Thug Love

Colangelo: The Tony Soprano of local sports.
Jackie Mercandetti

Cheers to Mayor Phil Gordon for moving to seize control of downtown Phoenix's rehabilitation from a corporate cabal controlled by Jerry Colangelo.

In public statements and in an interview with New Times recently, Gordon claimed the city won't rubber-stamp Colangelo's privately funded, secret master plan for downtown that Disney-esque Jerde Corporation has been hired to produce.

"The city is in charge of the planning for our downtown, and we are going to make sure that everybody is coordinated and focused," Gordon said, when I asked him why we should believe that Jerry isn't running things anymore. "We are in control."

Gordon vowed that he's committed to embracing demands by artists, small businesses and downtown residents that the future of the central city be decided in an open, transparent and democratic process.

"We are doing what [was] asked," he said. "Whether anyone wants to participate or not, that's a different deal. But we've moved to where we are going to be responsible for the planning."

As much as Gordon's declarations may be good news, what he's promising is only the first step in a long and difficult battle.

It's bold for Phil to attempt to break free of the shackles that Colangelo and his Downtown Phoenix Partnership puppets have long imposed on City Hall. Gordon's predecessor, Skip Rimsza, would never have publicly questioned Jerry's plans for downtown; if there's a marching order from the Godfather of Phoenix sports that Skippy didn't dutifully execute, I can't name it.

The new mayor will need strong support from the arts, small businesses and residents as the plans for downtown evolve. If this loose and often contentious coalition doesn't show up and actively participate in the grueling planning process, then Colangelo and his partners will -- even if they aren't allowed to control things from the get-go -- fill the void.

The theory will be that at least Colangelo is trying to get something done.

Over the years, part of the problem has been that City Hall handed Colangelo most of our public redevelopment money, and part of it has been that small downtown entrepreneurs can't agree on much. The result was that Jerry pushed his plans to the forefront, with promises that the county-owned Bank One Ballpark and the city-owned America West Arena would breathe new life into downtown.

Folks, that hasn't happened. And now Colangelo's baseball partners have taken control of the Arizona Diamondbacks from Jerry, and he's put the Phoenix Suns on the blocks.

With, um, success stories like these, it would seem that breaking free of Colangelo's grip would be a no-brainer for the city. But to break long-standing ties that bind, the new mayor will have to do more than just issue proclamations to the public and give reassuring interviews to the press.

Just because Gordon has declared the city in charge of downtown planning doesn't mean Colangelo and the Partnership won't get what they want.

While Gordon is talking the good talk, he has deep ties to the Godfather. Gordon was Rimsza's chief of staff between 1995 and 1997 and served two terms on the Phoenix City Council before his election as mayor. In other words, he was in city government when many of Colangelo's most notorious deals were cut.

It's also scary that Gordon has surrounded himself with bureaucrats who have carried Jerry's water for years. Mayoral chief of staff David Krietor was the one who figured out how to make the so-called "Taj Mahal" parking garage across from the BOB a reality.

A first step toward ensuring fairness would be for Gordon to handcuff these bozos so that they don't cut deals behind his back.

But if the mayor truly wants to break free of the past, he's got to boot several top City Hall bureaucrats out the door.

City Manager Frank Fairbanks and Deputy City Manager Cheryl Scully have long been part of Colangelo's machine. They've helped deliver screaming deals worth more than $100 million to Jerry and his corporate cronies.

I'm talking about publicly funded projects that include the arena ($60 million plus), the Dodge Theatre (free land and access to city-owned parking) and the white elephant of all time, the Civic Plaza East Parking Garage ($40 million).

The latter is costing taxpayers more than a whopping $3 million a year in operating losses.

Maybe the worst part is, under Fairbanks' leadership as city manager, Phoenix has sold out cheap.

The city raided public coffers to pay for a $30 million spruce-up of America West Arena, just in time to make the arena more attractive to prospective buyers of Jerry's team. Cozy, not to mention stupid. Why the hell is the city always stepping up to Band-Aid Jerry's financially ailing sports enterprises?  

Yet Fairbanks' handling of the Dodge Theatre deal is the most recent example of the city's malfeasance when it comes to the Godfather.

After months of secret discussions between city officials and Colangelo's posse over the development of a downtown performing arts center, the city quietly issued a public request for proposals in early 2000 to build a theater.

