Big Scam Theory

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

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

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.

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.

As far as I can tell, Gary Driggs was the only innocent guy in the mob, though there was never much in the press that mentioned that once the smoke cleared. Driggs, a descendant of an old Arizona family, ran Western Savings & Loan, headquartered in a downtown high-rise on Central Avenue shaped like one of those early, perforated computer cards. His brother, John, was once Phoenix's mayor. Though he was targeted by the feds during the great wave of S&L failures, Gary Driggs was never guilty of anything worse than bad judgment.

Of course, he was this newspaper's first banker.

In fact, Driggs took a chance on New Times when no one else would. For years, all the downtown financial institutions refused to bank New Times. This was despite the fact that my partner, Jim Larkin, produced quarterly statements audited by a Big Six accounting firm proving the paper's good health. That we broke out jackets and ties for interviews and that we were usually accompanied by a respected member of the Arizona Bar availed us not at all.

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