D.C. Council members pushed aside their misgivings about the city government's involvement in a plan to build a tennis center in Southeast Washington and voted yesterday to spend $4.7 million from the District's capital budget to pay for the project.
The 10 to 2 vote to approve the funding came even though several council members expressed reservations about the $5.1 million tennis center. The center is a pet project of Cora Masters Barry, the wife of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, and was to have been financed mostly through private donations.
But that was before Mayor Anthony A. Williams--whose wife, Diane Simmons Williams, is a board member of the foundation Cora Barry established to raise money for the center--stepped in and offered public money for the project. Cora Barry had asked Anthony Williams for help after her Wish List foundation raised $400,000 for the project, which was not sufficient to qualify for a construction loan to build the center in 2000, Barry's goal.
Council members agreed that the center, which will be built near Sixth Street and Mississippi Avenue SE and will also include computer training and academic tutoring, was a good idea for low-income children in Ward 8.
But they wondered why it had zoomed to the top of Williams's priority list and whether other community projects would be delayed as a result of the shift of funds to the tennis center. They also continued to sound off against the mayor for springing the proposal on them two weeks ago with little warning. Nevertheless, they backed the proposal.
Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) criticized Williams for not briefing council members before asking them to approve the bill on an emergency basis, but he said he would back the project "for the kids."
David Catania (R-At Large) also voted in favor of the plan, with some skepticism.
"This is a piece of feel-good legislation, something for which the mayor can cut a ribbon," he said. "At the end of the day, will the children be better off? Will this substantially change their lives?"
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who, like Ward 3 Democrat Kathy Patterson, voted against the plan, questioned whether Barry's foundation had worked very hard to raise money for the center.
"I know some of the people on [the Wish List] committee, and they have raised millions for the Kennedy Center and other causes," Schwartz said. "One individual is funding a tennis center in Prince George's County," she said, a reference to a plan by Kenneth D. Brody, former chairman of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, to build a 27-court recreation facility in College Park.
"I know this is not a very good political thing to do," Schwartz said of her vote against the center. "I am an at-large member up for election next year. But I'm not going to go along to get along."
Patterson said she voted against the bill because Williams sought a waiver of the District's procurement policies in order to allow the Wish List foundation to award contracts for the project without competitive bidding.
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) had questioned whether the plan would take money from other community projects--particularly because Williams's initial proposal was to use $3.7 million in capital funds and a $1 million Community Development Block Grant to pay for the tennis center.
Jarvis's objections led Williams to avoid using grant money that had been designated for other purposes and to raise the capital contribution to $4.7 million. Jarvis said she had been assured that money taken from the city's capital projects fund could be replaced so that housing and other city development projects would not suffer.
Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) was absent from yesterday's meeting and did not vote on the tennis center plan.
Williams said yesterday he was pleased that the council had passed the funding measure. But he added that in response to conflict-of-interest questions surrounding his wife's involvement with the Wish List foundation, she would resign from the group's board.
"We're going to be leaving the Wish List committee," Williams said. "It's better to avoid any appearance of conflict. My wife is only trying to help kids, and we don't want it to be undermined in any way."
Williams said he will try to give the council more notice before sending such "emergency" funding measures to them in the future.
Cora Barry, who attended yesterday's meeting, praised council members who voted for the project. She acknowledged that without the city's help, it could have taken her group five years to build the tennis center, which will be owned by the city upon its completion.
"I'm just so excited," she said. "This is good for the city, good for the nation, good for the children. It's good for everybody. . . . I will do everything in my power to help make this the best center it can be, and keep it above politics."
Barry's foundation will oversee construction of the project along with the city's recreation department, then operate programs at the tennis center after it is built. The Wish List committee has chosen a general contractor and project manager--without the competitive bidding requirements normally associated with a city contract.
The foundation has received months of pro bono work from general contractor Hensel Phelps of Chantilly, a firm that has done many West Coast projects and is looking to establish itself in this area by "giving something to the community," as one Wish List committee member put it.
The architect, Philip Lacy, is a graduate of Ballou High School, and the project manager, Jair Lynch, who also grew up in the District, is a former member of the U.S. gymnastics team who won a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics.
Lynch, who has degrees in civil engineering and urban design from Stanford University, also is listed as a director of the Wish List committee.