District to Lease Skybox for Barry at MCI Center
By Yolanda Woodlee
Mayor Marion Barry has entered into a $625,000 five-year lease for 12 luxury box seats at the new MCI Center arena with the approval of the D.C. financial control board, which warned him against using the seats as a "perk" for city officials and their friends.
On the same day that Congress agreed on a scaled-back $4.2 billion budget for the District, control board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer confirmed that he had approved the mayor's request to spend city revenues for the seats at the arena home to the Washington Wizards and Capitals that will open early next month.
The luxury suite 19 rows from the court offers 12 theater-style seats with two remote-control televisions, a telephone, a refrigerator, an ice machine, a private restroom and individually controlled heat and air conditioning. The arena floor also is visible from four bar stools set behind a counter that separates the seats from the private lounge area in the box.
A quartet of comfortable arm chairs, upholstered to suit the box owner's taste, surround a coffee table in the mirror-walled lounge. Catering is available, and those who view an event from the box may use the exclusive Capital Club restaurant and cigar bar, which occupies one end of the building and overlooks the arena floor.
Brimmer justified the contract on the grounds that the mayor can use the glitzy new arena to showcase the city and attract businesses.
He dashed off a two-page letter to Barry (D) outlining the use of the suite after The Washington Post inquired about the conditions of the lease.
"I am writing to spell out the reasons for and the conditions under which I approved your request for the District of Columbia Sports Commission to sign a lease with the MCI Center for a skybox," Brimmer wrote.
Brimmer criticized the mayor for not having negotiated the agreement for the suite before the city spent $70 million for land acquisition, subway station improvements, building demolition and utility line relocations at the site between Sixth and Seventh streets NW, north of F Street.
"At a time when the District of Columbia urgently needs every possible tool at its disposal for promoting economic development, job creation and business investment in our city, committing $125,0000 [per year] to obtain a discounted long-term lease on a box at the MCI Center is a justifiable public investment," Brimmer said. The suite is valued at $175,000 per year.
Brimmer wrote that it is "quite common" for city and state governments to own or lease boxes for elected officials to use for business entertainment purposes.
For example, mayors of several other cities, including Baltimore and Philadelphia, have rent-free suites at stadiums or arenas. In most cases, the facilities were built with a hefty helping of government funds. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, however, does pay for his tickets when he attends games at one of that city's major arenas or stadiums.
Prince George's County and the State of Maryland both have free skyboxes, worth more than $100,000 annually, at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.
But Abe Pollin, owner of the Wizards, Capitals and the MCI arena, made no such offer to Barry. After the city expenditures paved the way, Pollin received private financing to construct the $138 million, 20,000-seat complex.
Barry is under investigation by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance for accepting a complimentary ticket from Pollin while he was negotiating with him over the development of the MCI Center.
Terrance J. Lynch, the executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, filed the complaint that led to the investigation.
"Just because they're politicians doesn't mean they should be getting a luxury box, front-row seats or choice events tickets," he said. "They should have to pay like anyone else. There's a real concern that the reason the sports venues cost taxpayers so much is because the politicians are getting all the freebies. It's just not right."
The money to pay for the luxury suite will come from the $6 million budget of the D.C. Sports Commission, which is chaired and appointed by Barry. The commission raises revenue through its operation of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and the D.C. Armory. That revenue does not go into the city's general fund.
Brimmer said he will enforce strict controls over use of the seats, including a requirement that a detailed log be kept of who uses the suite. He asked for the commission's guidelines for determining how the suite will be used. The commission will issue a report to the control board twice a year, he said.
He also gave the commission 30 days to submit a five-year business plan showing how much money, including tax revenue, the commission expects to generate from the rentals of the Armory and RFK Stadium.
The 11-member Sports Commission will determine who gets to attend events, according to James A. Dalrymple, executive director of the commission. The commission's other board members include Chief Financial Officer Anthony A. Williams and director of recreation Betty Jo Gaines.
Dalrymple said the commission requested money for a suite because when it is trying to entice people to come to the District for events, "it would be nice to use the MCI arena." He acknowledged the control board skepticism that it would be used by the mayor to entertain his friends. Dalrymple said he is drafting a resolution in an effort to eliminate those concerns.
John W. Hill Jr., control board executive director, said the board members would not use the suite.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company