In Northern Virginia nothing excites local officials like a new building.
So yesterday when George Mason University announced its 10,000-seat arena will open Oct. 4 with Patrick Ewing's debut as a professional basketball player, the rhetoric was hardly subdued.
"A coming of age" was how university President George Johnson described the school's $16.7 million center, the first such facility in Northern Virginia.
Johnson said the school's Patriot Center will "fill a great void" by bringing to the Virginia suburbs entertainment now available only in Washington or the Capital Centre in Landover.
Admittedly, Johnson said, traffic congestion near the campus, just south of Fairfax City, is bad.
"It will be just as bad, but no worse," said Johnson, who quickly added: "We're going to be very sensitive to the problems of traffic and crowd control in this community."
The long-awaited opening of the arena, located off Braddock and Chain Bridge roads, will feature the New York Knicks and Ewing, the former Georgetown star now a Knicks rookie, in a National Basketball Association exhibition game against the Washington Bullets, who usually play on the other side of the Beltway.
That game, expected to fill all of the arena's green and yellow seats, was one of the plums Cap Centre owner Abe Pollin offered George Mason if the school would let the Centre manage the Patriot Center. The ploy worked.
Capital Centre was awarded the contract to manage the Patriot Center last January, winning out over a Philadelphia and a Chicago firm in an intense competition.
Pollin said yesterday, in response to questions, that running both the Capital Centre and the Patriot Center will not create a conflict of interest because the two facilities will complement one another rather than compete.
The Patriot Center, he said, is too small to handle a regular season professional basketball game and the Capital Centre, he said, is too large for many of the shows planned for the new Fairfax arena.
In quick succession, the arena will play host to three rock concerts, the Beach Boys on Oct. 6, Supertramp on Oct. 12 and Howard Jones on Oct. 13, followed by Ice Around the World, a family-oriented ice show starring Peggy Fleming, Oct. 30 to Nov. 3.
Johnson said the university and Capital Centre officials will be selective in deciding which musicians and rock groups to book and will schedule only "class acts."
George Mason's own basketball schedule also offers some big basketball draws. Included on the Patriots' home schedule this coming season are Maryland (Nov. 26), Georgetown (Dec. 2 or 3), Boston University (Dec. 4), Virginia Commonwealth (Dec. 30) and West Virginia (Jan. 9).
Johnson said that GMU and the Capital Centre will be working closely with area police departments for ways to improve traffic around the arena. One solution, he said, could be to turn main entrances to the university into one-way streets.
Events that are expected to draw capacity crowds will be booked during times when few classes are in session and after normal commuter rush hours.
The arena's finances have caused some controversy since they were approved by the state legislature several years ago. It was funded through state-supported revenue bonds backed by student fees. Johnson estimated yesterday that it will cost each of GMU's approximately 17,000 students $40 a year to pay for the facility.
He added that although the fee structure was a concern of both students and their parents, the plan now has won wide acceptance from its former critics.
Under the terms of its three-year contract with the university, Capital Centre will receive a fee of $100,000 a year, plus 20 percent of all its revenues to manage the arena.
The university, however, will receive all revenues generated by the school's basketball games and other university events.
Johnson said the fact that the financial success of the building is not tied to ticket sales is one of its more positive aspects. Unlike most other athletic facilities, he said, the Patriot Center "is not mortgaged to the gate."