Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas – A Winter Solstice History

The events that led to modern day Christmas began over 4000 years ago, with most credible scholars pointing first to the Akitu Festival, the Mesopotamian New Year, which featured a 12 day feast called Zagmuk honoring their god, Marduk. The tradition included the notion that the current king should die at the end of the year, join Marduk in the afterlife, and do battle with the monsters of chaos.

To spare their king, instead they selected a known criminal and made him king for a day. The criminal enjoyed royal status and privileges for a day. Then he was ceremonially executed.

Many Winter Solstice Festivals occurred. The Persians and Babylonians celebrated a festival called Sacaea, a day where slaves and masters would trade places. Meanwhile, early Europe associated the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, with evil spirits and monsters, and held rituals and celebrations to welcome the return of the sun. In northern most Europe (in particular, Scandinavia), the sun would literally disappear for a period of weeks. Scouts would climb the mountains to seek the sun. When it returned, a great festival was held. This festival was called the Yule or Yuletide. People tied apples to the branches of trees to remind them that spring would return.

To the south in ancient Greece, like the Mesopotamians, the New Year festival was associated with a god (Kronos) doing battle with other gods, namely Zeus. In Rome, the god was Saturn and the festival known as Saturnalia. The Romans had fun, with parade like celebrations in the streets, feasts, visiting friends, and the exchange of good luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits). The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles and also did the master/slave swap for a day. Saturnalia was huge.

During the first century C.E. a small set of Jews started working on a document that would become the New Testament. Modern day Christians have a tendency to forget that the first Christians were Jews as was Christ himself. The earliest writings, written by the apostle Paul, consisted of a series of letters addressed to various entities like Galatians, Thessalonians, etc. Writings considered to be written by James (brother of Christ) also occurred this early. Different groups maintained their own oral traditions. Mark came later, and then Matthew, Luke, and John later still (as well as many that were not included). Christians aligned behind the four gospel version with the pronouncement of Bishop Irenæus (185 C.E.)

We do not have ANY of these documents.  We've got nothing in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and the disciples, and we don't have Paul's writings in the Hellenistic Greek that he used. The oldest fragments found (2nd century) and the oldest complete text, Codex Sinaiticus, (4th century), are Greek translations. We don't have what they wrote. We have what others wrote while translating and interpreting with an intent that may have been scholastically and linguistically rigorous - or not.

The Jews were deeply devoted to their Torah and the Old Testament. The early Christians, being Jews, were those most committed to the Messiah prophesies, in particular the writings of Isaiah, and especially Isaiah 53:5:

But he was wounded because of our crimes, Crushed because of our sins; the disciplining that makes us whole fell on him, and by his bruises we are healed.

Paul and Mark say nothing about the birth of Christ let alone a virgin birth, and Mark actually calls Jesus the "son of Joseph." (Hmm.) The later writings of Matthew and Luke present detailed accounts of a virgin birth of Christ. The two gospels are so similar that biblical scholars have theorized the Q Source, a lost document on which Matthew and Luke are based.

The material was consistent with many stories at the time with many common elements: a virgin birth of a savior/god, a manger (in some versions a barn or a cave) with animals, visiting kings with gifts, and the guiding star overhead. Marduk was a virgin birth as were numerous Hindu gods as was the Buddha. Roman Mithraism was the most popular religion at the time, featuring the tale of Romulus and Remus, which told that great men must be conceived by gods rather than regular mortals.


As Christianity started to grow in earnest throughout Rome, the Christians had no fondness for the "Jo, Saturnalia!" celebrations honoring a pagan god. The early Christians wanted a solemn, religious holiday honoring the birth of Christ, which they believed to be December 25. Responding to the continuing celebration of pagan customs, the Church forbid its followers from participating. Right. When the participation continued, the Church did its best to tame the more wild aspects of the party and convert it into a joyous celebration of the birth of Christ, accepting the merriment, the lights, the giving of gifts, and the feasts from Saturnalia.

