Jerry's World

Above the bold, silver letters of "Office of the Mayor" hangs a sign that inadvertently reveals how the nation's fifth-largest city operates.

"Diamondbacks Way" declares the blue-and-white strip inside Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza's 12th-floor suite.

Doing things the Diamondbacks Way means this: Do what Arizona Diamondbacks general partner Jerry Colangelo says.

No one has had greater influence over development in downtown Phoenix over the last two decades than Colangelo. And no person has benefited more.

Colangelo has mastered the art of shepherding tax dollars to further his private interests while providing the public with amenities and experiences it otherwise would be without. Arizona cheered a World Series victory in Bank One Ballpark, which he got built with $243 million in taxpayer funds, and Colangelo got to keep the money from the games.

Emblazoned on the same sign, just to the right of the Diamondbacks emblem, is the brown-and-white logo for Copper Square. It is the marketing brand for a shadowy business group that has made sure elected officials like Rimsza (who will be leaving office in January) implement the Diamondbacks Way.

Founded as a nonprofit group in 1990 by Colangelo, the Downtown Phoenix Partnership is an elite organization of downtown tycoons who quietly lobby bureaucrats and elected officials to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on projects that reap profits for their private interests.

For example, the DPP has a played a key role in helping Colangelo secure more than $300 million in taxpayer funds to construct three major downtown entertainment venues: America West Arena, the BOB and Dodge Theater.

About $1 million a year in taxpayer funds is helping finance the Partnership, whose official function is providing security, marketing, landscaping and shuttle busses for businesses within the boundaries of its downtown district: Seventh Street to the east, Third Avenue to the west, the railroad tracks to the south and Fillmore Street to the north.

Yet despite this heavy reliance on taxpayer money, good luck getting access to the Partnership's books. The secretive organization claims to be exempt from the state open-meetings and public-records laws and only reluctantly agreed to provide financial information to New Times.

The Partnership's audited financial statements reveal that generous funding by the city of Phoenix -- coupled with lax oversight -- has allowed it to build up reserves of $550,000 in cash and investments. The fat bankroll stands in sharp contrast to its miserly, $3,000 a year contribution to Artlink, a downtown arts group whose First Friday gallery walks bring 5,000 to 10,000 people downtown once a month.

The Partnership says its goal is to improve the quality of life downtown, make the core city a place where people flock to live, work and play. But 13 years after its creation -- during which time the DPP has helped funnel $2 billion in public and private money into large-scale projects -- downtown Phoenix remains a ghost town after dark.

That is, Colangelo and the Partnership's tap-the-public-treasury-for-big-box-projects philosophy has failed to generate the downtown economic revival that was promised each time they went hat in hand to the city and county for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of subsidies.

One simple statistic goes to the heart of the matter: There are 41 fewer downtown businesses today than in 1995 -- before Bank One Ballpark and Dodge Theater were constructed. Rather than nurturing small businesses, artistic centers and historic buildings that attract creative people who are the kindling for urban revival, the Partnership has encouraged the city and Maricopa County to systematically destroy such elements.

Development projects advocated by the Partnership have leveled historic buildings, uprooted people from their homes and wiped out emerging artist enclaves to make room for sports venues, a jail, office towers and parking garages -- all of which have wound up deadening the pedestrian experience and the opportunity for small, unique enterprises to flourish.

Following the Partnership's lead, the city has been a virtual no-show when it comes to providing financial assistance to small businesses, art groups and small-scale residential developments -- important elements in reinvigorating downtowns in other big cities.

Despite the hostile climate, Phoenix artist and developer Beatrice Moore is employing a bootstrap development philosophy that has been remarkably successful.

Eschewing public subsidies, Moore has rehabilitated old warehouses into inexpensive artists' studios, and that has fueled a street-level economic revival along Grand Avenue -- an area that lies outsides the Partnership's direct control.

"What's amazing to me is the city has let [the Partnership] so strongly influence the direction of downtown development," Moore says.

What she's talking about is, when the Partnership demands something, the city responds. In early 2002, the city backed the Partnership's effort to build the Arizona Cardinals stadium downtown, when it knew the deal would be a financial disaster for taxpayers.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty