Herb Paine: Phoenix Rising?

October 31, 2012

We’re in the playoffs now, where cities compete for the gold crown, and winning requires that you field the best of your players, move the bases, and hit strategic home runs.

It’s not baseball I’m talking about, however, but the great perennial contest among metropolitan areas for competitive advantage -- for high ratings as winning places where businesses and families want to live, work, play, and stay. The playbook for urban greatness is pretty basic: a palpable sense of place, civic pride, and a drive to excel -- anchored in ethnic diversity, cultural richness, and a conspicuous commitment to retaining history while building the future.

So, if you’re interested in a city that’s stepping up to the plate and on the move, Phoenix is the place to be. The question is, in what direction?

Phoenix has an enviable mix of assets -- its desert landscape and weather; the crossroads of diverse cultures, and a relatively lower cost of living. We have all-stars in our midst, individuals and institutions like Michael Crow of ASU; TGen, a leader in biomedical research; museums; and award-winning performing arts groups.

Yet, in national ratings, its scores are average. Where’s the disconnect between the realities of this place and perception? What holds the city back from reaching its potential?

Phoenix hovers at the threshold of urban greatness. Over the years, local urban visionaries have floated creative concepts for transforming Phoenix and leveraging its assets into a jewel of the Southwest: designing the canals as Amsterdam-like living and entertainment areas; creating an arts and entertainment district and cultivating the cultural creative; promoting multimodal transportation. But talk needs to translate to action and action to traction. For example, you can’t espouse historic preservation while you watch historic properties fall to the metal of the wrecking crews.

The City needs the mojo to string all its pluses into a shared vision and to connect the rich dots in its midst.

The possibilities are rich and costly but worthy: beyond light rail, a way to get downtown -- rapid transit connecting the far North to Central Phoenix; Central Avenue shining as a robust cultural corridor, with banners on every streetlight and in every light rail car highlighting the city’s cultural gems. Tree-lined streets with public arts and outdoor cafes. Phoenix as the hub of the wheel whose spokes extend to its growing sister cities in the Valley. What’s called: connectivity!

The chance to realize such dreams lies in the City government’s new initiative, MyPlanPHX, to engage citizens in defining a vision and priorities for the future. We should wish it well. For, if it’s another hollow exercise that produces inflated expectations and flat action, then…

The question for Phoenix will be whether the grand slam will be the sound of businesses and families rushing in or the door banging on their way out.

Herb Paine is a business strategy consultant, former candidate for Congress, and social critic.