The Makings of a Museum
Long Influential, Federal City Council Finds Its Mettle Tested on Music Center Project
By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2004; Page E01
For the Federal City Council, a group of influential executives that for five decades has played a major role in shaping the face of Washington, it is an unusual situation.
One of the group's top priorities, the construction of a $222 million national music museum on the old Washington Convention Center site, appears to be losing political support. As recently as this spring, the music museum, which the business group has been pushing for six years, seemed on track to become the District's latest big new public amenity.
"It's always been tough to do these big projects," said Kenneth R. Sparks, the executive vice president of the council for three decades and a driving force behind the music center idea. "If it were easy, there wouldn't be a need for the Federal City Council. What has changed is we've become a more mature city, and we are trying to adapt to that."
Since its founding in 1954, the invitation-only Federal City Council has been a key business voice in a city that for years struggled with limited resources. The Federal City Council worked closely with Mayors Walter E. Washington and Marion Barry, helping strike deals with Congress and D.C. officials to build the Metrorail system and the first Washington Convention Center, and to renovate Union Station. In those early days of home rule, the leaders of the council sometimes carried more clout on Capitol Hill than the District's political leadership.
Now the 240-member group is facing a more sophisticated government, a city with more resources, more competing well-funded groups and a more difficult path.
Some D.C. Council members now say they would prefer to build a big new hotel on the old convention center site, which could preclude the National Music Center. The Williams administration shows signs it is leaning away from the project. The staff of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) f has begun investigating other locations for the music museum, according to a source in the Williams administration.
"The whole site right now is in a state of flux," said D.C. Council Member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents the area that includes the convention center.
The handful of downtown businessmen who started the Federal City Council 50 years ago set out to apply business wealth and know-how to improve the District. They decided to focus on such issues as economic development and the fiscal health of the District. (The late Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham was a key founder of the group. Current Washington Post Chairman Donald E. Graham is on its executive committee, and Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., the current publisher of The Washington Post, is also a member. Neither Graham nor Jones has been heavily involved in the push for a music museum.)
The group has been effective and, at times, controversial, in part because it was largely a group of rich white men wielding influence in a majority black city. In 1975, according to a photo directory of members, the Federal City Council included 137 white men, nine blacks and two women. (The club now has 194 white male members, 31 blacks and 35 women.) Some activists have also complained that Federal City Council's undertakings did not reflect the views of residents in neighborhoods affected by the group's projects. "From my experience, they do not take community input very seriously," said Alexander M. Padro, a neighborhood commissioner for Shaw.
In the mid-1990s, the influence of Federal City Council's members was evident in the District. MCI Center, a project the group had brokered, was about to be built. Planning was underway for the new Washington Convention Center, an effort led by Federal City Council member Terence C. Golden, who was then chairman of the Washington Convention Center Authority and president and chief executive of Host Marriott Corp.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Music legend Quincy Jones greets Nancy Sinatra at a November news conference detailing plans for the proposed National Music Center and Museum. Jones and Sinatra are on the museum's governing board.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta -- AP)
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