Arena Renaissance Hasn't Happened
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page A17
A year and a half after MCI Center's opening brought hockey and basketball to downtown Washington, the economic bonanza many expected to stem from Abe Pollin's $200 million sports temple has not materialized, local merchants say.
Fewer fans have hung out around the arena for dinner or drinks after Washington Wizards and Capitals games, and fewer non-sports events have been booked at MCI Center than initially projected.
But as Pollin, owner of MCI Center, the Capitals and the Wizards, moves to sell the Capitals hockey team and bring new investors into the arena and basketball team, even those who count themselves among the disappointed say they remain bullish on MCI Center's role in boosting the eastern end of downtown.
A slew of new building plans are moving forward -- including a hotel, a 22-screen movie theater and retail complex, an apartment building and a performing arts theater -- suggesting that the arena area could still become the entertainment and retail destination that city planners had hoped.
"The MCI Center has built a consensus and confidence on the fate of the east end of downtown," said Linda Lee, owner of Hunan Chinatown restaurant, which operates a full-scale restaurant near MCI Center and a concession stand in the arena. "I had expected business would build up slowly. It is like any business. When you first start out, you have to build it."
There's ample evidence of the difficulty some businesses have had.
Velocity Grill -- an MCI Center sports bar intended to be a showpiece of the arena -- closed this month after failing to pay its rent and city taxes. The business struggled from the start, with the National Basketball Association's lockout this season only worsening its troubles.
Geoffrey Dawson, one of the bar's original owners, said the MCI Center area still has a "certain flatness" that may be a reflection of the teams' performance or the fact that so many residents did not grow up in the area and so are not die-hard fans of the local teams. Team officials say the Wizards averaged 19,500 fans in the 20,000-seat arena in the 1997-98 season, and the Capitals' average attendance that year was 15,800.
"We felt there would be a little more of a nightlife scene and more events that would consistently generate crowds," said Dawson, who is a partner in Bedrock Management Co., which operates Buffalo Billiards in four cities and the Carpool billiards spot in Ballston. "People tended to come and go pretty quickly from the arena."
Joe Englert, an owner of The Rock, a bar near the arena, had similar reviews.
"Other cities -- like Cleveland, San Antonio -- you saw an immediate impact from the opening of new arenas," he said. "Here, it is slower in coming."
Englert said The Rock has survived by figuring out ways to attract customers even when the arena is dark.
The Discovery Channel, which operates a four-story business at the arena that is part store, part science museum, would not discuss its sales since the store opened in March 1998. During events and concerts and the Christmas season, there were lots of customers, but it has not been as crowded at other times. Discovery Enterprises World Wide President Michela English said the company remains "bullish" on the store and the District's downtown.
"It is clearly a developing part of town," she said. "It is a work in process."
Officials from MCI Center declined several requests yesterday for comment. Pollin built the arena with his own money, but the city and other government agencies contributed more than $60 million toward the project to prepare the site, improve access to Metrorail and relocate city employees in the area.
At the time the arena was being proposed, a financial consultant estimated that it would generate $3 million in new city tax revenue and $6 million a year in business to local establishments. No one has done follow-up studies to check out those predictions.
Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said Pollin deserves credit for his decision in the mid-1990s to build MCI Center downtown during a period when the city was in financial trouble.
"The downtown office boom had gone bust, the city was teetering on financial bankruptcy, people and capital were fleeing the city, and Abe Pollin said, 'This is where I want to place my teams and my new arena,' " Lynch said.
Lynch predicted that MCI Center ultimately will live up to its promise.
"It is still building," he said. "The arena was not the end of the neighborhood redevelopment. It was just the start."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company