Big Scam Theory
Picture the Jerry Lewis telethon. See that guy in the wheelchair with the crooked arm? Now imagine him trying to juggle a dozen raw eggs. This conjures up a mixture of revulsion and fear, doesn't it?
Which is precisely what I feel when confronted by a microphone.
Except the eggs are live grenades.
Following an overlong speech I gave at the Phoenix Art Museum in October, the very first person to speak to me summed up thusly: "You are a complete asshole."
Jo Marie MacDonald, a fixture for years with the Phoenix Community Alliance, caught me square in the puss before I'd even had the opportunity to bolt down a glass of wine for the yips.
The two of us were on opposite sides of what has become class warfare over the fate of downtown. We cannot agree on what is cool.
I deserved no less than her fury for breaking my own rule. I believe that if you have a typewriter, you already have more voice than you deserve. For the sake of dignity, those with typewriters should leave the microphones to others. Or, am I so full of myself that I'll learn to work the saxophone next?
A shocked bystander who attends yoga class with MacDonald observed that I really must have gotten through to her.
"It was good for Jo Marie to be able to express herself," said Francine Hardaway. "She never does that."
What gulf inspired such unprecedented assault?
MacDonald and her downtown colleagues, as well as the bureaucracy at City Hall, believe that our urban core is about the following: the hundreds of thousands of tourists they hope will attend the expanded Convention Center; a tax-supported downtown mall, the Arizona Center (now a deserted gee-gaw factory); all of the subsidized sports stadiums; yet another hotel for out-of-towners with nametags; and (coming soon) a master-planned downtown enclave conceived by sports mogul Jerry Colangelo and designed by the schlock-meister of Disney villages, Jerde Inc.
I disagree with that vision.
I spoke to MacDonald and those assembled at the Phoenix Art Museum for the purpose of inviting them to an appearance by Richard Florida at the Orpheum Theatre. Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a best-selling author on urban issues, espouses a downtown rich in street life, a cityscape that attracts the creative class, which in turn attracts cutting-edge businesses involved in high-tech and the biosciences.
The thinking of MacDonald and her allies has given us a series of gargantuan, tax-subsidized edifices that rival any Soviet city for bland monumentality. The soul of any real city -- downtown residents, their restaurants, cafes, bar bands . . . all of it -- is missing. Our streets are empty.
An expanded convention center, the current mega-project under way, does not constitute a downtown.
A hot-blooded Jo Marie MacDonald is precisely the spirit that is absent in downtown's beige matrix.
Her abuse is the single most exciting thing that has ever happened to me in an art museum. I will never forget it.
You don't get that sort of reminiscence with conventioneers and tourists.
A true downtown is a hive of memories, an incubator of the unforgettable for residents.
I've attended conventions for more than 30 years. I don't have a single memory. It is all a caffeine blur. Except for Pittsburgh. There I experienced the rapture of food poisoning.
In subsequent correspondence, Jo Marie MacDonald expressed some small measure of regret over her art museum outburst, saying that what she should have done was to congratulate me on my recent interest in downtown.
But on that point she is mistaken.
For three decades I have edited, written and officed downtown. Lived there, too. I continue to search for the feel of a pulse downtown. Maybe it's more of a rhythm than a pulse. What I know is that my ear, like a lot of other ears, responds to a different beat than those of MacDonald and her allies in the Downtown Phoenix Partnership and the Phoenix Community Alliance. I've said goodbye to friends, buildings and hangouts over the last 30 years.
It's time to create new memories -- for residents, not tourists.
