What a Concept: Government Should Be Honest!

Doug MacEachern had a great column in Monday’s Arizona Republic. I still have to shake my head at the genius editors and web folks who make these nuggets so hard to find on AZCentral, and I’m grateful to ScottsdaleTrails readers who still subscribe to the print version for alerting me to them.

I respect MacEachern’s willingness to look back on his decade-old writings to criticize his younger self. Even though his ultimate conclusion (that the Coyotes hockey arena should have been built in Scottsdale) is not based on the honest data for which he cries in the rest of his column.

More importantly, his description of government subsidies as “contributions” rather than “investments” is worth noting. And nobody does subsidies like Scottsdale. Which is why we have Valley-leading per capita debt, perennial budget deficits, and a billion dollars’ worth of deferred infrastructure maintenance.

I disagree, however, with the assertion that the voters have long memories and will remember being sold a bill of goods. Particularly if the press doesn’t report the truth, and demand the truth from government. “The voters” are pretty clueless about what really happens at city hall (let alone higher levels of government), and it’s the responsibility of the press to explain it to us.

Sell big projects with truth, not stories

Government should be honest on what residents can expect

Doug MacEachern, Arizona Republic Editorial Writer, 12/22/14

I just did something I had feared doing for years.

I looked at the record of what I wrote in 2001 about the decision to build a hockey arena in Glendale.

Did I actually like that idea? Did I have some kind of “Total Recall” mind-wash performed to eradicate memories of my (horribly misplaced) enthusiasm? I couldn’t remember. The long struggle to build an arena at Los Arcos Mall in south Scottsdale was collapsing.

And, almost out of nowhere, up popped Glendale, exclaiming, “Come on down, y’all!” Did I write somewhere that that was a good idea?

Of all the building projects that governments in the Valley have sold as can’t-miss (and, oh, goodness, I’ve backed lots of them), the hockey arena in Glendale was far and away the biggest clunker of them all. It will cost Glendale tens of millions a year for decades to come.

It also was among the least-vetted by the public, a terrible decision under any circumstances, for any government. Reading the hyperbole emanating then from Glendale City Hall about the deal — based on little more than wishful thinking by developer Steve Ellman, who had stumbled into owning a hockey franchise — is cringe-inducing.

Did anyone really believe that stuff? As much as $475 million in profits for Glendale from Ellman’s development fantasies?

Did I give it a “thumbs up”? I was afraid to look.

I’ll get to the shocking answer to those questions shortly. But let’s just dwell a moment on the most important lesson learned from that fiasco.

I’ve already described what that lesson is: Vet it. Give the public some reasonably honest numbers, and let them argue over them, debate them. Maybe even get in a row or two in the aisles over them.

That’s an important lesson for every city to learn.

Over the last 20 years, six East Valley communities have invested about $122 million in what became Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

Gateway, as it is known, is not a Glendale hockey arena. It is a valuable asset, with excellent public access, located precisely where an alternative to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport works best. For the first time since it became a commercial airport, Gateway operated in the black last year. It is moving in the right direction. There is no reason for any of those communities to hang their heads in shame and say, “We blew $122 million.”

But those communities — notably big-buck contributor Mesa — did not sell all that investment as a “contribution.” They sold it to their citizens as a loan. And loans are supposed to get paid back.

As it happens, $80 million of those $122 million in “loans” is coming due in 2020. And airport officials are saying they can’t pay back the loans. They would like them “re-characterized” as contributions. Otherwise, the airport’s finances won’t be nearly as healthy as they appear now.

“There is not … cash or some kind of liquid asset that we could convert without literally selling the (airport),” said Mesa City Manager Chris Brady. “No one is advocating for that option.”

This is quite delicate for Mesa, because they have vowed for years that the money for Gateway was in the form of a loan. You build up expectations that way. Now, they are fearful of citizen backlash. As one council member said, Mesa voters have long memories. They’ll remember all that talk about “loans.”

You get the moral of this story, right? Tell people up front what they honestly can expect for their investment. Don’t make up fanciful profit stories. And don’t claim that contributions are really loans.

As for the moral of my story, I wrote in 2001 that the hockey arena should have been built at Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale. Quite forcefully, I should add. Geez, what a high horse I can ride.

Know what? I still believe what I told people then.

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1 Comment

  1. Truth be told, Scottsdale would have been on the hook for buying Ellman the bankrupt Yote’s, and funding the Los Arcos fiasco purchase, hence Gretzky and a home on Camelback. Proud as we may be of being a 4 Sport town in the world of Professional franchises, ‘cheeks in the seats’ for roughly 140,000 Seats over respective seasons is prohibitive in the Valley of the Sun, the #’s just don’t work, as Glendale and downtown Phoenix, including Sky Harbor where Parking is the new ‘Tax’ on residents. ‘THE’ opportunity was Cardinal Stadium at the confluence of the 101/202 but as usual the ego’s of Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale Mayors couldn’t relinquish control or share the wealth, instead of a ‘Trojan Horse’ for west side development, 5 minutes from Sky Harbor, Hotel and Dining infrastructure in place, Light Rail in-place, On-Off egresses ‘in place, but instead we got what we got.

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