The New Testament provided a great story to celebrate at this time as well as the imagery for the nativity scene, and by the 12th century, people were displaying such scenes as part of the Christmas decorations, and The Twelve Days of Christmas (note - not a twelve day feast) were implemented in liturgical calendars, 12/25 - 1/5. People had the festival with dinners, pageants, gift giving, and games.

Most scholars agree that December 25 is not the actual date for the birth of Christ. Quoting Luke 2:8 (And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.), some argue he must have been born in the fall since no flock would be out in the fields at night after September.

We do know that in 350 C.E. Julius I, a powerful Bishop of Rome, declared December 25th as the observance of Christmas. Roman Emperor Constantine, who had converted to Christianity, sought to have pagans and Christians celebrate together by incorporating the rituals together. With church support and the Emperor’s power, the winter celebrations became almost entirely associated with the birth of Christ.

Around this same time lived Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna in what is now Turkey. Nicholas was very wealthy and generous and adored children. At Christmas time he would throw gifts into the houses of poor children. The Bishop became a patron Saint of children and seafarers and was granted the title "Saint Nicholas."

In addition to the St. Nicholas legend, the pagan roots of the Germanic holiday Yule referred to the indigenous Norse God Odin, who rode a great horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances in the air. Odin had long white hair with a long white beard. Children would fill their boots with carrots or straw and place them near the chimney for Sleipnir to eat. As a reward, Odin would replace the food in the boots with gifts. As the Christian version developed in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the boots became stockings hung by the chimney, Odin morphed into St. Nicholas, and the eight legs of the great horse became eight reindeer. Rudolph did not arrive until much later.

Saint Nicholas. Sint Nikolaas. Sinter klaas.

Santa Claus.

The Reformation occurred and produced these people called Protestants (protest-ant - one who protests), and did these people ever love to get angry and upset about behavior they regarding as immoral. The Christmas celebration was one of these behaviors.

Many Protestants, in particular the Puritans, blasted the celebration of Christmas as a "Catholic invention," the "rags of the Beast" (Beast=Satan), "a festival with no biblical justification." Christmas was a time of "wasteful and immoral behavior."

When the very Protestant Puritans prevailed over Charles I in England, they banned Christmas in 1647. Fighting ensued including riots, and the open celebration of Christmas became dangerous. In 1660, Charles II was restored to power. He ended the official ban, but many years would pass before the holiday's popularity would return.

Like those in England, the Puritans in America despised Christmas. In Boston, Christmas was outlawed from 1659 to 1681. Unmoved by their sentiments, the ruling English Governor (we are 100 years before the revolution) Sir Edmund Andros ended the ban, but uneasy folks refrained from outward celebrations for decades. To the south in New York, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as the German settlers of Pennsylvania, people happily celebrated Christmas openly and without reservation.


The American Revolution caused many Americans to lose their taste for Christmas, now considered an English custom, and George Washington, knowing that Christmas was far more popular in Germany, attacked German mercenaries as they were sleeping off a Christmas feast in 1777. While an intriguing tale, whether the Germans were full of food or liquor remains in dispute. In either case, the Christmas timing certainly didn't hurt. Washington's victory inspired a weak American army on the verge of collapse.

Puritan hostility combined with anti-English sentiments following the revolution led to the decline of Christmas in the United States, and by 1820 the holiday was on the brink of extinction. It would be saved by the power of the pen. Author Washington Irving supported the recognition of Christmas with short stories, but more significantly, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem that would become famous throughout the globe, A Visit from St. Nicholas, which began, "Twas the night before Christmas."

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!


The poem firmly cemented the tying of Christmas to the exchange of gifts and a jolly gift bearing St. Nick with presents for the children. Ironically, it was a British novelist who became perhaps the one individual most responsible for saving the holiday in the United States. In 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, a tale about an old miser named Ebeneezer Scrooge who is visited by three Christmas ghosts. Dickens re-contextualized Christmas to be about generosity and family, goodwill towards others, and introduced the expression, "Merry Christmas!"

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D.
December, 1843.


Perhaps as powerful as the story, it's title and the notion of the Christmas carol became fully distinguished. Just ten years earlier William B. Sandys had published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), which printed for everyone for the first time the songs, The First Noel, I Saw Three Ships, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, which Dickens featured in his book.

The heart rendering story and songs took the American psyche by storm. The generosity of the spirit, the celebration of life, family and friends, the transformation of Scrooge, all tapped into forces dating back to Mesopotamia. These energies overwhelmed the somber, dull puritan Christian version, and the shift from an emphasis on the birth of Christ to these other factors was unstoppable. Christian churches found themselves in a position where there was going to be a Christmas celebration and a popular one, Christ or no Christ. They chose the former.

While the practice of placing candles in evergreen trees occurred earlier in northern Europe, symbolizing the return of spring, British royalty started using a Christmas Tree in the early 1800s. By 1840, all of Britain decorated a tree for Christmas. A picture of a royal decorated tree was published in 1848 in England, and one appeared in the United States in 1850. By the start of the Civil War, fourteen states had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday. Ten years later, in 1870, Christmas became a United States Federal holiday, and Christmas trees were ubiquitous during the holiday season.

Rekindled by Clement Clarke Moore's poem about the night before Christmas, the legend of St. Nicholas gained energy, and his image was modified, both in the poem, but also significantly by the cartoon illustrations of Thomas Nast, who based an image of St. Nicholas not on a 4th century bishop in robes, but on the Norse god Odin with the white hair and beard, and made him fat. The January 3, 1863 publication of Harper's Weekly contained an illustration that embedded image into the imagination of the country.

In 1897, after her friends told her that Santa Claus did not exist, eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon confronted her father on the matter. He suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time. One of the paper's editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, who witnessed unspeakable horrors as a war correspondent during the Civil War, chose to answer the question in a philosophical context, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

More than a century later, his response remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

(The original 1931 Coca-Cola ad in the Saturday Evening Post) By the early 1900's, numerous illustrations of St. Nicholas were appearing in magazines making the coat red, the boots and belt black, and an even fatter physique. Seeking to bolster its sales, the Coca-Cola company hired a talented commercial illustrator name Haddon Sundblom, who in the early 30's produced the image that remains with us today. That Coke created Santa Claus (the whole enchilada) is an urban legend actually believed by a surprising number of Americans, who, amazingly, are unaware that Moore's poem was written over a century before the ad campaign widely published Sundblom's Santa.

Only in 1939 did the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer arrive. Copywriter Robert L. May wrote a poem about Santa's having a ninth, lead reindeer featuring a "nose so bright" that it could lead Santa through the dark night. The entirely commercial venture was launched to entice Christmas shoppers into the Montgomery Ward department store.

Most Christians enjoy the view that Christmas is indeed a holiday starting and ending about the celebration of the birth of Christ, and many complain about the commercialization of the holiday. The fact is that the holiday is profoundly pagan, and some Christians, aware of this reject the holiday outright.

Christmas Quotes:

Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart...filled it, too, with melody that would last forever.
Bess Streeter Aldrich

Christmas gift suggestions: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.
Oren Arnold

I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays--let them overtake me unexpectedly--waking up some fine morning and suddenly saying to myself: 'Why this is Christmas Day!'
Ray Stannard Baker

The perfect Christmas tree? All Christmas trees are perfect!
Charles N. Barnard

There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.
Erma Bombeck

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.
Peg Bracken

The earth has grown old with its burden of care But at Christmas it always is young, The heart of the jewel burns lustrous and fair And its soul full of music breaks the air, When the song of angels is sung.
Phillips Brooks

Christmas! The very word brings joy to our hearts. No matter how we may dread the rush, the long Christmas lists for gifts and cards to be bought and given--when Christmas Day comes there is still the same warm feeling we had as children, the same warmth that enfolds our hearts and our homes.
Joan Winmill Brown

