Pollin Asks D.C. to Pay for Verizon Center Renovations

By Nikita Stewart and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 27, 2007

The owner of the Washington Wizards has asked the District for $50 million to renovate Verizon Center, and city officials are discussing whether to honor the request and pay for it with a tax increase on tickets, officials said yesterday.

Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who built the $220 million sports arena with his own money in Chinatown nearly a decade ago, wants the extra money to upgrade all or some of its 110 luxury suites and replace its outdated scoreboard, District officials said. Those and other improvements would be designed to attract special events, such as championship basketball and hockey games.

Pollin's company argues that the city should give the arena a financial boost as a reward for its role as a catalyst of the downtown renaissance, city officials said. The 20,674-seat Verizon Center has served as the anchor of the Chinatown area's revival, a transformation into a bustling hub for restaurants and night life.

Even without arena improvements, Billboard magazine ranked Verizon Center ninth worldwide in 2005 among all venues, according to information on the arena's Web site. Verizon Center has drawn 2.5 million fans to more than 220 events, including Wizards, Capitals and Mystics games, yearly.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) hasn't taken a stand on Pollin's request. The city went through a prolonged and bitter debate over spending at least $611 million of public funds for a new baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals in Southeast, a project that Fenty opposed.

The request for funding came as the Wizards were in first place in the NBA's Eastern Conference, and star guard Gilbert Arenas was voted Thursday onto the all-star team as a starter. The Washington franchise has not been in first place this late in a season since 1978-79, when the team, then called the Bullets, won the Atlantic Division by seven games over Philadelphia.

Pollin's sports company, Washington Sports & Entertainment LP, has struggled to pay the arena mortgage and was forced to sell the Washington Capitals, the NHL team, to America Online executive Ted Leonsis in 1999.

"Abe Pollin feels that he helped the city through tough times. I don't think anyone would deny that," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). "But I think there has to be a strong case for what the District taxpayers are going to get out of this."

On Thursday, Pollin met with Fenty (D), Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi and council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who heads the council finance committee. Evans, aides to Fenty and Matt Williams, a spokesman for Washington Sports, all called the discussions "preliminary."

"We've had one discussion about this with the city, and that's as far as it's gone. At this point, we are bouncing ideas off each other," Williams said. One of the scenarios discussed for funding the $50 million payment would be to increase the tax on tickets to games and other events at the arena from 5.75 percent to 10 percent -- the amount of tax on Washington Nationals tickets, officials said.

Washington Sports said the upgrades to the arena are necessary.

"We need to remain state of the art to continue to attract great events," Williams said.

The arena is hosting the WNBA All-Star Game in July and the first and second rounds of the NCAA Men's Tournament in 2008. The NCAA Final Four Hockey Championship, also known as the Frozen Four, will be held there in 2009.

The company plans to more than quadruple the price of luxury suites, which have been leased for $100,000 annually since the arena opened in 1997. The new price will be $450,000 annually for 10 years. Leaseholders include The Washington Post, Clark Construction, Bank of America and Pepco.

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company