The city of Phoenix has created a monster, and his name is Steve Cohn.
In the past three months, Cohn -- the managing director of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Phoenix, best known for his opposition to the taxpayer-funded Marriott high-rise slated to go up near his business -- has launched an initiative drive to kill a city ordinance, taken out petitions to recall two city councilmembers, sued the city and sued the Arizona Republic. Randy Pullen -- a local businessman whom Cohn has worked with and admires greatly -- has decided, coincidentally, to challenge Mayor Skip Rimsza in the upcoming election.
At the center of the brouhaha is the Phoenix City Council's recent 8-1 vote to sidestep Cohn's call for a public vote on the Marriott deal by invoking its emergency clause, thereby immediately enacting the ordinance.
Frankly, I'd rather see Steve Cohn take on Skip Rimsza. Not because he'd win -- defeat would be a foregone conclusion, and Pullen has a much better shot -- but because here's a guy who lets it all hang out. It would be a fun race; I'd love to see Cohn, who has the looks and demeanor of an out-of-work Elvis impersonator, debate milquetoast Rimsza.
No can do. Wouldn't it figure that Cohn is an out-of-towner? Like Eloise -- the little girl who lives at that other Plaza, the one in New York City -- Cohn resides at the Crowne Plaza when he's in Phoenix; his real home is in northern California.
But that won't stop Steve Cohn from continuing to make Phoenix brass squirm. And this week he's back with more. Cohn's company, Phoenix Hotel Associates, is financing yet another initiative drive that, if successful, would significantly alter the city charter. The measure would:
Broaden the category of structures financed with more than $3 million of city funds that have to be put to a vote of the people. Included in the new list would be hotels, parking garages and other structures used to enhance the performance of stadiums, convention facilities and other city centerpieces. The list now includes only the centerpieces themselves.
Prohibit the city council from using its emergency clause to fast-track construction projects. (Exceptions are made for essential city services such as aviation, courts, fire and police protection.)
Hold personally liable a mayor and/or council members who knowingly violate the provisions of the measure. They could be on the hook for the amount of money spent without a public vote.
Cohn has six months to collect signatures, and the city has some discretion as to when the measure would get on the ballot -- most likely, not until next year -- but the provisions are retroactive to the date the initiative is filed.
I have some real doubts about the viability of this measure. It could crumble when held against Arizona's constitution, which supersedes the city charter and likely -- this is up for legal interpretation -- allows for a broader use of the emergency clause.
But I love the drama. Keep an eye out for Cohn's ad campaign, slated to start this week and featuring a head shot of Mayor Skip with a mockup of one of those iconic milk mustaches and the query, "Got Milked?"
On a recent Wednesday morning, Steve Cohn ate breakfast in his hotel's near-deserted restaurant and reflected on events of the past few weeks. He hasn't had a lot of time to tend to the hotel, he says.
Cohn is trying to wrap up our conversation and finish an odd scramble of hamburger and egg covered in jack and Cheddar cheese, hot tea and white toast. A candidate for hotel chef is waiting for him upstairs. Every mouthful is interrupted by the song of the cell phone, and Cohn breezes back and forth between an impromptu conference call with his consultants, and various queries, including at least one from mayoral candidate Randy Pullen.
The topic today is the latest initiative drive, specifically the measure's public sponsorship and some final details on the "Got Milked?" signs. Cohn's like a kid in a candy store. He won't reveal his partners in Phoenix Hotel Associates' limited partnership (his brother Mark is listed as the group's agent) except to say that none is from Arizona and, yeah, one is someone I might have heard of, an entertainer. But no, he won't say whom. Cohn says his own financial interest in the Crowne Plaza is nominal. Clearly, someone trusts him or he's got a big bank account, because putting up signs and gathering signatures and hiring consultants isn't cheap. Cohn says the hotel's investors have already sunk more than $20 million -- beyond the initial capital investment in 1986 -- in getting through tough economic times and renovating the place. As soon as prospects were looking up, bam! Along comes the Marriott deal.
This battle has gone beyond dollars to bravado and, obviously, a measure of vengeance. It should come as no surprise that Chuck Coughlin, who has run campaigns against Skip Rimsza before and has earned his reputation as a meanie-for-hire, is Cohn's paid consultant. (He's also on board with Randy Pullen.)
Cohn's actions may border on the juvenile, but I think his complaints are justified. He has been making his concerns about a third hotel known to the city since at least 1993 -- to no avail.
For all his public bluster, in person Cohn is pretty reasonable and thoughtful.
He says city staff has chided him, saying he's afraid of a little competition, that his hotel's not up to it. Cohn says he's thought about that a lot.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not afraid of competition," he says. "But there is a type of competition that I am afraid of. And I know that because yesterday, I wrote it down, because I was trying to figure out if I was afraid of competition, so I made a list of why I'm afraid of competition."
He scoops the last of his hamburger and egg into his mouth and consults his notes.
"I'm afraid of a hotel where the developers and owners have a very small or no equity stake whatsoever, because if you have a very small or no equity stake, you don't act in a truly competitive sort of a way.
". . . I'm more concerned about a hotel that has an ongoing guarantee from the city. If the city has 60, 70, 100 million dollars' worth of guarantees out there, which kind of rise and fall with the performance of the Marriott, which the city happens to control through its contributions to the convention visitors bureau, what kind of direction are they going to give to the convention visitors bureau, as to how to influence business? Do you really think the business is going to be fairly apportioned or treated equally?
"I do not. I think the city will use its influence to direct the business to places where it has its investment. If you don't believe it, look at the cones outside the [city-owned parking] garages [directing traffic into those facilities]. You'll be able to see how it works. You won't be able to see it with the Marriott, but I will feel exactly the same as those parking-lot owners."
Cohn is also concerned about the next step the city will probably take: expansion of Phoenix Civic Plaza. He points to at least one report commissioned by the city that states a third major hotel in downtown Phoenix will not be viable without such expansion -- a claim Cohn's been making for years.
But now that a third hotel -- and likely a fourth, the Embassy Suites -- is in the works, can the city deliver?
"They are essentially asking me to bet the future viability of this hotel on their ability to deliver civic plaza expansion. I think I'm afraid to do that. So that's what I'm afraid of, and in those respects, I am afraid of competition. As far as anybody that comes in on a level playing field . . . I think we're prepared to go head to head with those people."
As an example, Cohn points to the Holiday Inn Express that went up recently near the Arizona Center. He never protested that hotel.
In fact, Cohn hasn't protested much in his career, as far as I can tell. I asked him, have you ever done this before?
"You mean, taking on the world, so to speak? Noooo. I'm a lover, not a fighter, you know.
"I never wanted to take on the city," he says, sighing -- somewhat dramatically, I'll admit. "It isn't my nature to want to fight with these guys. In the best of cases, if I win, what do I get out of this? Status quo? What kind of fight is that? People that win, they're after big bucks or something like that. I don't get big bucks if I win."
But, Cohn continues, "Either I do it, or it doesn't get done. So I've been doing it. On the one hand, it's not a battle I'd want to take on. And on the second hand, now that I've taken it on, I have every intention of winning. I'm not going to take it on and lose. That also is not my style. As you maybe can tell, I'm fairly sincere and dedicated to my battle here, and I intend to prevail."
Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or at her online address: email@example.com
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