This is the message of Christmas: We are never alone.
Taylor Caldwell

Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree.
Charlotte Carpenter

To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.
Calvin Coolidge

Christmas, in its final essence, is for grown people who have forgotten what children know. Christmas is for whoever is old enough to have denied the unquenchable spirit of man.
Margaret Cousins

Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it 'white'.
Bing Crosby

It is the personal thoughtfulness, the warm human awareness, the reaching out of the self to one's fellow man that makes giving worthy of the Christmas spirit.
Isabel Currier

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
Charles Dickens

Something about an old-fashioned Christmas is hard to forget.
Hugh Downs

They err who thinks Santa Claus comes down through the chimney; he really enters through the heart.
Mrs. Paul M. Ell

It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.
W. T. Ellis

Christmas, my child, is love in action.
Dale Evans

Do give books - religious or otherwise - for Christmas. They're never fattening, seldom sinful, and permanently personal.
Lenore Hershey

My first copies of Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn still have some blue-spruce needles scattered in the pages. They smell of Christmas still.
Charlton Heston

To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.Calvin Coolidge

I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.Norman Vincent Peale

Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we're here for something else besides ourselves.Eric Sevareid

Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree.
Charlotte Carpenter

Mankind is a great, an immense family. This is proved by what we feel in our hearts at Christmas.
Pope John XXIII

The only real blind person at Christmas-time is he who has no Christmas in his heart.Helen Keller

Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.
Washington Irving

Christmas renews our youth by stirring our wonder. The capacity for wonder has been called our most pregnant human faculty, for in it are born our art, our science, our religion.
Ralph Sockman

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.
Peg Bracken

The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.
Burton Hillis

Many Christians believe that without the birth of Christ, the holiday wouldn't exist, and that Christmas is about the hope and rebirth that Christ represents.

The ideas of hope and rebirth date as far back as humanity and the dark of winter, but that's okay. In the spirit of Christmas, I say we refrain from argument when Christians tell us the holidays grew out of their religion and the birth of its savior. Christmas is meant to be shared.

Merry Christmas, Everyone.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Peddling Cloth

AZ Star Reporter Rob O'Dell has a Twilight Zone story about a Downtown Tucson Partnership presentation this week. Queue up the music and Rod Serling's voice.

During a presentation from Downtown Tucson Partnership Chief Executive Officer Michael Keith, Mayor Bob Walkup declared the corner of East Congress Street and North Toole Avenue as “the hottest entertainment spot in the country.”

Keith gave a presentation that said there has been $120 million in private investment downtown in the past 30 months. Keith said a developer from Austin who had also worked Albuquerque, told him that Tucson is the only downtown in the country where things are going on right now.

Keith said he couldn’t remember the developer’s name.

The private sector investment is so strong, Keith said, that he expected private investors to come to the city soon to build a downtown hotel and arena with private money.


Uh, what? Did we not just read about the Hotel Arizona's imminent closure in the face of occupancy rates below 10%?

The assertions in red are precisely what the Cloth is and does. Seriously, and I mean seriously, read the statements like a mathematician, a physicist, and think. Really. THINK. Believe them? Really. I am not joking. Do you believe what those two men said? Got data? Spreadsheets? Anything?

In their echo chamber of circular cheer leading and clapping for naked emperors, such statements can fly amongst smiles and friendly congratulations.

As Cigar Man likes to say, "Just when I thought it couldn't get any clearer."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Travis Clarifies Cloth Conversation

While his comments here are very rare, the intelligent and insightful commenter Travis has written quite a response to my criticism of the MTCVB and the the salaries of its top two officers. More importantly, his comments present perhaps the best material I've read regarding the Cloth and its destructive influence in Tucson. I present his remarks below, and they point to the kind of dialog that is so desperately needed in this community and so lacking. For those interested in matters Cloth, what Travis wrote is must read material:

I’m in a different place on this one. Well, torn, actually. May I ask some questions that clarify, but not necessarily defend?

x4mr’s usually intelligent postings feel here incomplete. Almost like things were trending toward mob mentality where otherwise poignant questions about the functions/finances of a community organization are free license to spray-paint the “cloth” on the doors and begin the lynching.

