IT IS TIME to face facts - and concede defeat, if you will - on the District convention-center project in its present form. The House of Representatives is only narrowly and precariously in favor of it. The Senate is overwhelmingly against it. Until very recently, we had been clinging to the hope that some modest concessions might turn the situation around. But the evidence now seems overwhelming that congressional approval is not going to be forthcoming without a fundamental change in the concept - one that would involve the mobilization of substantial private investment by the local business community. It is going to be necessary, in other words, for the city's businessmen and the city government to go back, together, to the drawing board.
We have come to this position reluctantly, and as a result of what we believe to be a realistic assessment of the relative strength of the opposing forces in the conflict over the convention center. That conflict has produced what appears to be a total impasse, which is stalling action not only on the convention center, but also on the entire budget for the District of Columbia for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The strategy of city hall and the center supporters, championed by Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, has been essentially a game of chicken: The House conferees took the line that there would be no District budget without the convention center in its original form. To which the Senate conferees, lead by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) replied, very simply, that in that case there would be no District budget. So the game, in effect was lost, and the result has been congressional passage of a thoroughly unsatisfactory continuing resolution that would allow the District to spend or more in the current fiscal year, ending next Sept. 30, than in spent in the last fiscal year. This means no increase in services, no pay raises, no construction on the University of the District of Columbia or any other new project.
Now one way to break this deadlock would be simply to set the convention center aside as a budget item for this fiscal year and proceed with final work on the budget. But this would remove a lot of the pressure for a new approach to the problem of financing the convention center and might well doom the project. A better alternative, we think, would be for the city and the business community to face reality and come up as quickly as possible with a new convention-center proposal that both houses of Congress can accept. This would clear the way for agreement on the city budget. Obviously, time is of the essense; the longer the continuing resolution stays in effect, the more the city will suffer.
What is needed, then, is some initiative from the business community and the city to revise the present convention-center plan. One solution might be some variation on the concept of private land assembly, which was the basis of John Jechinger's offer to donate the land for a center in Northeast Washington. The problem, it's true, is somewhat more difficult at the Mt. Vernon Square site because the land involved is owned by more than one party. Even so, the bulk of it is in the hands of three owners, and it's generally agreed that private assembly of sufficient land for the center in the Mt. Vernon Square area is entirely feasible if there's will to do it. There are other ways that local businessmen could satisfy the congressional demand for substantial private investment. Sen. Leahy has indicated that private financing, of one kind or another of anywhere from 15 to 40 per cent fo the total cost would be regarded by him as a sufficient demonstration of the business community's commitment to the project.
We have no illusions about the difficulty of getting the government and the business leaders of this city to agree on a counterproposal. Somebody is going to have to take the lead - and the business community is going to have to demonstrate somewhat more solidarity on this issue than it has shown in the past. We think the effort is worth making and that there is a reasonable chance of a favorable reception by Congress. But we also think the decision cannot be put off much longer. If the business community and the city government do not want a convention center badly enough to make this effort, then the issue should not be allowed to drag on through next year at the expense of other programs and projects that cannot go forward for lack of action on the District budget.