Leonsis is weighing whether to build a glitzy Wizards basketball practice facility on the site of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mostly vacant campus in Southeast D.C. that is considered one of the District’s largest redevelopment opportunities.
At St. Elizabeths, the Wizards would practice amongst some of the city’s poorest communities and could serve as a central component of a long-promised revival that could also include a Microsoft Innovation Center, offices for technology firms, new shops and affordable housing.
The campus is one of three final locations that Leonsis and his company, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, is weighing for the facility, along with a property on the campus of Howard University and a location atop parking garages near the Silver Spring Metro station.
The idea is to build a complex similar to the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, in Ballston, which serves as a practice center for the Capitals hockey club, another Leonsis team, and as a community skating rink for Arlington County, said Randall Boe, Monumental’s executive vice president and general counsel.
“As we look at all three of these sites, what we’re looking for is the opportunity to create a facility that has positive community impact the way that Kettler does,” Boe said.
A string of D.C. mayors have tried to bring new life to the east campus of St. Elizabeths, which is owned by the District government, with little to show for it. The west campus is owned by the federal government and is envisioned as a future home of the Department of Homeland Security. So far only the U.S. Coast Guard has moved there; the rest of the project is more than a decade behind schedule.
If D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Leonsis can come to terms on a deal to bring the Wizards to St. Elizabeths, it could give redevelopment efforts in the District’s Ward 8 a shot in the arm and provide the team with a state-of-the-art training center akin to what other teams including the Chicago Bulls have recently unveiled.
Boe said Leonsis expects to make a selection next month, which could mean the facility would be under construction by the next summer, when NBA teams go to the free agent market looking for talent.
Among the players that might be available is four-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant, a native of Seat Pleasant — seven miles from St. Elizabeths — whom the Wizards are hotly pursuing.
“It’s a huge recruiting tool for free agents. This is where the players go to to work every day,” Boe said.
Some NBA teams have accepted public incentives to open facilities in neighborhoods in need of economic development. The Philadelphia 76ers are building a 120,000-square-foot practice facility in Camden, N.J., after the state offered its owners $82 million in subsidies. Arlington County financed Kettler for the Capitals.
Using sports to drive economic development in struggling parts of Southeast Washington was something Leonsis talked about extensively when he led the effort to land the 2024 Summer Olympics.
“We want to make sure that Ward 7 and Ward 8 — communities that need our embrace and some transformation — can benefit from the Olympics,” Leonsis said on a sports radio show.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, he lamented how the Anacostia River “separates the community.”
On his blog, Leonsis he urged people to support efforts to clean up the river, writing: “Sadly, the Anacostia has been neglected. If we clean it up, only good things occur for our community and our next generation.”
Mayoral spokesman Joaquin McPeek declined to discuss St. Elizabeths specifically but said that “any proposal we pursue has to be bigger than basketball.”
“It’s about creating jobs for D.C. residents, investing in our most under-served communities and making sure that the next generation of Washingtonians is ready to compete in the 21st century workforce,” he said.
D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, (D-Ward 2), who chairs the body’s finance committee, said he supports the idea of putting the facility at St. Elizabeths but he wasn’t sure “whether the Wizards are willing to go there” and what the cost to the city would be.
“My preference would be St. Elizabeths. I think it would be a great site. But there are a lot of discussions going on right now,” Evans said.
Boe said wherever the complex ends up that surrounding communities would enjoy some of the boom in energy and amenities that Penn Quarter and other neighborhoods around the Verizon Center have enjoyed.
“The Verizon Center has had a significant positive effect on downtown D.C. and our aim is that a practice facility will have a similarly positive impact,” Boe said.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz