It was probably fitting that John Teets died amid the worst economic depression modern Phoenix has ever experienced. The retired head of Greyhound/Dial was the last of a breed that every competitive and livable city must have: A dynamic chief executive of a major local headquarters, passionately committed to the city, able to knock heads and write checks. I'll let Soleri take it from here:
As CEO of Dial, he was one of the last corporate titans who figured prominently in local affairs. He was a headknocker and socialite who helped make Phoenix more than just a branch-office backwater. I was living near Central & Palm Lane when the Dial building was built in 1990. It was part of Teets' stewardship ethic to make a big corporate statement close to but not in downtown. The original plan was to construct two towers, with one perpendicular to the other. As with so many real-estate dreams, this one was only partly realized. The result is a free-standing mountain of a building completely out of scale to its surroundings.
Teets spent lavishly on it but the tapestries he hung in the lobby, or the exquisite garden outside couldn't quite make up for the fact that it was another ostentatious project that seemed so much like the city it was built in: Isolated and strange.
Then there was the restaurant he put not on the ground floor but on the second, thus removing any energy channel to Central Avenue. "Gabriel's" was sui generis, an upscale eatery that served Teets' favorite comfort food (meat loaf and mashed potatoes, e.g.). The wait staff wore kitschy vests and bow ties that Teets once saw in Italy and fell in love with. This odd chapter in fine dining lasted one year before closing.
Teets himself was a tough character, someone who liked to storm into his subordinates' office unannounced to deliver some corrective counsel. He drove himself hard as well. He would climb the stairs rather than ride the elevator to his office 250 feet up. I thought he'd live to be 100. In the end, Teets couldn't save Dial from financial analysts who found gold in its parts but not its whole. Dial and its spin-off Finova moved to Scottsdale while the remaining part, Viad, remained in place. After that, Teets faded from view. The stewardship class he symbolized was fast fading, too. The big local banks had been swallowed up and their CEOs toppled until it seemed Jerry Colangelo was the last of the giants.
Teets was not exactly brilliant but he made our hometown seem important and consequential at his — and our — peak. The history of Phoenix seemed like a Roman candle where movers and shakers would come and go but the arc was ever upward. That's changed now and Teets' death is a fitting memorial to a dream.
I remember when Greyhound relocated from Chicago to Phoenix in the late 1960s (a move completed in 1971). This was our first headquarters of a major national company, the kind of asset essential to a big city, bringing talent, capital and substantial civic heft. It seemed a validation of this modern, clean city and more such corporate bases from a declining Midwest would naturally follow. And naturally it would mean a vibrant, gleaming downtown and Central Corridor. When the Dial Tower were being planned, major skyscrapers were envisioned all along Central, and more likely to happen than the phantoms trotted out in the 2000s. I even wrote a column for the Cincinnati Enquirer in the early 1990s, trying to light a fire against local smugness, set in a future where Procter & Gamble had been acquired by Dial and its headquarters relocated to Phoenix. Of course none of these things happened. Phoenix failed to sustain any economic development strategy, even after the 1990 bust, depending instead on the old standby: Population growth and real estate. It failed to reinvent itself as the world economy was changing, including to the kind of financialized economy where Wall Street could single-handedly destroy Dial. Teets retired and the old stewards died off.
I would occasionally get notes from Teets when I returned to town and was a columnist at the Arizona Republic. They were always encouraging me in my efforts to save the city from what it had finally become, a vast Ponzi scheme waiting to collapse. And all were written in his irascible style. But he was out of the game by that point. His support meant nothing compared with the demands of the Real Estate Industrial Complex that I be fired. And even Teets, along with the Bimsons, Frank Snell, Gene Pulliam, et al, failed to understand what it would take to make Phoenix sustainable.
The old companies were bought up or died or, in the case of Arizona Public Service, shrank to insignificance. The rumps of Dial withdrew from stewardship. The next generation, epitomized by the carpetbagging Charlie Keating and Fife Symington, cared nothing for building a real city, only for the land schemes that brought on the ominous foreshadowing of the S&L recession. Jerry Colangelo tried, but he was just a sports mogul, usually dependent on other people's money. Now, nobody.
Teets' shade could be saying, "apres moi le deluge," but it is a drought. It will be a very long one.