Dear Abe: Send the City
A Christmas Gift in a Box
By Rudolph A. Pyatt Jr.
It's curious, then, that economic development was rejected as the rationale for a contract under which the D.C. government would have leased a luxury skybox in the new arena, which was built by Washington sports entrepreneur Abe Pollin.
Andrew F. Brimmer, chairman of the D.C. financial control board, withdrew his approval of the five-year, $625,000 lease two weeks ago in the face of strong opposition by a key senator, Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), and angry District residents.
Brimmer said his approval of the lease was based strictly on "economics." Calling the lease a justifiable investment of public funds, Brimmer contended the city desperately needs every tool at its disposal to promote economic development.
The rationale, of course, is that the mayor and other city officials would use the skybox to entertain visiting dignitaries and business prospects as a way of promoting the District as a place to invest.
Although Brimmer's attempts to secure a skybox for city officials (he subsequently dropped an attempt to raise private funds for that purpose) may have been ill-advised and was plainly clumsy, he is nonetheless correct in pointing out that city and state officials around the country regularly use skyboxes in stadiums and arenas for business entertainment purposes. But control board member Joyce A. Ladner is also correct in questioning whether having a luxury suite in the MCI Center would generate much new business for the District.
Mayor Marion Barry and the D.C. Council should nevertheless have free access to a skybox in the arena. They should have one as a matter of right, equity and fairness. Pollin owes the city that much at least for making it possible for him to build the facility.
The MCI Center is, after all, the product of a partnership between Pollin and the D.C. government. Pollin may not view it as such, having financed construction of the arena itself. But the District's investment in the project is still substantial.
Pollin is financing construction of the $200 million arena, to be sure. But it is built on city-owned land. Moreover, the District's contribution thus far to development of the project is $58.5 million, according to a recent report from the U.S. General Accounting Office. The District's total contribution to the project, including the costs involved in preparing the site, improving access to a Metrorail station and relocating city employees from office buildings to make way for the arena, could run close to $70 million, according to some estimates.
In fact, the $58.5 million figure is higher than original estimates, largely because of soil-cleanup operations that no one anticipated before city officials agreed to assume responsibility for certain pre-development costs. So the availability of a skybox for D.C. officials in the MCI Center should not be an issue. Where would Pollin have built the arena had city officials not caved in to pressure from business leaders and acceded to his wishes? Pollin could have built another arena in Prince George's County, or he could have moved the Washington Wizards and Capitals, his professional basketball and hockey teams, to Baltimore or Northern Virginia, as some business leaders feared. But he desperately wanted an arena in downtown Washington.
District officials went out of their way to accommodate Pollin. But according to a recent article in The Washington Post, a spokesman for Pollin said the owner felt no obligation to provide free seats for city officials because the arena was built primarily with private funds. What's more, Brimmer was recently quoted as saying Pollin informed him that city officials didn't ask for free seats when the arena deal was being negotiated.
Surely Pollin can't be that disingenuous and narrow-minded after willingly accepting the largess of a financially strapped city to fulfill his dream of owning a state-of-the-art arena in downtown Washington.
Of course, it was Pollin who belatedly announced three years ago that he would finance construction of the arena several months after business leaders, acting on his behalf, developed an agreement that would have required the District to finance it.
And when Robert L. Johnson, the chief executive of Washington-based BET Holdings Inc., offered to build the arena at no cost to the city or Pollin, in exchange for a minority owner's share of the Wizards, Pollin rejected the offer.
But when it became clear that the District's near-bankrupt status might jeopardize the sale of bonds to finance the project, Pollin declared: "I decided it was time for somebody to stand up to the plate."
And with that the city's business leaders and elected officials cheered Pollin, renewing predictions that the arena would spawn a wave of development in Chinatown and other areas on the east end of downtown Washington. If that happens, then Pollin deserves only part of the credit. He simply would not have been able to build MCI Center without the D.C. government as partner.
Now it's time for Pollin to step up to the plate and acknowledge as much. Giving city officials free use of a skybox for business entertainment is the least he can do to show his appreciation while giving credence to supporters' claims about the arena's importance to economic development.