That “cloth” label is appearing more and more in the comments sections of our local news outlets. That might take away from its efficacy and the real understanding of the meaning x4mr originally gave it.

I’ve eagerly followed x4mr’s questioning/tear-down of TREO and Rio Nuevo largely because it was about damn time.

I was involved as a committee member with GTEC (TREO’s predecessor) and departed in disgust at the absolute bullshit happening there. The organization was clearly doing pretty much what x4mr accuses TREO of. There was no real plan of action, lots of justifying funding by trumpeting “successes” (businesses coming to town) they had no real part in. Overblown salaries, numerous international trips to “forge relationships”, and a hell of a lot of golf. All capped off each year with a nifty PowerPoint for a packed La Paloma ballroom annual meeting where everyone slapped each other’s backs and marveled at the emperor’s snazzy new suit.

A collection of Tucson’s sharper minds realized nothing was getting done, so they worked some board-level magic, folded the organization, and created TREO to get to the many hearts of the issue and revamp the whole economic development scene. I will maintain here that, as messed up as the politics of this are, there remain true leaders, smart individuals, and hard workers involved at all levels who endeavor to improve our city’s lot. Problem is, they have to deal with the “cloth”, too, as they sit right alongside them on the boards and the staffs.

This means that both the well-intentioned and the “cloth” also carried onto the new organization. You can’t have one without the other. (Maybe x4mr can give us a catching name for the well-intentioned. Then we could pit “well-intentioned” against the cloth and we’d have a true good vs. evil story to tell.)

As much as I cringe at the personality involved (brace yourself; the man is incredibly articulate), I once attended a presentation by Newt Gingrich. An audience member challenged him on the inefficiency of our government. Why is everything it does so convoluted, slow, shamefully expensive, and often way off target? Why didn’t anyone just clean house and reorganize it all to be really effective so that we could address languishing issues in education, poverty, and the economy?

He stood back for a second and smiled, the history teacher in him rising to the surface.

“That inefficiency we love to complain about—and I’m right there with you—is actually a gift from our nation’s founding fathers,” he said.

He went on to explain that our open form of government was specifically meant to be a mess because that’s what prevents any one person or group from gaining too much power. It prevents dictatorships. Historically, those regimes that do gain too much power are labeled so that even those with the vaguest knowledge of history can gain from the inherent warnings: Caesar’s Rome. Nazi Germany.

Short version: Our open form of government requires that everyone has a voice and can participate. It makes things slow, frustrating, and diluted. However it prevents the real nastiness of totally efficient governments while allowing for some things only a government can really pull off. Along with this nifty freedom of speech, don’t we really kind of appreciate the U.S. mail, the Interstate highway system, and FAA air traffic control?

Oh, and this Internet thing is kinda cool, too.

On the local level, we have the same thing. Everyone gets a voice/to participate in the government and community organizations/efforts like Rio Nuevo, GTEC/TREO, and the MTCVB. And this is prone to creating inefficiency and occasionally a clusterf***.

In addition to the GTEC/TREO destruction/rebuild, I sat in on a number of the early (wow, 10+ years ago) Rio Nuevo planning meetings. It was an exciting thing, the community coming together to finally get a handle on revitalizing downtown. There were smart, experienced, and well-intentioned leaders involved. But you could also see the influence of those with only self-interest creeping in. Sadly, no clear leader emerged who could corral all the cats, the self-interested pulled the thing in all directions, and we ended up with cluster****. But Tucson’s long been saddled with the same bad group-think. Think placement of the ballpark, the giveaway of land to developers, or the exceedingly long-term failure to assemble any sort of cohesive transportation plan.

At least the Fox Theater is nice. Oh, wait, that was a private party effort, not actually part of Rio Nuevo.

TREO I’m undecided on. I know great individuals on both sides of that coin and they both make excellent points. Maybe it’s just messy and prone to some really dumb moves, as it’s torn in all kinds of political directions. (x4mr = all-too-familiar with that.) But, really, name one similar organization anywhere that has singlehandedly been responsible for the kind of overarching economic development TREO is charged with/aspires to. How the hell do you measure for that?

That brings me around to the MTCVB.

Of all the organizations lumped under Tucson’s “economic development” umbrella, the MTCVB has long been the best organized and seemingly most effective. Because I was once a member—dating back to before the time that current CEO Walker was hired—I have some solid knowledge of their purpose and inner workings. My experience with those other “cloth”-infested organizations had me impressed with this one.

A few facts:

1. Tourism is one of Tucson’s top revenue-generating industries. That means it currently employs many, many people AND brings dollars to our community, both in business profits and tax revenues. Though it can’t really support a downtown hotel, it’s one of the big ones that is actually working for us on a large scale.

2. A significant portion of the MTCVB’s funds come not from our tax dollars, but from a “bed tax” paid by those who visit our community and stay in hotels. This tax was instituted specifically to support the tourism industry in Tucson through its own efforts. More tourism = more bed taxes = more budget with which to promote tourism to Tucson. We all voted for that, as it makes some sense. We don’t pay this tax unless we stay in our own hotels. However, we DO pay bed taxes in other cities when we stay in their hotels. Stick it to the tourists, man.

3. The MTCVB’s membership is less “cloth” oriented and more focused on its industry. That includes many small restaurant, hotel, and other tourism-related business owners. That’s you and me. (Though Humberto “give me money for my crappy hotel or I shut it down and maybe lose you the gem shows” Lopez is part of that circle, too.)

4. Within its field, Tucson’s MTCVB is highly-regarded. In fact, their originally foray into online marketing set the initial standards for their sister organizations around the nation. It’s more than a web site; it’s a whole email/database marketing system. It’s also very efficient, as they are able to market directly to specific interests/market segments (i.e. golf, ecotourism, regions of the country/world, and age groups). At the time, it was cutting-edge to the point that the Tucson firm that built it for them packaged the technology and sold it to many other CVBs nationwide. All their numbers are closely tracked, including the number of calls made to their various 800- lines and web traffic. But that’s key: there are real numbers to look at.

Lest it sound like I’m defending them, I’ve heard rumblings the past few years from the right players suggesting that the MTCVB’s financials need some real looking into.

Here we are. As Warren Buffett put it, “A rising tide may raise all boats; but when the tide goes back out, you find out who’s been swimming naked.” It’s the upside to the down economy. We see which organizations ain’t doing things right. Fewer dollars to spread around mean we start asking better questions before we hand it over.

Instead of trying to argue for or against the MTCVB, I’d like to pose the questions that are occurring to me as I read these articles/watch the (cringe) Fox video:

1. The $2.3 million: Is this money the City gives to the MTCVB in addition to the “bed tax” dollars (which are specifically designated for this purpose)? If it is “in addition”, what would the MTCVB have to scale back/eliminate were this money no longer available? Would that have a realistic direct effect on the results they are achieving (if any) for Tucson?

2. Why does Walker look like a deer in the headlights in this interview and in front of the Supes? He’s way smarter than that. Plus, it should have been obvious to him and his PR team that this was coming. Is this just Fox news doing what they do? Or, is there something else happening here? Walker’s long had some of the best PR counsel in town. Did he get rid of them?

3. Wow, salary $230K seems high. How does that compare with others in his position in other cities? Is that out of whack or just what talent at his level makes these days? (Remember, we want to make sure we have that talent. If we fail to compensate talent at an equitable level, they can probably find satisfactory compensation elsewhere and we end up with second-rate leaders.) Better yet, are we getting from Walker enough to justify that salary? It’s what his board approved, right?

