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  Pollin Says He'll Pay for Sports Complex District, Awaits Economic Boost, Upgraded Image

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 1994; Page A01

For Chinatown restaurateurs, it offers hordes of diners; for District officials, the promise of additional tax dollars; for Mayor-elect Marion Barry, a chance to start his new administration with more than just depressing news about budget cuts.

And for the Washington Bullets, a state-of-the-art arena just might spur the team on to improve its game, according to the team's new star, Chris Webber.

Yesterday's announcement by sports entrepreneur Abe Pollin that he will use private money to build a major sports complex in downtown Washington caused excitement across the area. Hurdles remain — Pollin needs to raise the money, a lease needs to be negotiated — and some people voiced concerns about street access to the Chinatown location and the availability of parking.

But those details seemed lost in the genuine euphoria caused by Pollin's announcement. Business leaders hailed the proposed complex as a catalyst for the revitalization of a beleaguered city, while Washington Bullets and Capitals fans said it was time for their teams to come home from USAir Arena in suburban Maryland.

"I hear that all my friends are leaving the city," said Jack Mahoney, board member of the nonprofit National Capital Development Corp., which helped devise the plan to bring an arena to the city, and a resident of Southeast Washington. "But I will stay, and this is a big part of it. This shows we are making a comeback."

"We're telling everybody that the lights are still on here. And I think it will change a lot of attitudes toward what the city is about," Mahoney said.

The 23,000-seat arena, to be built on the 600 block of G Street NW in time for the 1997-98 professional basketball and hockey seasons, could bring the city $8.7 million in tax dollars in the first year of operation, according to a study conducted for the NCDC, which was created to bring an arena to Washington and has been working with Pollin.

The study also projects $117 million in net new spending during the first year of operation by visitors to the arena, although city officials said those numbers could turn out to be less. And with plans for elevators to take Metro riders from the subway directly into the complex, the area's public transportation can expect tens of thousands more riders every week, officials said.

That means a significant, immediate economic boost to the area, government and NCDC officials said. The proposed arena also is expected to bring more jobs to the city, with Pollin promising that he will give District residents first crack at construction work as well as positions that will open when the complex begins operating.

Barry, Pollin and others said the arena also will provide a psychological boost to the nation's capital that is just as important as any tangible financial benefits.

"I have faith in the future of this city, and I am prepared to take the risk and get this done," Pollin said.

Tuck Nason, chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said, "Abe Pollin has delivered the core of the region a vote of confidence the size of the nation's capital."

For Barry, who has been negotiating with Pollin over how to finance a complex even before his Jan. 2 inauguration, the news that the city would not have to pay for construction was a significant victory, coming after weeks of headlines about the District's drastic budget cuts.

"It's a great first step for the Barry administration," said D.C. Council member Bill Lightfoot (I-At Large), who briefly considered running against Barry in November's election. "He is off on the right track.

"I think for him personally this has to be a big boost too," Lightfoot said. "Every mayor wants to build visible projects during their administration, and now Marion knows he is going to have a centerpiece in the arena."

D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who heads the council's Economic Development Committee, said, "Barry's actions reaffirm that he is a good deal-maker who has the interests of the District's finances at heart."

The news conference called to announce the arena provided Barry a moment to shine, especially when Pollin heaped praise on him.

"When he makes a commitment, he keeps his word," Pollin said. And then, provoking great applause among Barry supporters as well as a broad smile on Barry's face, the sports entrepreneur said, "He can get things done."

Barry said he was "elated."

"I'm gratified. It's a good way to start my new administration, to hit a home run for the city," he said. "Now we have some hurdles, but the private financing takes off a lot of pressure."

Business owners in the area where the arena is to be built were delighted with the news, even if it means that some may have to relocate. "I do think it will bring a little prestige back downtown," said Gary Allentuck, co-owner of Allen Picture Frame Co., on Seventh Street NW between G and H streets, directly across from the arena site. "Maybe it will spur more positive development here. And maybe it will bring more people downtown to live."

Duane Wang, chairman of the Chinatown Steering Committee, said he and other business owners in the area are excited about the arena, but they are worried about parking, fearing their customers will be crowded out by arena visitors. "I think that we can work with Mr. Barry and try to smooth this out," he said.

Dorn McGrath, director of the Institute for Urban Development Research at George Washington University, said he supported a downtown arena but also was concerned about parking at the proposed site as well as about street access.

"The idea of getting people from the suburbs to reacquaint themselves with the city and the good things downtown is a very positive idea. I just hope we don't build this on too small a scale or too small a site or with bad access, or it may prove to be an embarrassment."

Sports fans in the area said they would be delighted to use Metro to see teams in action, including the Georgetown University Hoyas and George Washington University Colonials basketball teams, who have said they also would play in the arena.

"I think it is great," said David Helms, who lives and works in Alexandria but was dining at Grand Slam, a sports bar in the Grand Hyatt Hotel on H Street NW. "I would hop on the Metro in a heartbeat."

Said Drum Walkins, 24, a D.C. resident who was walking near the arena site yesterday wearing a black Bullets cap: "I don't see why they are in Maryland anyway. If you call them the Washington Bullets, they ought to be here. And now they will be."

As for Webber, a new sports arena is exciting. "It does really matter to players," he said. "Usually the best teams play in the best arenas. ... It might help us play. I don't know for sure if it makes you play better, but it definitely helps our attitude."

Staff writer Mark Asher contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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