A clear majority of the District of Columbia's registered Democratic Voters favor a hotly debated proposal to construct a downtown Washington Civic Center, a pool conducted by The Washington post indicates.
The poll of 762 registered Democrats, taken Aug. 28-31, showed 54 percent of those interviewed favor building the center, 33 percent are opposed to its construction, and 13 percent are undecided.
The proposed $100 million complex has the enthusiastic support of virtually all D.C. officials and influential members of the city's business community. However, numerous neighborhood and civic groups have vigorously opposed building the center and have argued that city residents should have their say on the controversial project in a referendum.
Those interviewed in the poll were among 1,020 registered Democrats surveyed in an earlier post Poll in June in connection with the D.C. Democratic primary. The interviewees were part of a random sample of Democrats throughout the city who have voted at least once in the last 10 elections here.
The voters were first asked to indicate how closely they had followed the convention center issue and then whether they favored or opposed its construction.
A citywide sampling of the Democratic voters showed that the convention center project is favored in every ward except the predominantly white Ward 3 in upper Northwest.
Black Democratic voters who were surveyed supported the center's construction overwhelmingly - 61 percent for, 26 percent against. White Democratic voters opposed it - 37 percent for, 50 percent against.
In addition, the poll showed that the closer those surveyed said they had followed the convention center issue, the more likely they were to favor its construction.
Among those who said they are following it very closely, it is favored by 67 percent, opposed by 31 percent, with 2 percent not sure. Among those who said they are following it somwhat closely, it is favored by 58 percent, with 30 percent opposed and 12 percent not sure.
Among those who said they were not following the issue closely at all, it is favored by 38 percent, opposed by 40 percent, with 22 percent not sure.
"I'm not surprised" at the findings, said Ben Gilbert, director of the city's Municipal Planning Office and a ket propenent of the center. "What the poll show is a strong community consensus for the project and a feeling it will be a public investment to provide jobs."
Gilbert suggested that the convention center project had such a high degree of support among black voters because it is seen as a catalyst for sorely needed employment in the city.
He noted that a D.C. Manpower Department study assessing the employment impact of the center and hoped-for hotel, restaurant and retail "spin-off" development estimated that as many as 4,000 new jobs might be created if the complex is built.
A revised plan for a somewhat smaller, somewhat cheaper center - to be built on a three-block downtown site bounded by New York Avenue and H, 9th and 11th streets NW - was recently unveiled by city officials in keeping with a specific directive from Congress. The new plans will be sent back to a Senate subcommittee for final approval within the next two weeks, according to Gilbert.
The D.C. City Council is scheduled to hear a briefing on the plan today at its first session since a summer recess.
Despite Gilbert's assurance that the center's construction has the support of city residents, the poll's results seemed to surprise one of his key aides, who exclaimed, "Really?", when informed of the findings. And the survey's findings stunned some of the center's most vocal critics.
"It's dangerous to say it's just whites who don't want the center>" said Carol Gidley, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from the American University park-Friendship Heights area. "I just can't agree it's a black versus white issue."
Gidley said the Convention Center Referendum Committee, of which she is a member, has obtained the support of more than 100 citizen groups who want the decision to build the center left up to the voters in a special election. She said the committee has elicited the backing of organizations throughtout the city, not just in the predominantly white Ward 3.
Particularly citing the support from the Upper Northeast Coordinating Council, a black group, Gidley said the referendum committee "is not going to lie down and die" because of the poll.
City officials have long approved attempts to have the convention center issue put to a referendum of D.C. voters. Most have argued that such a moved would mean further, costly delays in its completion, but some have said privately they feared the proposal would be voted down.
Gilbert said, however, he had no doubt the center would be approved "in a properly debated referendum, and the poll seems to bear this out.
But a referendum at this stage of the proposal would probably delay the start of construction a minimum of six months and add another $3 million to $4 million at least to its overall costs, Gilbert said.
Jack Phelan, a government economist who has challenged the city's projections for the center's ability to generate new revenue and employment, objected to the method in which the poll was conducted, and said those interviewed should have been asked whether they favored a referendum.
"The poll results are biased since it was not a random sample of registered voters but of Democrats" who have previously voted, Phelan said. He noted that the views of newly registered Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Statehood Party members were missing.
In surveying voter opinion on the convention center question, The Post poll posed the following question:
"If a convention center is built, it is expected to cost about $100 million. Supporters say a convention center would create many jobs and provide the city with millions of dollars in revenue each year. Opponents say that it would cost D.C. taxpayers millions each year for 30 years to pay for a center. If you had to choose, do you think you would favor or oppose building the convention center?"
Phelan said the Post survey should have focused on how much the voters would be willing to finance the center themselves.
"Our experience has been that when citizen groups and ANC's have looked at both sides of the issues, they invariably vote the present proposal down because it requires 100 percent financing from the D.C. budget," said Phelan, who is also first vice president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society.
"Most favor some private capital in what is essentially a subsidy to the hotel industry."
The Convention Center Referendum Committee hopes to start collecting signatures next month on a petition that could put the proposal on the ballot by next fall, Phelan said. He added that the group still hopes to make the center's construction an election issue in November.