The COVID-19 epidemic is obviously going to change our way of life.
How will it affect Scottsdale? No one knows for sure, but as a candidate for City Council here are my thoughts on some key issues affecting Scottsdale’s economic future: tourism, economic development, and livability and job creation.
Recently, some voices in Scottsdale have persisted in arguing for turning away from our historical strength in tourism and are urging more height and density in commercial development, along with the accompanying traffic this would surely entail. Those seeking more height and density won a major victory on the unpopular Marquee project but hit a major roadblock with Southbridge 2, which has been stopped by a citizen referendum. (The Marquee project has reportedly been put on hold due to the COVID 19 epidemic).
A majority on the City Council, who receive large campaign donations from developers, have backed this campaign for increased height and density every step of the way, over the objections of the citizens.
One of the leading forces in the demand for increased height and density has been the SCOTT Project, which was formed last November as an extension of the Scottsdale Coalition of Today and Tomorrow. While the SCOTT Project and its members were allegedly committed to “civil discussion,” they quickly became known for their vulgar and intemperate attacks upon anyone who disagreed with their goals --- particularly those who were opposed to Southbridge 2.
The SCOTT Project has now apparently been disbanded, which is good news for those genuinely interested in “civil discussion.” It went out with a flourish, as its final posting returned to a previous topic, namely that baby boomers are “annoying,” a “drag on the economy,” and “expendable.”
Scottsdale’s tourism industry has been devastated by COVID 19, with an accompanying reduction in bed tax and sales tax. Taking its cue from Rahm Emanuel and his mantra to “never let a crisis go to waste,” the SCOTT Project and its members have used the COVID-19 crisis to pursue their campaign for more height and density, while claiming that Scottsdale needs to “diversify” and turn away from tourism as one of Scottsdale’s primary businesses. I disagree.
First, all of Scottsdale’s businesses, not just tourism, are suffering. Second, and more importantly, tourism is likely to bounce back more quickly than some other businesses.
The mountains, the sunshine, the golf courses, the resorts, and all the other assets that make Scottsdale a world-famous destination will survive COVID-19. While some in the SCOTT Project have claimed that hotels will “disappear,” that seems far-fetched. After the threat is over, hotels may offer deep discounts to encourage business; some are already doing so.
The plans to possibly open baseball in Scottsdale are an indication that Scottsdale may lead the way. Domestic destinations, such as Scottsdale, may benefit from increased tourism as some travelers may shy away from air travel and foreign destinations.
In fact, Experience Scottsdale, the city’s private marketing company, reports that travel may be a high priority after the pandemic and that travelers will increasingly prefer regional travel. While Scottsdale’ tourism is always lower in summer, the economic stimulus packages, which will arrive later this spring and summer, may encourage tourists to take a needed break after the pandemic has diminished.
Experience Scottsdale has been hard hit because its budget depends on bed tax revenue. As a result, it has recently made some significant staff and salary cutbacks. But it is already making plans to boost tourism once the pandemic is over, and its good work is likely to encourage tourists to return.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, height and density may have less appeal. Work habits may change, as employees and their employers learn that working from home is a viable alternative. Population density and height (elevators) obviously contribute to pandemics as evidenced by the outbreaks in New York and some other large cities.
Large scale developments may have more trouble attracting financing in the future, which may have been one of the reasons the developer of Southbridge 2 withdrew that project. And the developer of the Marquee has also reportedly put his project on hold.
In short, Class A office space may be in less demand.
But I believe Scottsdale will have a bright future after the pandemic. Those clamoring that Scottsdale needs more height and density seem to ignore the fact that Scottsdale has been rated as the best place in the U.S. to find a job.
And this was before the Marquee, Southbridge 2, and the Nationwide projects.
Some of the SCOTT Project members continually claim that Scottsdale is about to dry up and become Sun City East and that there will be no jobs for their children in the future. Such talk is silly --- if you want good jobs for your children, you are living in the best place in the U.S.
And the notion that Scottsdale will become Sun City East is, to put it mildly, fanciful. The recent Scottsdale Forward breakfast meeting confirmed that Scottsdale continues to draw good, high paying jobs.
I also believe that Scottsdale’s success as a job market is inseparable from its reputation as one of the U.S.’s most livable cities. Scottsdale is a popular job market because people want to live here. A quick glance at the nation’s most livable cities quickly reveals a common denominator --- they are mostly small to mid-sized cities without large urban cores.
As population growth flattens and millennials continue to flee the largest urban centers, places like Scottsdale will continue to be popular. Adding height, density, and traffic to recreate the urban centers from which they have fled will reduce Scottsdale’s livability and its attractiveness to employment.
In the wake of the pandemic, I continue to believe that the first rule of good government, to paraphrase Marshall Field, is “to give the citizens what they want.”
One of the most vocal public supporters of Southbridge 2 has conceded that it would not survive the public referendum originally scheduled for November.
My experience in talking to hundreds of voters confirms this observation. Most Scottsdale citizens did not want the out-sized scale and mass of the project.
And they are upset with a City Council majority which, over the last four years has supported every major project to come down the pike, often in the face of substantial citizen opposition. I reject the notion, popular among some, that Scottsdale citizens should be saddled with projects they don’t want in the name of “economic growth.”
My guiding principle in running for the City Council is that Scottsdale citizens should be able to determine the type of city in which they want to live. I am convinced that most citizens don’t want ever increasing height and density, but we can have --- and must insist upon --- economic growth and livability.
When it comes to economic growth, I support the type of growth which has transformed Scottsdale into the best place in the U.S. to find a job. While some have accused us of being the “no” candidates, we believe in saying “yes” to citizens and “no” to developers who want to evade zoning and planning regulations and bring ever more height and density.
This is the way to ensure that Scottsdale emerges stronger than ever.
Some of the other City Council candidates are not forthcoming concerning their plans for the future of Scottsdale. They speak in general terms about making “smart” decisions and “livability,” but they won’t give you concrete definition of these terms.
Some of these candidates supported the Desert Discovery Center, the Marquee, and Southbridge 2 --- all of which would have directly affected the livability of Scottsdale. Ask the council candidates about where they stood on these issues. One of the most important things you can do as a voter is to examine where council candidates are getting their financial support.
This information is available online at https://eservices.scottsdaleaz.gov/cityclerk/campaignfinance.
The information in these reports is summarized at https://www.yourvalley.net/scottsdale-independent/stories/keck-candidate-campaign-finance-article-left-out-relevant-numbers,154147.
Several of the City Council candidates are getting financial support from out-of-town and out-of-state real estate developers, including the Los Angeles developer who is building the 15 story Marquee in Old Town (now on hold), which many have compared to a cruise ship parked on Scottsdale Road.
Ask yourself why developers from out-of-town are supporting these candidates.
This truly is a crucial election for Scottsdale, as it has the possibility to change the majority on the City Council. I hope to join in a council majority which will (1) continue to respect and develop tourism as Scottsdale’s primary economic engine, while supporting the growth of other innovative industries, and (2) promote thoughtful growth which enhances and preserves Scottsdale’s unique character.
Above all, I will respect and promote, and will be guided by, the desires of Scottsdale citizens in determining the future of our City.
Editor’s Note: Tom Durham is a candidate for Scottsdale City Council.