| 1978 Central Avenue & Cars |
Cars ruled downtown Phoenix. Until cops put an end to it, "Cruising Central" Avenue defined weekend nights with thousands of teenagers driving, ogling and hanging. No one dug cars better than Mexicans. Today much of the barrio lowrider scene has been sanitized, driven off the streets and confined to exhibit space in the convention center. My first car was a '55 Chevy. I drove it all over downtown and to work at the Westward Ho on Central. After a few paychecks, I took it to a paint shop on Central run by a couple of Mexican friends. The car was sharp once I got it back. But when I took it to the do-it-yourself car wash, the new paint came off in long, rubbery strips. My Mexican buddy said it was his brother's fault. When I picked up the car for the second time, there was a new problem. Someone had misplaced the hood latch. The hood was now secured by rope. He promised to find the latch and, look here, would I be interested in buying some diamonds at a very reasonable price? Laid out on my freshly painted fender, the hot rocks looked fine. Two weeks later, my girlfriend untied the hood and used my jumper cables and battery to start her own car. Later that morning, I drove on the freeway into downtown Phoenix. The enormous hood of the Chevy popped open with a tremendous bang, blinding me in rush-hour traffic. My girlfriend had spaced tying the hood back down. The horror of driving at 70 mph, blind, yielded to wonder as the hood tore out of its brackets and flew backward, tearing off the fresh paint on the roof of my car and then somersaulting down the freeway, scattering traffic.
I exited the freeway and parked. I had no car insurance and could not remember the words to the Hail Mary.
Later, over sorrowful tacos, I broke up with my girlfriend. We left my car at the restaurant and she drove me home. That night some pinche cabrón stole my '55 Chevy. At least one woman thought I had it coming.
This year I returned to the paint shop. I wrote a story about a young Mexican, another car kid who restored the old rides. He'd been pulled over for rolling through a stop sign. He pulled 10 years in prison for resisting arrest. It all went down behind the paint shop where I could still see the '55 Chevy, still smell the paint fumes.
2003 -- Biz Leaders' Billion-Dollar Plan
On June 5, nine top executives from downtown announced a plan to revitalize the urban core. They sent a letter to the mayor and city council calling for a billion dollars in spending on top of the two billion they estimated already had been spent. Understand, the business leaders are not announcing that they are committing a billion dollars of their own revenue; they are announcing that they want the city to spend a billion dollars in tax funds. And that ought to make this a public discussion.
So far, ought, ain't.
"Downtown has made tremendous strides," Neil Irwin, the attorney who heads the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, told the morning newspaper. "But in some sense, the job is just beginning when you look at housing and unemployment."
While the need to get new residents into the deserted downtown gets lip service, the disparity between word and deed is like listening to the promises of abstinence from an alcoholic who cannot walk past a bottle of Jack Daniel's. In the same announcement in which the Downtown Phoenix Partnership mentioned housing, its members also hailed the expanded convention center and the new hotel that will consume the entire one billion dollars in new funding and (if all goes according to plan) would flood the empty streets downtown with 375,000 name-tag-wearing conventioneers, thus producing a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare without any of the appeal of fang, claw or cracked tooth. There are only 7,000 residents currently in downtown Phoenix.
With $3 billion spent or committed to downtown, we have: the Arizona Diamondbacks ballpark, the arena for the Phoenix Suns, the Dodge Theatre, the Orpheum Theatre, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Burton Barr Central Library, the Heard Museum, the Herberger Theater Center, the Arizona Center, the Mercado, the Civic Plaza and no downtown.
In contrast to the $3 billion spent on cultural Wal-Marts, the city has spent a mere $6.7 million on housing, which explains why a vibrant downtown Denver has 75,000 residents compared to our 7,000. In fact, the single largest features of downtown Phoenix are enormous, block-square, empty parking garages.
Richard Florida advocates a different idea for downtown.
2003 -- Convention Center Expansion
Hoodwinked taxpayers will be writing checks into the next millennium for the most expensive project undertaken by any Arizona city, at any time in the state's history, based upon financial projections that are sheer nonsense. The nearly one-billion-dollar Phoenix Civic Center expansion will triple the convention palace's square footage, necessitate a new hotel and generate $86 million annually in new tax revenue, according to the promoters, who, by the way, are putting up none of their own money on this sure thing.
By tripling its size, the Civic Center's backers promise to triple the number of conventioneers annually from 125,000 to 375,000 and thereby generate huge cash streams. But in a review of the last 30 convention centers built or expanded in America, not a single one has hit the kind of numbers Phoenix throws around.
There is a good reason that I cannot locate the sort of success the promoters in Phoenix are hustling. According to one expert, no city has ever tripled its convention center and tripled its attendance.
