Given little chance of succeeding, Prince George's County plugged a big hole in its economic development program some 10 years ago when it persuaded Abe Pollin to build the Capital Centre in Largo.
Since it opened in 1973, however, the lucrative sports and entertainment complex has been an important factor in the county's economy, owner Abe Pollin and some county officials maintain.
County officials haven't developed economic studies to substantiate that claim, but Pollin relies on a study he commissioned a year ago. He has made that study available to county officials in support of a proposal that would give preferential tax treatment to his National Hockey League franchise, the Washington Capitals.
The study that was conducted by management consultant Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. estimates that spectators for all events at the Capital Centre between December 1973 and March 1981 spent about $19.4 million for hotel accommodations, food and gasoline at Prince George's County business establishments.
Participants and performers at the center spent more than $4.7 million during the same period, while concessions and other operations at the facility spent more than $11.3 million, according to the study.
Additional estimates contained in the study show that spectators at Caps games spent $3.6 million and other hockey teams spent $813,220 in the 1973-1981 period.
Interestingly, rock concerts at the Capital Center have generated almost as much revenue ($7 million) for the county as professional basketball and hockey combined.
But while basketball games and rock concerts have been money makers for Pollin, the Caps haven't, and the team's future here is uncertain.
However, a group of local businessmen says it's willing to risk an investment that would give it 50 percent of the franchise.
It's no deal, though, we are told, unless the Caps sell 7,500 season tickets in the next couple of weeks, sell out next season's first 10 games, get a lower rental rate at the Capital Centre and get the county to slash the amusement tax from 10 percent to one-half of one percent for the next three years.
But to bail out a losing enterprise because it has some marginal spinoff benefits smacks of corporate welfare.
A majority of county council members has been stampeded into supporting a hastily drawn tax-giveaway bill. Councilmember Sue Mills, on the other hand, raises several questions that go to the heart of the issue.
"Here we are singling out one business and telling everyone else to follow the rules," Mills says of the tax subsidy bill for the Caps.
Pollin says he has lost "in excess of $20 million" in the eight-year history of the Caps, prompting Mills to counter: "At no time has he spoken of the total dollar amount he has made on the Capital Centre."
Mills says she finds it "incongruous" for the council to increase the tax on video games and raise the property tax up to 4 percent within the past month, while indicating support for a tax break for the Caps.
As for the Booz-Allen study, Mills contends, "Those figures have to be grossly inflated. I don't really think you can come up with a true figure, especially on restaurant tabs."
Finally, says Mills, if the Caps leave, "You certainly aren't going to have an empty arena."
Indeed, the Booz-Allen study, dated June 1, 1981, projected the center would host more than 220 events in the year just ended.
Despite its role in the county's economy, the center's operation has triggered anger among taxpayers, bitter debate among politicians and legal battles between the county and Pollin.
Although he was an early supporter, former county executive William W. Gullett, after he left office, described the center as an "atrocious use of taxpayers' money."
In any event, taxpayers have borne part of the costs of the center. In fact, the county spent more than $2 million for capital facilities, including roads, sewers and a treatment plant. It also picked up the tab for capital costs overruns. County-backed industrial revenue bonds eased financing for the center's owner.
Now the county's taxpayers are being asked to go to the well once more--not for the Capital Centre itself but to retain a part of its operation that is responsible for less than 10 percent of the estimated $60 million spent by visitors to the center in the past eight years.
By granting special favors to the same business enterprise repeatedly, Prince George's County runs the risk of alienating other businesses.