When asked recently by a reporter whether he's satisfied with Gar Heard as coach of the Washington Wizards, team owner Abe Pollin responded, "Absolutely."
In his first year as an NBA head coach, Heard has been unapologetically blunt at times in criticizing his team's performance. Last week, for example, Heard ripped his players, asserting that they were "soft."
Pollin nonetheless defended his coach, insisting that Heard wasn't being critical of the team.
That's a matter of interpretation, of course, not unlike Pollin's recent explanation of his decision to build MCI Center in downtown Washington and his unsuccessful call for new congressional tax breaks for corporate investments in the District. Pollin's attempts to fix blame for the failure of the tax-break proposal is ridiculous but nonetheless instructive for what it says about the way he does business and his apparent concern about the debt service on MCI Center.
In a full-page ad in this newspaper recently Pollin described the tax-break proposal, Rising Tide, as "an effort to induce others to invest in the city as I have done" in building MCI Center.
Rising Tide, he explained, would have enabled companies to finance new ventures in the District with tax-free bonds if they invested $25 million in the District and hired 400 new employees.
"To portray Rising Tide as only a tax break for MCI Center is false and misleading," Pollin asserted in the ad. "To deprive the Nation's Capital of all the benefits that Rising Tide would provide because of, in my opinion, a factually incorrect headline and an equally misleading article in the Washington Times, is unconscionable."
That aside, the Pollin ad contained the following acknowledgment: "A part of Rising Tide would also allow MCI Center to refinance its staggering debt with tax-free bonds and bring my debt service close to what was originally promised to me."
Now we know why Pollin has been such a strong advocate of the Rising Tide initiative.
The fact is, Pollin and John Derrick Jr., president and CEO of Potomac Electric Power Co., circulated a letter among District business leaders last year seeking endorsements of the Rising Tide tax break. The proposal, as originally conceived, would have given millions of dollars or tax credits and other federal incentives to companies to locate their corporate headquarters in an enterprise zone that includes most of downtown Washington.
But the initiative failed to win the support needed in Congress because it was a bad idea, plain and simple. The political reality is that it might be perceived in other parts of the country as special tax treatment for the District, not to mention as another in a growing list of corporate subsidies.
Besides, now that the District's fiscal condition is no longer in dire straits and the city's economy is beginning to show signs of improvement, there is a growing perception that the climate for investment is much better than it was as recently as a year ago this time. The proof is readily discernible in new office, hotel and housing construction -- from Anacostia to Washington's West End.
In short, one really can't make a legitimate case for Rising Tide today.
It's apparent, however, that Pollin still thinks he's entitled to a tax break or some other subsidy for building MCI Center downtown. His references to the "staggering debt" on the arena and "what was originally promised to me" are intriguing.
Pollin's account of why he built MCI Center is equally fascinating.
The city had "hit rock bottom" and needed someone to step forward, he said. "I felt that I was that guy," Pollin noted in his attempt to "set the record straight."
"As owner of two sports teams, I realized that I was in a unique position to help turn this city around."
What Pollin didn't say is that influential business leaders in the District persuaded him to move the Wizards and the Washington Capitals (which he later sold) to the District. They did so after learning that he planned to build a new arena and move the teams from US Airways Arena in Prince George's County.
Those business leaders devised a scheme setting up a nonprofit organization to build an arena to be financed by the D.C. government. The arena would even be exempted from real property taxes.
The deal between Pollin and business leaders began to take shape in early 1994 and was presented to D.C. officials as a fait accompli, though it was obvious the District was having serious fiscal problems. It wasn't until late December of that year that Pollin, conceding that the city's worsening financial situation could present a problem, agreed to build MCI Center himself on city-owned property.
Even so, D.C. officials agreed to waive property taxes on the arena and spend roughly $60 million to prepare the site for development. The District further imposed an arena tax on businesses to finance the effort.
What more does Pollin want?