"There is no such case anywhere," says Heywood T. Sanders, chairman of the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Yet Phoenix City Hall and the Downtown Phoenix Partnership and the morning newspaper led taxpayers to approve $300 million for the expansion. The Arizona Legislature committed taxpayers throughout the state to another $300 million. And Mayor Skip Rimsza is calling for still another $300 million for a new convention center hotel that will be owned and operated by, of all entities, the city itself.
Charles Sumner is the vice president of sales and marketing for the Phoenix Civic Center. Last month he joined Richard Merritt, senior vice president of Elliott D. Pollock & Company, the economic consultants on the convention center expansion. These worthy gentlemen sat for an interview and were bolstered by David P. O'Neal, chairman of Conventional Wisdom, an über-consultant who was drawing up the program, or itinerary, for the expansion's architects.
With little reason for idle chitchat, we got to the point: Where in the United States, I asked, has any convention center tripled in size and thereby tripled its conventioneers? I can't seem to find an example.
A portentous silence filled the room. As time passed, the three looked at one another. I waited. The temptation when you create an awkward moment with a question is to jump in, say something, anything, to relieve the pressure. We all hear our mother's voice speaking of etiquette in these instances.
It is best to ignore your mother.
"You're probably correct," O'Neal Finally admitted.
2003 -- Persistence Required
Straight answers about the financial numbers behind the convention center expansion are available to the persistent. But you won't get the truth just by asking. As consultant O'Neal noted to enthusiastic agreement from both Merritt and Sumner, "Everybody tracks it differently."
Furthermore, no one party even takes responsibility for the numbers, no matter how many billions of our dollars are involved. The economic projections are divided between consultants. Big Six accounting firm Ernst & Young did one part of the analysis while the economic consultants at Elliot Pollock did a second. You can't help but feel that plausible denial is a part of the game plan.
When I asked Merritt from the Pollock group how they could justify using a wildly cheerful guess like 375,000 conventioneers to forecast revenue streams, he replied, "We haven't done that part of the study. We took Ernst & Young's number. We didn't look at that."
This is a mighty fine strategy. Elliot Pollock's group then took the immaculately conceived 375,000 figure and for 26 pages multiplied it by every conceivable revenue stream and, at the end of the report, found $86 million in new tax income that had never existed before and exists nowhere else in America.
2003 -- Fun With Numbers
Rube Goldberg drew contraptions bedeviled by complexity. But the cartoonist was a simple soul compared to the wizards at Ernst & Young who conjured the blizzard of statistics culminating in the magical number of 375,000 delegates who will fill the expanded Civic Center.
First, they took seven cities, noted the attendance and the square footage of convention space, and assumed a relationship -- arriving at a ratio of 59 percent between floor space and delegates. This is simply a wildly manipulated number. Las Vegas was not included. One of America's most successful convention cities, and clearly a geographic competitor, doesn't show up.
How arbitrary is this formula? Consider New Orleans, one of the nation's premier convention cities. According to Professor Sanders, New Orleans vastly expanded its capacity to more than a million square feet only to see the following pattern of attendance: 1999 -- 800,000 delegates; 2000 -- 730,000 delegates; 2001 -- 694,000 delegates; 2002 -- 594,000 delegates.
For all of New Orleans' expansion, delegate attendance declined every year.
It is difficult to believe that our billion-dollar investment begins with such a wildly imaginative formula. Change any of the cities and the ratio changes. The only thing speaking in favor of this rotation of cities is that at the end of the day, it allowed Ernst & Young to conclude that we would garner 375,000 delegates after expansion.
Now this is a mighty assumption, but let's not be argumentative.
Ernst & Young then took seven categories: the number of downtown hotel rooms; the reputation of the convention hall; nightlife and shopping; the appeal of the city and its weather; accessibility of flights; downtown dining; and airport access. They then assigned a number based upon how important these categories were to a number of anonymous convention planners they interviewed. A second number was assigned based upon how well Phoenix did in each category.
The appeal of Phoenix was charted out as if this were actually a mathematical formula, the numbers were calculated and then multiplied by the earlier number calculating the square footage to delegate ratio and, guess what, 375,000 delegates.
Yes, you're right. This is unbelievable.
