In the wake of an economy that's built on tourism dollars and growth for growth's sake, Arizona has had a pretty rough time lately. It's arguable what the state's #1 economic engine is, but it's either construction or tourism, and both have taken a direct hit recently. The result is a state economy in crisis with one of the worst deficits in the nation, resulting in draconian cuts to social services, education at all levels, state parks and libraries, and just about every other "quality of life" program.
First came the recession, mortgage meltdown, and foreclosure crisis, which threw a monkey wrench into the state's gangbuster housing industry. Since the end of WWII, home builders have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the growth machine that, at its prime, was chewing up over an acre an hour of the desert. "Grow! Grow!" screamed the boosters and newspaper headlines, and few elected officials ever questioned that premise – or had the nerve to campaign against it. Most local and legislative tax policies, in fact, encouraged sprawl.
Sure, we experienced Charlie Keating and other bumps along the way, but Keating Five alums like John McCain are still doing the bidding for the housing industry, banks, mining companies, and other corporate leeches that only see the state as a resource to plunder. Few politicians listened to Stewart Udall or other cautionary voices, who've been saying since the 60s that Arizona is on an unsustainable path – toward the perfect storm of water shortages, real estate busts, and no more cheap oil to power the car culture.
"Americans must finally cast aside our notion that we can continue the wasteful consumption patterns of our past. We must promote a consciousness attuned to a frugal, highly efficient mode of living... Be steadfast enemies of waste. The lifetime crusade of your days must be to develop a new energy ethic to sustain life on earth." Stewart Udall,"A Letter to My Grandchildren"
Today Udall's vision remains just that – a vision. The reality is that the Phoenix area is a poster child for the "geography of nowhere" that anti-sprawl enthusiasts love to hate. And the boom has busted, big time. Drive around those communities now and it seems a third of the homes have "For Sale" signs in the front yard, or they're just vacant.
Tourism has taken a hit too, not only because fewer Americans have extra cash to travel to the Grand Canyon or Scottsdale's resorts, but also because of SB 1070, which gave the state a deserved black eye. That episode was reminiscent of the late 80s, when Governor Mecham's recision of the MLK Holiday also resulted in tourism boycotts. Only then the tourism industry was prepared, and they stepped up to join a chorus of citizens and businesses that said Mecham was wrong.
This year tourism spokespersons were strangely silent about SB 1070, mostly because, I guess, so many officials were appointed by or otherwise support the Accidental Governor who signed the "papers please" law. Politically they found themselves in a difficult place. Not only did SB 1070 damage Arizona's image, but the tourism industry depends on undocumented workers – everybody knows that. I asked people in the industry about SB 1070, and there clearly was indecision about what to do. The mostly Republican leadership didn't want to challenge their Governor, but they also knew this racist piece of crap legislation was doing a number on their bottom line. Just weeks after SB 1070 was signed, the Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau reported that it had lost $90 million in cancelled meetings, and across the state thousands of people in the hospitality sector were out of a job.
So, I was happy to see an email today from the state's Office of Tourism, which said the Governor's Task Force that was charged with re-branding Arizona's negative image "has made significant progress" on the public relations front.
We have move [sic] forward on a number of initiatives designed to “re-invite” tourists and business travelers to Arizona. Since its original meeting, members of the task force have been working to shift the current conversation about Arizona away from the political discussions, economic sanctions or boycotts and back to the positive messages of what Arizona has to offer both leisure and business travelers. [my emphasis]
Hmmm, "back to the positive messages" is it? Oh, you mean like being dead last in education spending and performance? Or having one of the worst deficits in the nation, with even bleaker numbers forecast for next year? Perhaps it's that "positive message" about the bottom-feeder jobs the legislature encouraged through tax breaks to Wal-Mart, call centers, and other big boxes, resulting in one of the nation's worst per capita incomes. I bet it's those "positive messages" about how welcome you'd be here if your skin is of the brown hue. Or maybe it's the "positive message" Arizona sends to the GLBT community, with our "Marriage Protection" law (I feel safer now, knowing my marriage is protected from gays who might want the same thing).
Better yet, let's put good old Senator Russell Pearce in the state's tourism ads, so he can send "positive messages" about repealing the 14th Amendment, outlawing ethnic studies programs, banning Affirmative Action, or explaining why white Mormon men are the only thing standing between you and armageddon (as a follower of Cleon Skousen, he believes that). That's sure to attract visitors!
Wait, I know, let's ask Governor Brewer what her plan is. She's always a quick study.
Now that's a "positive message."