City Hall offered great incentives for a private firm to produce a world-class project. The city would provide a downtown block -- free. In addition, it would take ownership of the building, thus eliminating property taxes. Finally, it would provide access to city-owned parking that would generate big bucks for the developer.

This was the kind of sweet package that could have attracted top bidders from across the country. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city to create something special -- a latter-day Orpheum Theatre.

But what happened was . . . we got screwed again.

Fairbanks' staff put a ridiculously short three-week deadline on receiving proposals for such a huge project. This unrealistic time period to prepare a proposal for a $35 million endeavor eliminated everyone on the planet that was in a position to submit a suitable plan except for (guess who?!) Colangelo's outfit.

The city manager's lieutenants dutifully submitted Jerry's plans to the council, and they were naturally approved. All during this fast-track deal, the daily press never once reported the short deadline.

So instead of taking the opportunity to create a 21st-century architectural gem worthy of hosting performing arts in downtown Phoenix, we got Jerry's dreadful Dodge Theatre.

But let's back up to the $40 million Civic Plaza East Parking Garage reaming that came just before the Dodge Theatre debacle. Once again, taxpayers were bent over and violated by Fairbanks, with the assistance of Krietor, Mayor Gordon's aforementioned chief aide.

Records I uncovered revealed that Fairbanks cut a deal in 1993 with Maricopa County for the city to provide substantial assistance to the county in its construction of the BOB. The problem was, Proposition 200 restricted the city from spending more than $3 million for any facility connected with a stadium or convention center without voter approval.

But in a January 1994 secret session, the City Council approved a "redevelopment plan" for property near the ballpark site that would include a retail and parking project worth up to $50 million. It was a clear signal that the city would give Colangelo the additional parking he wanted.

More important, the city's commitment allowed Colangelo to cut the estimated cost of the stadium project by $40 million, making it easier for reluctant county supervisors to go along with an unpopular plan to impose a $243 million sales tax to help pay for the ballpark.

Helping grease the skids on the parking deal was then-city employee Brian Kearney, who kept the Godfather informed on the plan's details.

In March 1994, Colangelo told Kearney (now executive director of the DPP, where he continues to take orders from Colangelo) that he expected the city to build at least 1,500 parking spaces for the stadium.

There was no doubt that the Godfather's City Hall gangsters would do what he said.

Fairbanks had to come up with a plan to build the garage so that it didn't appear connected with the baseball stadium or the civic plaza, because of the spending restrictions imposed by Proposition 200.

Now here's where it really gets amusing. The city asked a private parking consultant to somehow generate a study showing a severe parking shortage in downtown that had nothing to do with sports crowds.

Needless to say, that was going to be a huge challenge.

The consulting firm came up with seven studies before it finally showed the dramatic parking crisis that City Hall demanded to see. The final report by Kaku Associates called for parking for a downtown Aquarium that was never even under serious consideration, much less ever built.

Krietor, then-city economic development director, told Fairbanks the study showed a parking deficit of 3,500 spaces by 2005 -- and City Hall announced plans to build the 3,000-space, mega-million-dollar garage. It wound up justifying the maneuver by saying it would (get this!) service the sparsely attended Arizona Science Center about a block north of the ballpark site.

The city's sleight of hand came to light only when an unexpected problem cropped up. Greyhound Lines announced it had no intention of giving up the property for the garage. The city began a condemnation suit, and all sorts of nasty information became public.

It was great reading.

Especially the part about the one and only Krietor coming up with the idea for the city to get by Proposition 200 restrictions by declaring that the Phoenix Convention Center wasn't really a convention center. Shazam, money for the center could be used to deliver the garage to Jerry!  

Greyhound and the city later settled, and the city got the land for the garage, which naturally is rarely used except for Diamondbacks events and has lost an average of $283,000 a month since it opened in August 1999.

So, when it comes to the Godfather of Phoenix sports, we must be very, very skeptical of what we hear from City Hall. With the same old cast of characters in place, why should we believe Mayor Gordon that anything will be different? That Jerry Colangelo won't be green-lighted to roll over small business people and stick a soulless, Jerde-designed mega-mall downtown?

All I can do at this point, mayor, is reiterate that talk is cheap -- and stress that we'll be watching.

E-mail, or call 602-229-8445.

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