To the casual reader, this does not appear to be the sort of science that launched the successful Mercury space shot but rather the cross-your-fingers-and-hope-the-loose-tiles-aren't-important science of the space shuttle Columbia.
| 1986 Booker T. Washington School |
For 10 years, New Times rented office space downtown at the Westward Ho Hotel, the San Carlos Hotel and the Arizona Title Building. In the mid-'80s, we found a boarded-up structure at 1201 East Jefferson, the old Booker T. Washington Elementary School. Once the all-black grade school when Phoenix was as legally segregated as the Deep South, the historic, though dilapidated, relic looked wonderful.
There was a problem: Five developers, all intent on tearing down the building, were after the Booker T. property, and the school board had a deal in place with one of them. We went to the neighbors and secured their backing by promising to restore the stately edifice and create a museum honoring the school's unique history. The night the board met to vote, State Senator Alfredo Gutierrez made a rousing and persuasive speech on our behalf. Mayor-elect Phil Gordon, who at the time specialized in historic properties, acted as our developer and, with local architect John Douglas, the grade school was brought back to life.
Our neighbor, Pastor Warren Stewart of First Institutional Baptist Church, led the statewide struggle to secure a paid Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the late '80s and early '90s. The school parking lot served as a staging area for protesters gathered behind the New Times banner on the annual marches through downtown. It was an ugly chapter in Arizona's history made outrageous when the newly elected governor, Evan Mecham, rescinded the holiday as his first official act. Mecham would go on to defend the term "pickaninnies" as a reference to black children.
Pro-holiday protesters filed past downtown's Tanner Chapel A.M.E., the church where Rosa Parks signed copies of her book in 1992 in support of the movement. That same year, Public Enemy's fictional video "By the Time I Get to Arizona" detonated across the state, inflaming sensitive editorial writers and the bombastic hosts of talk radio. The rappers showed the poisoning of an Arizona official and the car-bombing of a governor for refusing to honor Dr. King. On January 20, 1992, following the MLK march, Nightline devoted an entire broadcast to the MTV video. State voters finally enacted the holiday later that year.
2003 -- Ernst & Young Covers Its Tracks
I found the 18-page report used solely to gin up the number of 375,000 convention delegates to be wholly unconvincing.
Apparently, Ernst & Young agreed.
In its preface, the firm wrote: "Neither our report, nor its contents, nor any of our work were intended to be included, and therefore, may not be referred to or quoted in whole or in part, in any registration statement, prospectus, public filing, private offering memorandum, loan agreement or other agreement without our prior written approval, which may require that we perform additional procedures. . . . [N]one of the contents of this report shall be disseminated to the public through advertising media, news media, sales media, Securities and Exchange Commission or any other public means of communication without prior written consent. . . . [S]uch estimates and assumptions are subject to uncertainty and variation. Accordingly, we do not represent them as results that will be achieved. . . . [T]he actual results achieved may vary materially from the estimated results."
| 1993 Phoenix Suns/2001 Arizona Diamondbacks |
Jerry Colangelo orchestrated the two great public parties that blew up downtown. In 1993, the Phoenix Suns and Charles Barkley played the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan for the NBA championship. In 2001, with America reeling from September 11, the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. After each of these unforgettable athletic confrontations, Colangelo turned his stars loose downtown for mobbed-out parades.
I loved it.
Many in the arts community so routinely fault Colangelo that it is hard not to suspect the resentment surfaces because crowds prefer basketball and baseball to pictures on gallery walls. That's not my issue. My problem with Colangelo is that he let Charles Barkley get away.
Phoenix had the edge of unexpectedness when Barkley ruled the glass. Friends would call you up from the other side of the country to ask: Did he really say that?
Yes, he did.
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.
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?
"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 Samus 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.
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 |
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?
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."
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."
| 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."
2003 -- A Second Opinion
I took the Convention Expansion reports, both Ernst & Young's and Elliot Pollock's, to a Big Six accounting firm for a second opinion, if you will. In return for a promise of anonymity, a senior partner agreed to review their financial analyses.
"You'd have to be a complete, cockeyed optimist to buy these reports," said the partner. "It's such pie in the sky."
The accounting partner had prepared 16 questions before reading the work of Ernst & Young and Elliot Pollock.
"They answered maybe three of the 16 areas of concern," noted the analyst.
