Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton gave a fine State of the City speech this week (you can watch it here). One could quibble with his "Not even a decade after the Great Recession shook us to our knees, Phoenix has emerged stronger and more resilient than ever before with an economy that is breaking free from the chains of the boom-then-bust cycle." Phoenix has far under-performed its peer cities in this recovery. But Stanton is an upbeat guy and Phoenicians have a hard time with reality.
He deserves credit for the courage to call out the Kookocracy's war on cities.
Now, the hard stuff. Outside the prepared remarks, the mayor supports building a new arena to be shared by the Suns and Coyotes, with at least some taxpayer money involved. The Arizona Republic reported, "Phoenix already has a permanent tourism tax on hotel and motel stays and car rentals. It is in the process of selling the city-owned Sheraton hotel and the Translational Genomics Research Institute building downtown, projects supported by the tourism tax. By getting those buildings off its books, the city could potentially free up revenue to help pay for a new stadium."
Not surprisingly, this produced its share of criticism. For example, E.J. Montini columnized about rich team owners asking for welfare:
So, politely as possible, I would suggest that all of us collectively send a little note to these guys:
"Dear Suns, Coyotes (and Diamondbacks),
"Build your own damn sports complex.
Who wouldn't agree? In a nation exceptional in its hustles, the professional sports stadium-arena grift is one of the most outrageous. The Suns arena is less than 24 years old and was extensively renovated, with big help from the city, in the mid-2000s. Madison Square Garden was built in 1968, although later renovated while retaining its soul-killing dullness. What is now called Talking Stick Resort Arena is old by NBA standards. We're not talking about building for the ages. Getting cities to fund ever-more-lavish new arenas for wealthy owners is key to the con.
Yet they continue to do it. The nearly new Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, which houses the NBA and NHL, required New York to issue $511 million in bonds. A rarity is the coming home in San Francisco for the Golden State Warriors, which will be entirely privately financed. So it can be done (according to Forbes, the value of NBA franchises has tripled over the past four years. The Suns are the 13th most valuable, with $154 million in revenue and valued at $1 billion).
Let 'em build their own damned arenas and stadiums.
But, Phoenix being Phoenix, it's not this easy a call.
I went over some of the issues in the previous column about the Diamondback's demands for their stadium. But they are worth expanding on.
While downtown Phoenix has made enormous progress from its comatose state of the 1980s, it has least benefited from the "back to the city" phenomenon that has dramatically transformed San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, etc. I most recently wrote about what's happening in Seattle here, and you can read more of these success stories on Rogue's City Desk.
But these cities have diverse, robust economies commensurate with their size — in some cases, such as Seattle and Denver, they punch well above their weight. And their downtowns are natural centers with a magnetic pull on people, companies, and amenities in this age of center-city revival.
Not so in Phoenix. The economy, such as it is, keeps spinning out to the fringes, even within the expansive city limits of Phoenix. Downtown faces a dearth of major corporate headquarters (APS is mid-range at best, and much less of a presence than in decades past, outside of its battle against solar energy; Freeport McMoRan also lacks size and faces a global commodity slump). Phoenicians lack a consciousness about even the name for the metropolitan area, much less one that makes downtown the natural core.
So it's not hard to imagine the Suns, Diamondbacks, and Coyotes self-financing their sports complex on the rez near north Scottsdale with the help of tribal coffers. (I remain skeptical that a metro area with such low wages and lack of major companies can support four big-league teams).
The consequences for downtown are impossible to predict, but I can't imagine they would be good. Despite the growing importance of ASU, the biomedical campus, convention center, CityScape and light rail (WBIYB) — all helped with investments by Phoenix taxpayers — and despite the smaller-scale victories of the Resistance, pro sports provide a huge boost. Without them, could downtown continue its almost accidental recent rise as the new center of this itinerant metropolis?
It's a big risk to take. Stanton is right to line up a plan. Now the question is how much Phoenix must get screwed to avoid a worse fate. It deserves better. But, as Clint Eastwood's character in Unforgiven says, "Deserves got nothin' to do with it."
One last note for the Better Call Sals of the world: All of the metro area is subsidized, not least the sprawl zones that made a few winners thanks to freeways. Downtown Phoenix is owed, still, for the decades of civic malpractice that destroyed this once vibrant and authentic heart.