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  Pollin's Arena Proves a Winner With Fans

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 03, 1997; Page A21

Abe Pollin had declared that "I've got everything I've ever done in my life on the line" with his new MCI Center.

Yesterday, he got a life-affirming vote from the fans.

They poured into the new arena with oohs and ahs last night, fairly tripping in praise for the new building.

"It's bea-u-ti-ful," gushed Tammi Pechner, 29, perched in her seat near courtside with a pizza balanced on her lap. "It's much better than the Jack Kent Cooke [Stadium]. It's got more atmosphere. It's prettier. And it's got better food."

Greg Dayman and Debora Evans got to the arena early and strolled around outside before the Wizards game. They liked what they saw.

"We said to each other, 'Why haven't we come down here before?' " said Dayman, 43, a graphic design director from Odenton.

Mayor Marion Barry, spotted on the club concourse dining on roast turkey, would not say if he had a spot in a skybox, but he did say that he had a half-dozen offers from skybox holders to watch the game. "Tonight I'm moving around."

"It's a great evening for a lot of reasons," Barry said. "It's a partnership that worked. Abe said he wanted to build an arena but he wanted me to keep him from being bogged down in red tape. I did that."

The mayor added that the arena will result in $10 million in taxes and other revenue to the city, that about 900 jobs, or 85 percent of the arena jobs, have gone to D.C. residents and that there are at least three minority-owned businesses in the arena. "This is good news for everybody.

Fans settled into their seats with the air of schoolchildren testing the chairs of their new classroom at the start of the year. Then they popped up to cruise the concourse, check out the food and peek into the luxury boxes before turning their attention back to the game.

"It's kinda overwhelming," said Gregory Dent, 41, a salesman from Columbia.

"It's a bit like a new elementary school, with such bright colors," said Matt Axeen, 26, of Germantown. "The old Cap Centre [now US Airways Arena] felt like you were in a cave. This is much better."

Patrons were greeted with a sweep of blue seats rising from the glassy wood court. The court smelled like new wood, and the arena had the whiff of new construction, not stale Coke and spilled popcorn butter.

Fans snuggled into seats made for camaraderie: The chairs are hip-huggingly snug and long knees have to be fitted into the corners of the curved chair in front. But each seat has a cup holder in front of it, a nice touch.

The big television screen overhead is huge and bright, better than a big-screened TV in a living room. It makes up for the squintingly small figures on the scoreboard.

"It's very futuristic. Very Washington. This place just blows away other arenas," said Andrew Krug, 17, from Fairfax. "I think this place will be really good for the city."

Fans had to file through metal detectors to get into the building, a touch necessitated by the attendance of President Clinton. But the detectors seemed forgiving — few people were stopped — and security guards searched quickly through handbags and purses. Most fans took it as a requirement of the times.

"It's no problem. We just had to take off our cell phones and beepers," joked Tony Shands, 33, a computer programmer from Largo. "But everybody was very kind. Very polite. There's a sense of excitement in the air."

Secret Service bomb-sniffing dogs stood by the entrance of the arena, but even they appeared pleased to be there and did more tail-wagging than growling.

Fans had been warned to get to the game early and many did. Those who used Metro said it was quick and easy.

Axeen and friend Mark Fegani, 27, said they drove in and paid $10 to park after cruising a long time for a parking space. "I'll never do that again," Axeen said. "The Metro's too convenient."

The two got in the arena early enough to park themselves at the bar of the Velocity Grill. Fegani liked the motif: basketball-hide upholstery on the bar stools, shattered-glass floor tiles reminiscent of a broken backboard, hockey pucks in the decor.

But fans got no break on the cost of food. A beer in the concourse was $4.50 to $6; hot dogs cost $3.75 to $4.75 In addition to the usual fan fare, there was yuppie food: cafe latte ($3.75), fruit tarts ($3.75), Italian pastry ($5.25), sweet-and-sour chicken ($8.50), Santa Fe chicken salad ($6).

And if anyone needed cash, there were several automated teller machines.

"This is just such an impressive building, you can't help but like it," Dayman said. "It's taken sports into the entertainment venue — the architectural elements, the graphics, the attention to detail. This will bring a lot of energy to the neighborhood."

"We have been with the Washington Bullets since they opened at Cole Field House [at the University of Maryland] in 1972," said Steve Dwornik, 71, who along with his wife, Kathy, 70, have been season ticket holders for more than two decades.

The Dworniks, from Springfield, were put in a festive mood long before the tip-off. "We got down here in 27 minutes," Kathy said. "It was like zoom, and we were right here."

But what excited Steve Dwornik was what he had to eat. "We are Polish, and the Polish sausages here are wonderful."

Konrad Dawson, a plastic surgeon, said he paid $16,500 for his seats on Row 2 behind the broadcast booth. Deidre McGee said Dawson didn't mind coughing up the cash because "his fiancee likes to be up close and personal."

But Dawson said he did it for more serious reasons. "I support the Wizards. I support Abe Pollin, and I support the city of Washington," Dawson said. "I think this part of the new renaissance of Washington, D.C. This will energize Washington."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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