor and retired.

His daughter's fiancé, Eddie Mallet, a double amputee, died in a choke-hold by Phoenix police officers. When Henry's daughter picketed police headquarters, Henry and his family became the targets of police harassment. After I told their story, the police department filled two large binders clearing themselves of wrongdoing.

It is not a bad thing, a sign of gentrification, for example, that upscale lofts now occupy the space where once a shoe shine parlor existed. Henry, after all, wanted to retire. The problem is that because the city has committed $3 billion into big-box venues like the Civic Center but only $6 million into housing, downtown Phoenix lacks a critical mass of residents. There is demand for housing, but little in the way of urban living. Without residents, all of the small businesses that bring us the Henrys of the world have no way to survive. Downtown has no supermarket, no video rentals, no Laundromat, no newspaper and magazine vendor, no deli, and too few characters like Lefty, like Henry.

2003 -- More Fun With Numbers

While tripling the number of downtown convention delegates to come up with a 375,000 total is certainly magical, there is more eye of newt in this brew. An equally critical spice in the potion is the average number of nights a delegate camps out in our hotels.

In other words, 375,000 delegates pencils out in all the promotional incantations to 375,000 hotel room rentals multiplied by however many nights constitute the average length of stay.

Pollock's firm used national trade association numbers stating that each delegate stays an average of 3.37 days. The alert reader will notice that, like a forked tongue, there are two parts to this projection of lottery-like revenue.

You can test the one-delegate, one-room thesis by looking at the records of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2007, the National Indian Gaming Association projects it will bring 1,700 conventioneers to the Civic Center. They will be in town for six nights, which, according to Pollock, ought to yield more than 10,000 hotel nights. This is a nice sum, until you consider that, for all six nights of the convention, the tribal gambling association has only booked slightly more than 3,000 hotel nights.

There are several explanations. The first two nights of the six are mostly for organizational preparation, so 15 rooms were booked for Thursday, March 22, 2007, and 85 rooms for the next day. For the three peak days of the convention, no more than 800 rooms per day were booked. Why? Well, not everyone in the association will show up. And many who do show up will share a room to cut costs. Some will go online and book their own rooms well outside the downtown convention hotels.

Is the disappointing hotel room count from the tribal gaming convention an anomaly? I examined all the records for two years.

In 2001, 46 groups brought 131,000 convention delegates to Phoenix, and they booked 212,000 rooms.

There wasn't a single one of the 46 conventions that averaged 3.37 nights of hotel booking per delegate. Not one.

In 2002, 44 groups booked 179,421 rooms for 133,461 delegates. Again, not a single group in 2002 booked an average of 3.37 hotel nights per delegate.

In the last two years in Phoenix, 90 convention groups averaged 1.4 nights per delegate. This is only 40 percent of Pollock's projection of 3.37 nights per delegate.

I asked Steve White, vice president for sales and marketing at the Convention & Visitors Bureau, why his records showed that Elliot Pollock's projections were inflated by 60 percent. This was, after all, an undertaking costing a billion dollars in tax subsidies.

After a long pause, White responded: "I'm trying to think how to explain this."

1985 Fiesta Bowl Revelation

Looking back, it is useful to remember that virtually all of the leadership in this town appeared indicted, under investigation or disgraced. If you are inclined to think that the current downtown leadership is infallible, please recall the sterling qualities of these wowsers: Governor Fife Symington; Kemper Marley; Keith Turley; Gary Driggs; Charles Keating; publisher Duke Tulley; Governor Evan Mecham; the Keating Five, which locally meant U.S. Senators John McCain and Dennis DeConcini; State Senators Carolyn Walker, Jesus "Chuy" Higuera and Jim Meredith; State Representatives Bobby Raymond, Sue Laybe, Bill English, Don Kenney and Jim Hartdegen; Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien; and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. « Previous Page

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