The senior accountant said the 375,000-delegate figure is highly suspicious because there is no analysis of supply and demand. Every city in America appears to have built a new convention center or expanded an old one. This expanded supply has been met by declining convention attendance for several years predating the tragedy of September 11.
"As far as I can tell, where the 375,000 people are coming from is completely ignored. They are guessing.
"And if this number isn't accurate, the Pollock study is worthless.
"My gut: The statistics used to get to 375,000 delegates, no bank would be comfortable with. If I was a bank or an investor, I'd want a lot more. It's so funny. They just say, hey, they're going to show up.
"You get no warm and fuzzy feeling reading these reports," said the accountant.
2003 -- Richard Florida at the Orpheum
Richard Florida told the 1,300 people at the Orpheum Theatre downtown about how vibrant urban cores attract the sort of young, creative workers who now compose about 30 percent of the work force nationally, and, more impressively, account for 50 percent of personal income. Cities like Phoenix that hope to bring in the biosciences and high-tech industries need to understand, said Florida, that companies are now following workers. He cited the example of Lycos, which began in Pittsburgh but relocated to Boston because a thriving streetscape was attracting Beantown residents and workers to a stable downtown.
2003 -- Bankrupt Convention Center
I spoke to six guys in ties, all with significant job titles in the world of attracting convention business to Phoenix. Each was giving of his time and happy to elaborate upon the glorious numbers deposited in the Ernst & Young analysis. Each was willing to drill down into the giddy statistics in the Elliot Pollock report. Each had whatever time necessary to recount the euphoric projections in the Civic Plaza Expansion Market Analysis.
But not a single one would answer the following question: How much of the cost of importing convention delegates to downtown Phoenix was paid for by taxpayers?
I dunno, said the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau's Steve White, vice president of sales and marketing; James O. Jessie Jr., director of sales; and Marc Garcia, managing director of multicultural affairs.
I can't say, said David O'Neal, chairman of Conventional Wisdom; Richard C. Merritt, vice president of Elliot D. Pollock; and Charles Sumner, vice president of sales and marketing for the Phoenix Civic Center.
This six-pack of promotional carbonation agreed separately, collectively and spontaneously that only George Keough, director of finance for the City of Phoenix, knew this particular number.
I was not immediately suspicious. At this point, it was merely an itch I could not reach.
In fact, the convention business in Phoenix would have been forced into bankruptcy court were it not for enormous tax subsidies from Arizona residents.
Public records show that the Civic Plaza costs more than $40 million a year to operate but only charges convention groups substantially less than $2 million annually.
Concessionaires and other income streams coupled with the rental fees raise the income to just in excess of $9 million annually, which leaves a shortfall of approximately $35 million a year. For every dollar the convention center takes in, it loses four. Excise taxes make up the difference.
The reason neither economic study felt compelled to examine cost was clear. No matter how much it costs to expand, conventioneers will not foot the bill. Taxpayers will.
2003 -- Finding Some Voice
Following Richard Florida's October 21 appearance, I received a letter from Claire Sargent, wife of a retired downtown utility executive. She is not merely well-to-do but rather someone with an opinion, an attendee of weighty-topic conferences and the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1992.
"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw folks at the front door lined up down one sidewalk behind a prominent sign: VIPs -- Reserved seating.'"
Sargent went on to blast the idea of reserved seats for VIPs, despite the fact that everyone, including Claire, was admitted free.
New Times put on the event, and we chose to reserve seats for the many from the arts community and various Valley city halls who worked on Florida's appearance. But everyone who showed up got a free seat. This wasn't good enough for Sargent, who professed that she was horrified at the evening's elitism. This woman who ran for an office routinely identified as the most exclusive club in America was offended by the idea of VIP seating.
"For a moment, I was transported to my childhood in Mississippi, when African-Americans were forbidden to sit with the whites at the picture show, and were required to enter at the side door and climb to the balcony."
A seat at the Richard Florida event? You didn't need your MasterCard. It was free.
A rich white woman with a stick up her butt?
