Please, It's About Time!

The canonization of Jerry Colangelo as the savior of Phoenix will continue this week as the local media stumble over themselves to heap accolades on him as he's inducted September 10 into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Be prepared for full-page spreads in the Valley's two major daily newspapers extolling Colangelo as if he had found the cure for AIDS, balanced the federal budget and delivered Osama bin Laden's head to a thankful Dubya.

Enough, already!

Yeah, Jerry deserves high marks for helping land Phoenix a professional basketball team way back in 1968. The Phoenix Suns are generally competitive, entertaining and have reached the NBA Finals twice. But the Suns have never won the Big One.

Nevertheless, Colangelo has proven himself to be an exceptional leader in the world of professional basketball. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Congratulations!

But let's keep this in perspective.

While Colangelo may know the game of basketball, that doesn't mean he understands the art of business.

In fact, this guy doesn't understand the meaning of the word budget. He's become wealthy spending huge sums of other people's money to the point that he nearly bankrupted a major community asset, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

And as for claims that he's been the guiding force in downtown Phoenix's redevelopment, well, yeah. But have you been downtown after dark lately?

Other than during the First Fridays art walk, downtown still sucks.

This is despite more than $1.5 billion worth of public investment in big box projects, including Colangelo's three babies -- the Dodge Theatre, America West Arena and Bank One Ballpark -- along with the ongoing expansion of the Civic Center and the pending construction of a 1,000-room luxury convention center hotel.

What do these projects have in common?

Jerry pushed for all of them, the taxpayers footed most of the bill, and private interests will walk off with the profits. None of the projects completed to date has benefited more than a handful of downtown businesses after dark, and if history is any guide, the expanded Civic Center and the new convention hotel will be financial disasters for taxpayers.

Cheering on the taxpayer fleecing is Jerry's propaganda mill, the Arizona Republic. The newspaper shamelessly promotes these expensive monolithic projects -- whose architecture kills any sort of pedestrian scene downtown -- without reporting the true underlying costs to taxpayers.

But thankfully, Colangelo's wings finally have been clipped by his former Diamondbacks business partners, who actually understand what a bottom line is. The Republic is beside itself in despair because its water boy pushing for huge taxpayer-subsidized developments has suddenly lost his clout.

In the last couple of weeks, we have been subjected to endless hand-wringing by the institutional daily over Colangelo's unceremonious ouster as Diamondbacks dictator. The Republic, which is part-owner of the baseball team, ripped the D-Backs' new controlling partners for giving Colangelo "an undeserved bum's rush."

Please, it's about time!

Colangelo's economic fiasco with the Diamondbacks demonstrates perfectly that just because someone knows sports doesn't necessarily mean he understands much else. Colangelo ran the Suns and the Diamondbacks as fiefdoms.

Which was fine, as long as they were making money.

Jerry sold the debt-laden Suns earlier this year for $400 million, and everybody made some money -- but nowhere near as much as has been widely reported.

But the Diamondbacks are a different story. Colangelo bet home plate on a premise that turned out to be wrong. He believed mortgaging the future for a 2001 World Series ring would build lasting fan support.

Instead, it's brought us a pitiful team, declining attendance and massive debt. The finances spun out of control years ago. As Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling were sending the Yankees packing in November 2001, Colangelo was desperately courting investors to keep the team financially viable.

Bankruptcy loomed as the Diamondbacks hoisted the 2001 World Series trophy into the air.

Soon after the World Series parade, Colangelo announced that he had rounded up four rich investors who had agreed to pump in $160 million over the next 10 years. The investors gave him carte blanche to spend the money and run the team with one caveat -- stay within budget.

But Jerry didn't come through in 2002 and busted the budget again in 2003.

The freewheeling spending was too much for the investment team led by Paradise Valley resident Ken Kendrick. Earlier this year, Kendrick and his partners agreed to round up another $100 million. But this time, there were some strings attached. Jerry had to share power -- he became just one of five votes in the managing partnership.

With this kind of investment on the table, it's not surprising that the guys coughing up the cash wanted more say in the team's operations. Jerry, however, just wanted Kendrick and company to drop off the money and let him run the show.

After all, Colangelo is accustomed to this wonderful arrangement.

For 15 years he has manipulated elected officials into steering hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money into building arenas, stadiums and parking garages and then turning over the keys to the facilities to him.