4. Is $180K salary for an assistant, as in an administrative assistant, or are we mistakenly referring to his VP of Marketing as an “assistant”. The VP is also high-level and well-regarded talent within that industry. However, that VP is also a long-term friend of Walker’s. Are we talking cronyism, or are we getting what we’re actually paying for? Also, re-use the same questions from #3.

5. What do the MTCVBs results (the numbers) look like? How are things measured: Responses volumes to ads distributed? Phone calls? Online statistics? How are these correlated with actual visits/tourism dollars spent here? How does that compare with what other cities are doing?

6. (Maybe this is more like #5b, but I do like a good list of 10) How closely do Tucson’s tourism statistics (airline passengers, hotel nights stayed, big events attracted) correlate with the MTCVB’s stated efforts/numbers? x4mr will, of course, warn us that correlation is not necessarily causation or any other sort of direct effect. Perhaps we should get him and his big stats brain to skip a weird movie (Human Centipede, really?) and give us the low-down here.

7. The MTCVB is a membership organization. Its membership is largely made up of businesses that (supposedly) benefit from its efforts. How do THEY feel? If its impact directly helps/hinders them, why do they keep paying dues and buying ads on the web site and in the MTCVB’s magazine? Know anyone who is a lowly member? What will he/she tell you if you buy them a drink/cigar and speak in hushed tones?

8. Speaking of the magazine, my understanding is that it is advertiser, not tax-payer supported. Is it supporting itself? How do the advertisers feel about its value? Do they find visitors walking in with it or coupons from it? Considering so much is now online, is the magazine still a relevant part of the MTCVB’s marketing efforts? How many people is it delivered to?

9. How overlapping are the leadership/boards (and look historically, too) of the MTCVB and the other certified-cloth organizations? While you’re sorting that out, how do you determine which individuals are “cloth” and which are true leaders/well-intentioned who have to operate in the same circles to get things done? This is politics, after all. Messy, messy.

10. How do the MTCVB’s budget, staff size, and activities stack up within their industry? When presented with what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, what do other CVB-type organizations react? They were (at least once) regarded as a shining star amongst this crowd. Still the case?

Cliché for my bottom line here: Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Let’s not just label everyone “cloth” just because they’re in overlapping circles. There are good people out there, too. People who are working to lead Tucson to better places. Ask better questions. Then, if things come up fishy, get out the torches and ropes. We are, after all, marketed as a true “western” town: cowboys, cactus, and the dusty boots of a sheriff’s posse. Tourists would probably love an old-style hangin'.


Awesome, Travis. Your comments are most welcome and appreciated.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Null to Void

Arizona Star reporter Rob O’Dell has been busy lately, and today he published an online piece informing us that the Hotel Arizona in downtown Tucson is likely to close after the gem show if it doesn’t receive a “taxpayer-funded improvement package.”

Readers here can no doubt imagine the love expressed for hotel owner Humberto Lopez in the reader comments submitted after the piece. The bombshell in the article is near the bottom, where we learn that the hotel currently projects 6% occupancy for the month of December.

The hotel closed the restaurant and gift shop, laying off staff by the dozens. The gem show is in February.

Six percent.

What were the occupancy projections in the HVS forecast for the $230M Garfield Traub project?

Oh, but wait, this is winter when the weather is great everywhere else (a refreshing 17 degrees at my place this morning) and people don’t visit the SW desert. Occupancy rates will dramatically rise in the summer when people flock into town for the 115 degrees. Oh. Uh.

Oh, but wait, the issue is really the hotel itself. Other hotels in the area are doing just fine. Starr Pass and the La Poloma and the Doubletree are raking it in. Oh. Uh.

Oh, but wait, I have an idea. Let’s spend upwards of $10M per year on a visitor and tourism agency to generate huge numbers of tourists, visitors, and conventions that will pack our hotels and save the day. That’s money well spent and win/win for everyone. Oh. Uh.

Oh, but wait, we're not thinking big enough. Let's pass tax increment financing to produce a juicy TIF district that can generate hundreds of millions of dollars to REALLY improve the downtown area, just like San Diego, Albuquerque and other awesome towns. Oh, uh...