Sargent's self-righteousness, her overbearing sense of political correctness, is emblematic of a problem that surfaced repeatedly during the writing of the downtown project for this paper. She is interested in downtown, she attends a lecture about the future of downtown, she has standing as a leader, yet she can't see the forest for the trees. The opportunity to climb up on a soapbox is more pressing for her than the need to address the substantive problems of downtown development.
Likewise, the artists, the gallery owners, the patrons, the purveyors of cool -- the loudest advocates for Florida's vision -- cannot set aside their grievances with each other long enough to deal effectively with the city.
Wayne Rainey, a photographer who also builds, ambitiously, affordable housing for other artists, has been attacked repeatedly and anonymously in print. The founder of monOrchid was accused of selling out by other artists who launched a publication to monitor not the city, but other artists. Greg Esser, who along with his wife, Cindy Dasch, founded eye lounge, 515 gallery and the Sixth Street Studios, also runs the city's art in public places program. He has been savaged for unsubstantiated conflicts of interest. Again, the libels are anonymous.
Artists lead other communities when they engage the political process instead of each other.
At the beginning of this series, I wrote of the desirability of making Oaxaca, Mexico, a sister city to Phoenix. Oaxaca is a place that owes its soul to the leadership of artists.
Artists in Oaxaca organized opposition to a McDonald's coming into its 16th-century town square in 2002. They gathered 10,000 signatures to stop the chain from occupying a critical spot in the historic zocalo. Protesting chain hamburgers, they distributed tamales, and by December of last year, Francisco Toledo, Guillermo "Willy" Olguin and the other artists of this Indian city had won. It was not the first victory by the creative class.
Led by Toledo, Oaxaca has resisted the coarser effects of tourism at the same time that the community has embraced travelers from all over the world.
In an interview earlier this summer, Toledo explained that for him there came a moment when he had to join political goals to his artistic vision.
"I could not separate the two," explained Toledo. "My art occurred in my community."
In the mid-'80s, Mexican army troops stationed in Oaxaca prepared to leave their barracks to fight insurgents in Chiapas. They'd been housed in the 16th-century rectory of the priests of Santo Domingo. Upon the soldiers' departure, the government intended to turn the stately rectory into a tourist hotel. Toledo organized a successful resistance. Eventually, the church was restored, the rectory became a museum of Oaxacan history, and an internationally famous botanical garden was begun on church grounds.
In Phoenix, by contrast, the opposition to siting the Arizona Cardinals football stadium in downtown last year, a location that would have destroyed the gallery enclave on Roosevelt, amounted to little more than screaming and stunts. Like Christ, one artist dragged a crucifix into a hearing yelling, "Phoenix, we forgive you."
When photographer Rainey talked to the city and stadium promoters about extracting something for the community, he wasn't viewed as a negotiator, but rather as a traitor who needed to be taken down a peg or two.
The inability of the creative class in Phoenix to coalesce around reasonable goals, to join forces, to come to the table, leaves a vacuum that Colangelo seeks to fill, however heavy-handedly, with a generic master plan executed by a developer with dubious ties to the Disney vision of community.
The Downtown Phoenix Partnership presents a united front in support of its goal for developing downtown with an expanded Civic Center and hundreds of thousands of conventioneers. The creative class, as expressed through First Friday, manages a monthly party, but that is all its organizers manage. In a recent conversation, incoming Mayor Gordon expressed frustration with the incoherent agitating amongst the art types. He observed that no one person or group seems to represent any community consensus.
"They are too busy eating their young," said Gordon.
2003 -- One Last Hustle
Convention promoters claim that excise taxes are paid by convention delegates through hotel and car-rental fees. Thus the claim that the $35 million in tax subsidies are carried by conventioneers and tourists. But a closer examination of excise tax tells a different story. The single largest part of excise tax is paid by contractors. Advertising, job printing and publishing also pay into the excise-tax pool. It is true that restaurants and bars pay about 30 percent of the $35 million in taxes used to subsidize the Civic Plaza. But all of us pay that tax at our neighborhood pizzeria or drinking establishment.
There are more than two million of us in greater Phoenix who pay these taxes week in and week out when we build, advertise, eat or drink.
When six bright guys, who make their living promoting conventions, claim they don't know their business is bankrupt and depends upon Phoenix taxpayers for 75 percent of its revenue, then how can you ask them the obvious: If we triple the size of the convention center, how do we know we won't triple the debt service and expense that taxpayers shoulder?