While politicians don't have a personal attachment to taxpayer money they give away, private investors certainly have an attachment to their mega-bucks. And Jerry didn't like the fact that investors, led by Kendrick, demanded that he share power.

The two men butted heads, and Jerry soon found himself out.

"What it really turned on was the simple truth of Jerry's having had a long history of being the ultimate decider, and [then] a new circumstance arose in which he formally . . . did not any longer have that ultimate freedom," Kendrick tells me. "And it was just a difficult environment and one that just didn't work."

Kendrick and his three partners decided it was time for a change, so they forced Jerry out in early August. Nothing personal.

"It's a normal and usual thing in the business world," Kendrick says.

Because Jerry is an icon in Phoenix, the Republic, among others, self-servingly dubbed him a financial guru, who should get practically all of the city's redevelopment money for whatever he wanted to do.

The problem is, I repeat, Jerry not only was not the financial genius the Republic and others billed him, he was a bad businessman when it came to protecting his investors' bottom line.

"The difference is that Jerry has not had the breadth of experience in the business community because he came from the sports community," Kendrick says.

Colangelo, Kendrick says, didn't understand how to work with his business partners, a skill that's essential in any successful profit-making enterprise.

"It is the art of business," Kendrick says. "And Jerry hasn't had the history of ever having to do that."

At the same time, Kendrick tells me he understands that sharing power was a bitter pill for Colangelo, who had never had to compromise during his long run as managing partner of the Phoenix Suns and later the Diamondbacks.

"I am very respectful of the difficulty Jerry was placed into by these changes," he says. "But the changes were agreed upon. Therefore, we had the responsibility of representing not only our own money, but [that of] those people who invested this year. We have brought a lot of new people on board and they have expectations of us and we have fiduciary duties to them."

Chief among the expectations was getting somebody to run the baseball team who understood business and sports. The Diamondbacks appear to have that man in Jeff Moorad, a former players' agent who has replaced Colangelo as the team's chief executive officer. And, unlike Colangelo, Moorad is expected to make a significant financial investment in the team -- $30 million plus.

While the Diamondbacks are heading for 110 losses, ranking them as one of the worst franchises in baseball history, the positive news is: For the first time in the team's seven-year history, it will meet its budget this year.

This is vitally important, if the franchise is to have the financial capability of fielding competitive teams for decades to come. Financial responsibility, Kendrick says, is what it took to attract a talented sports businessman like Moorad.

"He recognizes that he will be partnering with people who have a level of financial discipline," Kendrick says. "He knows we are not a runaway train."

Kendrick understands that the Diamondbacks are a true community asset. The stadium and parking structures were built with $300 million in public funds. The team must rely on the goodwill of the community to thrive. It can't be seen as a team that gouges and exploits fans or a business that doesn't pay its bills on time.

Kendrick believes in Moorad. "He's a bottom-line-oriented kind of guy, and he's a baseball guy at the same time," Kendrick tells me.

The Diamondbacks' future suddenly looks much brighter with Colangelo out of the way. And Phoenix will be far better off without Colangelo calling all the shots on the future of downtown.

There's a new wave of smart business and community leaders who are quickly filling the void as Colangelo shuffles toward the West Valley, where he wants to continue the area's relentless urban sprawl with his unconscionable Douglas Ranch development project that will rely heavily on groundwater.

These new leaders, who are actually focused on making downtown Phoenix a dynamic 21st-century city, include Arizona State University president Michael Crow, world-class bioscience guru Jeffrey Trent, small business owners like Kimber Lanning, a progressive city council led by Mayor Phil Gordon, and big-time financial players like the new owner of the Phoenix Suns, Robert Sarver.

Colangelo's descent from power is a good thing because it opens up the playing field for other leaders, including players like Sarver and Crow. This will only help create a more diverse, interesting and exciting downtown.

Don't think for a moment that Colangelo will have nothing to do. Mayor Gordon is considering offering Jerry a post as a key adviser. And as I already mentioned, Colangelo's working hard to destroy one of the last unspoiled tracts of Sonoran Desert with his massive development west of the White Tank Mountains.

Jerry's not going to let his hurt feelings over getting cut by the Diamondbacks keep him from attempting to make a stadium-load of money on Douglas Ranch.

After all, one of the partners in the 35,000-acre project includes the man who just replaced him as Diamondbacks boss -- Jeff Moorad.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8445.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty