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Verizon Center owner proposes erecting digital billboards on arena’s facade

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Sports mogul Ted Leonsis sees signs that his Washington Capitals, Mystics and Wizards could soon become more competitive. That is, if the D.C. Council approves his signs.

Leonsis appeared before a council panel Wednesday to stump for legislation that would allow his Monumental Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Verizon Center, to erect as many as nine animated digital billboards on the arena’s facade. The signs, he said, would mean tax income for the city and valuable revenue for his company.

“Our goal is to be perennial playoff teams and play for championships,” he said. “Frankly, that costs a lot of money.”

But some activists sharply criticized the proposal, saying the legislation under consideration would sidestep regular approval processes and represent an unwarranted giveaway to a powerful corporate player — in addition to the fear that the signs would blight the neighborhood with what one activist called a “visual kudzu” of flashing lights.

Tom Bower, president of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, said the signs would be a “direct affront” to the pair of historic buildings across Seventh Street NW. One, the Old Patent Office, is home to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Tariff Commission Building houses the Hotel Monaco.

Other neighborhood representatives had less strident objections to the bill and praised Monumental for revising its plans since they were first broached late last year.

The proposal would replace several large vinyl signs and a lighted video marquee on Seventh Street NW with an array of smaller electronic signs along Seventh and F streets. Monumental executives said they would be less bright than the current marquee and that some signs would be switched off during overnight hours.

William N. Hall, an attorney for Monumental, said the signs are expected to earn the company $5 million to $9 million a year and generate as much as $8 million in city tax revenue over five years.

Leonsis cited the “substantial financial burden” his company bears from assuming the debt from the construction of the arena, which opened as the MCI Center in 1997.

Many of his competitors, he said, play in government-built facilities, making annual rent payments that are a fraction of Monumental’s $10 million in yearly debt service.

“It puts us at a competitive disadvantage with many other teams in the NHL, the NBA and the WNBA,” he said. “That means we have less money to spend on our teams. Because of that, we work very hard to identify new sources of revenue.”

A mayoral working group is developing recommendations on a citywide policy to regulate billboards and other exterior signs. The Verizon Center legislation, some of the activists said, would short-circuit that process.

City transportation officials said at the hearing that the task force’s work will probably not be concluded until next year. They did not object to the bill but recommended changes to ensure that the signs comply with federal billboard laws and rules already adopted by the task force.

Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), who chairs the Public Services and Consumer Affairs committee, said she intended to move forward with the bill. “I don’t want billboards on the Washington Monument or billboards on the Capitol or billboards on the Willard Hotel — of course not,” she said. “On the sporting arenas, it makes sense.”

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