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  D.C. Gets 30-Day Shot at Completing Arena Deal

By Thomas Heath and Mark Asher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 21, 1994; Page A01

Sports entrepreneur Abe Pollin yesterday signed a "memorandum of understanding" that locks him into exclusive negotiations with District business leaders for the next month, giving the business community a window in which to nail down government backing for a $150 million sports arena at Gallery Place.

The private signing took place at USAir Arena and was attended by Pollin, Federal City Council President Ann Dore McLaughlin and D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Robert L. Bowles Jr., said Kwasi Holman, the D.C. chamber's executive vice president.

"It is my personal feeling that the proposed location at Gallery Place offers the best location," Pollin said in a written statement that broke a self-imposed silence on the subject.

Pollin made it clear that the proposal now rests directly in the lap of the District government, which has until the end of the D.C. Council's session in mid-July to give the owner of the basketball Bullets and hockey Capitals a thumbs up or down.

"At this point in time, the vision of a shining new arena at Gallery Place is just that — a vision," Pollin said. "The elected officials of this great city must make the decision."

Maryland officials yesterday said they are going ahead with their proposals to keep the teams in that state, possibly next to USAir Arena, their current home in Landover.

"As we discovered when Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke signed such a memo with Gov. Doug Wilder in Virginia and Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, such a memo does not a contract make," Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening said yesterday in a written statement.

Jerry Sachs, a spokesman for Pollin, said the team owner is not using the D.C. negotiations as leverage for a better deal in Maryland. "If that's what {anyone} thinks, they're wrong," Sachs said.

The agreement with Pollin launches business and political leaders on a weeks-long journey through various District and federal agencies, including the Redevelopment Land Agency, National Capital Planning Commission and D.C. Council.

The council must agree to two crucial elements for the new arena.

First, the city must agree to hand over building rights to a vacant parcel atop the Gallery Place Metro station, where the arena would be built. And second, political leaders must agree on a way to pay approximately $9 million in annual debt service for at least 20 years.

Some city government leaders are considering raising the money through a fee modeled on the public safety fee that was levied on businesses and nonprofit institutions this year to cover a $25 million gap in the city's budget. The public safety fee expires at the end of the fiscal year.

"We'll rename it a sports arena tax so that everyone knows exactly what they're paying for," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "I don't see anything throwing us off track at this point."

Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said she is enthusiastic about the project, but added there are several hard questions that must be asked before the council gives its approval.

"We are going to have to make decisions on a number of issues: dedicated taxes, property tax relief, use of the Gallery Place site, acquiring other properties," Jarvis said. "My concern at the moment is the threshold requirements that the city must accomplish during this very short review period."

D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D) said yesterday, "I'm very strongly in favor of the arena and want to do what I can to facilitate it." Clarke said the council will do "all we can" before its July 16 recess and may postpone the recess, if necessary.

Kelly applauded the agreement as an expression of "tremendous confidence in the District of Columbia government and in our business community" and said she would work closely with the council and others to complete the project.

The proposal calls for a fall 1997 opening, but many aspects of the proposed 23,000-seat building are still in flux, including much of the interior and exterior design.

Several hurdles exist in addition to the city tax and transfer of property, including approvals from the National Capital Planning Commission, the Fine Arts Commission and, possibly, the D.C. Zoning Commission.

George H.F. Oberlander, director of technical planning for the NCPC, said the new arena would require changes in the downtown urban renewal plan, which would need the approval of his 12-member commission and the D.C. Council.

And if the city wants to relocate G Street to accommodate the proposed project, as planners have suggested, "that raises historic preservation questions," Oberlander said.

Officials at Georgetown and George Washington universities, which compete in high-powered college basketball conferences, greeted yesterday's signing with optimism and enthusiasm.

Frank Rienzo, Georgetown's athletic director, said the Hoyas would play all regular season home games at the new facility and would expect attendance to increase substantially because of the accessibility of the downtown location.

Georgetown now averages about 10,000 spectators for each home game.

"That's what L'Enfant had in mind when he planned the city," Rienzo said. "This is a hub. It's accessible to more segments of the community. It should increase not only Georgetown fans but casual basketball fans also. And that goes for any event there."

Bob Chernak, the GW vice president who oversees athletics, said his school probably would schedule three to five games annually at the arena.

A larger arena also raised the possibility that Washington could contend for future Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments. They currently are being played in the North Carolina cities of Charlotte and Greensboro, whose arenas seat more than 23,000.

Staff writer Nell Henderson contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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