UpClose with Jerry Colangelo: Sports mogul aiming to turn Arizona economy into a winner

Evan Wyloge//February 11, 2011

UpClose with Jerry Colangelo: Sports mogul aiming to turn Arizona economy into a winner

Evan Wyloge//February 11, 2011

Jerry Colangelo (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)
Jerry Colangelo (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

To most Arizonans, Jerry Colangelo is the man who brought professional basketball and baseball to Arizona.

But in the years since he parted ways with the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, Colangelo has set his sights higher. As chairman of USA Basketball, he helped put the United States back on top of the international basketball pecking order, and he’s looking to keep it there.

But Colangelo’s next big endeavor has nothing to do with sports. Along with Gov. Jan Brewer, he is co-chairing the Arizona Commerce Authority, the governor’s proposed quasi-privatized economic development agency.

Colangelo, one of the state’s most successful businessmen, wants to rebuild Arizona’s economy, and he’s hoping to find the same success he had in bringing a World Series title to the Valley and putting the basketball gold medal back in American hands. Colangelo, sporting his USA Basketball championship ring, sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to discuss his hopes for Arizona’s economy, his plans for the Commerce Authority and his future in sports.

You’re co-chairman of the Arizona Commerce Authority. How effective has that public-private model been for other states?

There are a number of states that have addressed commerce, but there are some states that have done things much better than others — Florida, by way of example, and Texas. What we’ve done, what the Commerce Department did for us before we moved forward, was to look at best practices in those states. And by way of example, those states that are doing extremely well right now in the West are Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. They’ve been very aggressive. They’ve been doing a great job of working commerce.

What we are doing, the result is a compilation of best practices from those states. Some states have a different form from others. And what we’re hoping to do is privatization.

If we’re able to do that, in effect, there will be considerably fewer people working at Commerce, if you will, the number of jobs within the department. It becomes privatized. It’s the business community and leaders who are out there making business decisions, along with the support of the Legislature when we need the Legislature.

Let’s put it this way — what we have,  the Department of Commerce, is broken and doesn’t work, and it’s been  ineffective. And that led to the governor calling me about a year and a half ago to talk about that. And she talked about wanting to fix it. She wanted my input, and she wanted my help. So that started the whole process.

There’s no guarantees of anything going forward, except this: What we have doesn’t work. You have people right now, and some momentum, people who are willing to spend the time and the energy to try to make a difference and try to improve things.

There was a time in our history when the blue skies and the sun and quality of life were enough to bring people here. That’s not the case anymore. People are going where there’s jobs.

We became a service community. … We need white-collar jobs. We need high-paying jobs.

You have a lot of plans for development in the West Valley. How necessary to those plans is the type of economic development that the Commerce Authority is supposed to generate?

I think what we’re talking about could be anywhere in the state. We’re talking about a state effort of economic development that we want to bring to Arizona.

Where they land in the state — be it Phoenix, be it Tucson — it doesn’t really matter. They’ll decide where they want to be.

There’s a whole myriad of reasons when companies look at their checklist, where would they rather be. It’s education, it’s transportation, quality-of-life issues, sports teams. Whatever it may be, there’s a whole bunch of things they will look at to determine where they would like to build a plant or build a complex.

We’re looking for companies of all sizes. We’re not just concentrating on the big ones. Small business, rural business — all those things add up. One hundred small businesses is the equivalent of 10 big ones, maybe, or medium-sized businesses.

But one of the early criticisms of the ACA is that its board comprises big business representatives, with little representation for small businesses.

That’s not really fair and it’s not true. … We’re talking about retention — retention being a big part of the Commerce Authority. Don’t think that some of the companies here are not being wooed to go somewhere else. So that’s a big part of it also.

We think small business is huge, and we have a lot of plans to try and develop and encourage small business. So that’s an unfair criticism.

The Commerce Authority plans are pretty ambitious, but it sounds as if that’s not the only piece of the economic puzzle. What else needs to be done to revitalize Arizona’s economy?

What I’ve said to some is, it’s one thing to privatize. But you can’t send the people out there to try to get the job done unarmed. You’ve got to be armed with some tools, with some bullets, with some incentives, with some opportunities to encourage companies to come.

The real question is: What will we end up with in the way of a toolbox to go out and compete? That is important. It’s not just the privatization. It’s also funding that’s required to go out and compete.

You’ve said you want more controlled, structured growth in Arizona, as opposed to the unregulated sprawl we’ve seen in the past. How do we accomplish that?

That’s not my area of expertise. I’m basically saying we had uncontrolled sprawl previously. And that worked for a while. But our economy, our local economy, was driven by the construction and growth of our marketplace. And when things slowed down, our economy dipped. And we’ve also been a service community, a lot of low-paying jobs. So you’ve got to change the mix. That’s what I’m saying.

In terms of attractiveness, outside of the sunshine, you want to raise the bar in a lot of these various areas. One of the ways is, we’ve got to work on our education. That’s big. And it’s a real issue when you consider, where are we going to be cutting budgets? It’s education. Just that in itself says we’ve got to do something differently.

We need to create more business so we can fund education, so we can raise the boat, so we can do all the things that are appropriate that are appealing to people to come in. You have a good education system, along with the sunshine; you have a great quality of life, you have an affordable (state). It’s a place where you’re not going to be taxed to death, and they feel safe and secure.

This is part of a whole package. All I’m concentrating on is revenue and growth. If we can create new jobs, bring new businesses here, raise the boat, it’s going to help fund all these other issues that need to be funded. And let other people with the experience and the expertise do that.

You’re a big advocate for the creation of Interstate 11, which would run from Phoenix to Las Vegas. What needs to happen for that to become a reality, and what’s a reasonable timeframe for that to happen?

I’m not sure. You need the state of Arizona and you need the state of Nevada to both work collaboratively to make something like that happen. And there’s a lot of things going on right now. There are a lot of people meeting, talking, discussing, trying to get political support for this. But it takes a while. It’s in the works.

Most Arizonans think of you as the sports guy. Do you miss being involved with the Suns and Diamondbacks?

No. I’m still involved in sports by being chairman of USA Basketball. To me, this is representing your country. It goes beyond a city. It goes beyond a state.

I’m proud of the fact that since I took over, we’ve kind of flip-flopped, changed the culture. And we are the defending gold medalists in every age category, both men and women, in the world.

When I took over, it wasn’t that way. It was pretty evident that people didn’t even care about playing for their country. So I set out to change the culture. And you do that by first showing respect for the rest of the basketball world community, because they’ve come a long way. They’ve kind of caught up in many ways.

I wasn’t very happy about the state of USA basketball. So when I was asked (to be chairman), I said, “I’ll take over, but I need full autonomy. I’ll make the decisions. I’ll pick the players. I’ll pick the coaches.”

It’s not just about winning. It’s about how we conduct ourselves. It’s about how we represent the country, how we are looked upon as Americans around the world.

And quite honestly, at that time we were too arrogant. We were too hip-hop. There were a lot of things that turned people off around the globe, and that was going to change if I had anything to do with it. So if they wanted to be part of that program, that’s what they had to do. And one by one, they all said, “I’m in.”

USA Basketball was in terrible shape. I made decisions on what needed to be done, and went ahead and did them.

The Department of Commerce has been a disaster. I was asked to co-chair it with the governor. Well, if that’s going to be the case, then we’re going to make some changes.

Do you plan to stay involved in sports after your commitment to USA Basketball ends in 2016?

I don’t know. A lot of things depend on how you feel, your health. Right now, I feel great. I’m in terrific shape. I work out every day. I try to stay ahead of the game. And if I feel good, I’m going to keep going, because I concluded the following: There will come a time when I can’t. So why push it? I’ll know when it’s time to step aside.

For 2016, Chicago was contending to host the Olympics. Tokyo, Madrid and Rio were the other three finalists. I was on the Chicago committee, because that’s my home originally.

I had a plan in my mind, that Chicago, if they were to win (the 2016 Olympics), that I would continue through 2016 with USA Basketball. A full circle. Finish in 2016 in Chicago, hopefully win another gold medal — three gold medals — and then kind of walk off into Lake Michigan.


In all your years with the Suns and Diamondbacks, what was your favorite moment?

In terms of Arizona sports, it has to be winning the World Series.

We had a five-year plan. We were going to do it slowly, build and grow through the draft. We had 36,000 season tickets the first year and we lost 25 percent of them after year one. It was kind of a wake-up call. I called the ownership together and said, “Time out, we’re going to have to change our game plan.”

I said, “In order to be credible, we’re going to have to establish a fan base now. Let’s go out and try to win, to protect the investment.” The results were three divisional titles and a World Series championship.

The other great moment was winning the gold medal in Beijing.

What’s the last book you read?

I’m reading one right now … on the life of Jesus.

Who’s your favorite historical figure?

Probably Abe Lincoln. He had some good stuff. Probably because he’s from Illinois … Lincoln always had a big impact on me as a young guy, just thinking about him coming out of Illinois and becoming president and being assassinated.

I’ve been in the company of many presidents who I got to know. I knew Reagan, Carter, the Bushes, Clinton. … I’ve met (Obama), but I don’t know him.