You have to wonder: What would it take for someone to get fired in this convention promotion business, or at least spoken to sternly?
2003 -- More Than a Tourist Trap
Gabriel García Márquez wrote recently of his beginnings, the days of his youth that had yet to reveal One Hundred Years of Solitude and literary immortality. He described roosting in the cafes of Bogotá where he devoured the works of Jorge Luis Borges, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene and James Joyce.
"Many of these students reserved their tables year after year and received mail and even money orders at the cafes. Favors from the proprietors or their trusted employees were instrumental in saving a good number of university careers, and quite a few professionals in the country may owe more to their cafe connections than they do to their almost invisible tutors.
"My favorite cafe was El Molino, the one frequented by older poets, which was only 200 meters or so from my pension . . . I always arranged for the waiters to put me as close as possible to the master Leon de Grieff -- bearded, gruff, charming -- who would begin his tertulia, his literary talk at dusk with some of the most famous writers of the day, and end it with his chess students at midnight, awash in cheap liquor. . . . Although they tended to talk more about women and political intrigues than about their art or work, they always said something that was new to us."
Is it pretentious to cite Gabriel García Márquez's memories of a Bogotá street life as a template for downtown Phoenix? Yes, of course. But we are imagining possibilities here, and our dreams ought to be expansive and not fenced off by the barbed wire of self-consciousness.
Someone -- why not Márquez? -- must prick the bubble of torpor so acutely ambered by Arizona State University novelist Ron Carlson. In his latest collection of short stories, At the Jim Bridger, Carlson eavesdrops on a couple in a Valley bar. She is a Phoenix newscaster who asks: "Is this a soulless place, or is it me?"
"It will have soul in a thousand years," responds the man in the short story.
"Should we wait?" she asks.
Perhaps the word soul is overblown, too, but why shrink from it? If urban residents cower, someone else will create a downtown that is uninhabitable.
Today, five developments are careening over the horizon.
When the Arizona Cardinals chose to put their new stadium on the west side in Glendale instead of in downtown Phoenix, business leaders bemoaned the loss and took action. On June 5 of this year, they issued their letter calling for another billion dollars of investment in downtown Phoenix.
On June 14, an arts task force was announced with the purpose of determining how culture could enhance economic development. Funded with $300,000 in local foundation capital, the task force ignored the significant efforts of First Friday and focused instead upon the "Big Box" cultures of the symphony, the ballet and other traditional venues of an older demographic.
Last month, this paper's downtown series revealed that sports impresario Jerry Colangelo had secretly begun negotiations with Jerde Inc. to develop a master plan for downtown Phoenix without input from the public or city hall -- which has, after all, the legal responsibility for such undertakings. Jerde Inc.'s track record is mixed at best and is too often associated with a Disneylike vision of community instead of a concern for authenticity.
This month, ASU President Michael Crow began a series of meetings with residents and officials regarding the university's plan to bring 12,000 graduate students and their classrooms into downtown Phoenix.
The first stage of renovation got under way of what is expected to be a billion-dollar expansion of the Civic Center in order to attract hordes of conventioneers into what is otherwise a largely deserted downtown.
Some 1,300 people packed the Orpheum to hear Richard Florida articulate the vision of a vibrant downtown. It is a vista that includes a pulsing streetscape of bars, restaurants, music venues, cultural oases, gathering spots, lofts, row houses and all of the urban soul that attracts and keeps the educated work forces that populate industries built upon biosciences and computers.
Yet nowhere is that perspective represented in any of the five developments now shaping our downtown.
For 30 years, I have haunted the unlikely outposts of what existed in place of a real downtown. The question is: What will emerge out of the five forces for change in our midst? Will the master plan be aimed at keeping tourists and conventioneers distracted and amused, or will it be aimed at residents, those who already live here and those who should move here? Will the street culture of Márquez and Florida and First Friday have equal standing with the Convention Center mentality? Will we build housing as well as exhibition space? Will the next generation's search for urban soul ever be quenched?
Márquez wrote of 100 years, Carlson speculated upon 1,000. The fuse to your future will burn more quickly.
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