UPDATE: From the expanded 12/9 article: Nearly 70 of the hotel's approximately 200 rooms are out of service.

"We had seven rooms sold last night," Lavigne said.


So, if no one is coming now, what improvement changes this and why?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Cloth Featured on Television


Cloth Aficionado Jonathon Walker got to appear in the above television spot that specifically showed the 2008 tax return featuring the $3.2 M annual Ka-Ching! of the MTCVB salary and benefits slice of the Cloth kitty. $400,000 of that sweet fountain goes to two people, and the television piece shows which two.

Over 400 grand to two guys, and they do what?

Pay $2.8 M to another set of folks, and these folks do what?

Pay another $5 M to consultants, and these consultants do what?

1. Make pretty pamphlets
2. Make pretty web pages
3. Call local businesses

Call local businesses to do what? Ask for money. In exchange for what?

Advertising in the pretty pamphlets and web pages. And who actually reads the pretty advertisements?

The businesses that bought them!

CLOTH.

Walker makes $230,000 a year with an assistant who makes $180,000. Think about that. Seriously.

Those interested can probably find a video of Walker performing ClothTalk before the Tucson city council this week. Expect to hear tourism numbers without supporting data and the false implication that said numbers are the result of a pretty web page. Hits to said page will not be disaggregated by viewer locale for fear of revealing most came from inside Tucson.

Meanwhile, the Rio Nuevo saga continues.

Up Next: The TREO Cubicle Farm - making millions taking credit for your business results since 2004!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Four Corners

I had the pleasure of eating lunch and touring landmark historical buildings with a Modern Languages professor and three Fulbright scholars, one from Libya, one from China, and one from Tanzania.

Alcoholic beverages are prohibited outright in Libya, although available via black market if you know someone who knows someone. No one drinks out in the open. Entirely Muslim, there is no Christmas in Libya, and the Muslim holidays are few. Libya's political holidays have remarkably simple names, “Evacuation Day,” “British Evacuation Day,” “Italian Evacuation Day,” “National Day,” and then there's Quadafi's unique Jamahiriya Day, referring to the “people/Democracy” part of its two part government. English is considered the second language in Libya, and in their public schools, all children begin learning English in the third grade. About half of the country can speak and read English.

The globally ubiquitous photograph of the young Chinese student standing boldly in front of a column of tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising isn't so visible in China. I asked the Chinese student if she had heard of someone standing before tanks and stopping them. She had no idea what I was talking about, and she's a Fulbright scholar. The coffee shop had wireless, so I got my laptop and image googled “China tank man”. The screen was instantly filled with dozens of photos. We then found ample material online all about the incident, which she devoured.



I asked the woman from Tanzania about growing up in her town and if she had greater connections with other people than what she is experiencing since she has been in the states. My question was based on concepts so eloquently captured in God Grew Tired of Us. Her face lit up, and it was clear she knew exactly what I was pointing towards. She relayed, “When I was growing up, I knew everyone in all of the families around me, the parents, grandparents, children, babies, and I really knew them, all of them. Everyone knew everyone and everyone saw everyone and often.”

I asked her if being in the USA resulted in periods of loneliness and isolation compared to what she was used to, and with complete candor she acknowledged without hesitation, “Yes, I get very lonely here.”

I find myself before questions I have yet to formulate, except to say that the semantics and definitions of certain words are shifting. Do the Sarah Palin devotees that cheer as she talks about freedom occur to you as free? What values indeed have value?

Those Africans may not have a nickel or know if they will get to eat tomorrow, but they have an experience of community the likes of which most Americans cannot even imagine. Is a house owned really superior to a house shared? Ayn Rand asserted that a house shared is a house destroyed, yet we share roads and parks and libraries. Conservatives may assert, “A house is shared by family.” Yeah, but thinking of Africa, what if we were all family?

Imagine if we operated like that.


SOMETHING ELSE