D.C. pols are well aware of the optics. Every spring, taxpayers fund a trip to Las Vegas for councilmembers, the mayor, their staffs, and other government officials. The tab for the annual excursion to the conference, hosted by the International Council of Shopping Centers, inevitably runs into the tens of thousands of dollars.
“For those of us in Washington, there aren’t the distractions of interactions or other meetings,” Chairman Phil Mendelson says of the conference’s benefit. “I do think that because there are so many different opportunities to talk to developers and retailers that it’s a very good opportunity, but at the same time, the public is concerned about what looks like a fun trip to Las Vegas.”
This year, the bill to fly 21 D.C. government officials to Sin City and put them up in hotels for several nights was at least $41,000, according to records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. But not every official’s trip was included in those records, and some records were incomplete. For example, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office only provided the cost of the stay at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel (which includes among its amenities classes in pizza baking, floral arrangement, and sake-tasting) for Herronor and her chief of staff, John Falcicchio. The cost of airfare and ground transportation were not provided.
The attendees’ Vegas bills varied widely, from a low of about $670 up to $3,100.
Chanel Autrey, committee director for Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, racked up the most expensive trip, according to records. For a five-night stay at the Mirage plus airfare and per diem, her total trip cost $3,100. McDuffie’s total expenses came to about $2,600.
The bill for then-Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner’s trip was the next priciest, costing taxpayers about $2,900. The cost includes $1,800 for five nights in a “luxury suite” at The Palazzo, a 720-square-foot space with more room than some studio apartments in D.C. Records show that Kenner arrived Friday, May 17, two days before the conference began.
Kenner announced he was leaving the D.C. government for a job with Amazon just a few weeks after he returned from Vegas. Falcicchio has replaced Kenner on an interim basis.
Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd’s trip ranked behind Kenner’s at about $2,790. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White’s total trip cost about $2,570, according to Council records. His committee director, Nate Fleming, accompanied his boss but only racked up a $1,800 bill. Both stayed four nights at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, records show.
Among the cheaper trips were those of At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds’ staffers Irene Kang and David Meadows. The total damage for each of them came to about $1,670 and $1,580, respectively. They both stayed at Treasure Island Hotel and Casino.
Bonds was scheduled to attend and her trip would have cost taxpayers about $2,000 for airfare and a three-night stay at The Palazzo, where she had booked a “luxury” king suite. But she cancelled May 17, the day before the conference began.
Bonds’ spokesperson says he doesn’t know why the councilmember cancelled at the last minute, but records show her hotel payment was refunded. The Office of the Secretary to the Council says Bonds’ airfare was not refunded. Instead, the councilmember can use any credit when she flies for official business.
Other District officials who attended the conference include McDuffie, Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray and his constituent services director, Sedrick Muhammad; Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ chief of staff Schannette Grant (Evans did not attend); Beverly Perry, Rachel Williams, and Eugene Kinlow from the Office of the Senior Advisor; Randall Clarke, Latrena Owens, and Sarosh Olpadwala from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development; Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Ernest Chrappah; and Paul Blackman Jr. from the Department of General Services.
The cheapest traveler, according to records given to LL, was Mendelson. His total trip, including three nights at Treasure Island and a $200 plane ticket, cost taxpayers $673. Among Treasure Island’s features are a 25-person hot tub that could seat the entire D.C. delegation; it’s unclear whether anyone took a dip.
Reached by phone several weeks ago, the chairman was quite proud of his thriftiness. “I’m told I was one of the cheapest on the trip,” he says.
In addition to covering lodging and airfare, the D.C. government shelled out about $435,000 in a grant to the Washington DC Economic Partnership, a nonprofit public-private entity that organizes the ICSC conferences in Las Vegas in May and at National Harbor in March, according to Karima Woods, director of business development and strategy for DMPED.
That money funds WDCEP’s retail attraction efforts throughout the year, says Keith Sellars, president of the partnership, which culminate in the annual ICSC conference. Sellars points to an economic impact study suggesting WDCEP’s efforts will have generated more than 20,000 jobs and $117 million in annual sales tax revenue by 2022.
The Vegas gathering is billed as the “world’s largest retail real estate convention” and boasts more than 35,000 attendees. Woods says this year’s cost is down from last year, when taxpayers paid $598,000 “because it was our 20-year anniversary.”
District officials have attended the Las Vegas conference for the past two decades to woo retailers, and they attribute 300 retailer and restaurant openings to their continued attendance. But this year, the only concrete benefit local officials brought home was a new grocery store for Ward 7.
The new store, Lidl, which will anchor the long-delayed Skyland Town Center development, is a much needed addition to an area that severely lacks grocery options. Lidl is expected to open after the first phase of the development is completed in 2020, the Washington Business Journal reports. Residents of that part of Southeast D.C. have sought a grocery option for years, especially since Walmart backed out of a deal to open in the Skyland development in 2016.
District officials who defend the annual cost of the conference say that their consistent attendance is necessary to show sustained interest and form relationships with retailers.
“It’s one thing [for businesses] to say ‘I heard from the Ward 7 councilmember’ or ‘I heard from the mayor,’” says At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who has gone on the trip for the past three years and this year took his chief of staff, Mtokufa Ngwenya. “But it’s another to say ‘I spoke with the mayor and the Ward 7 councilmember and they’re in alignment.’ That’s what happens in these meetings.”
Three years ago, District officials were in talks with Lidl about opening up multiple stores in D.C. Then last year, “Lidl was nowhere to be found,” White says.
“It really is a negotiation, and I think you have to see it as a long-term initiative,” he says. “We may not be able to get somebody on board one year, but D.C. changes in a year, business plans change in a year, and people come back to the table.”
White adds that the conferences have given him a greater understanding of retailers’ business calculations. “It helps us craft better legislation and better incentives,” he says.
Todd, who also took his chief of staff, Sherryl Newman, tells LL that he was focused on finding a grocery store to anchor the Walter Reed development in his ward. He says he met with representatives from Safeway, Giant, CVS, and Walgreens, but did not come back to the District with any agreements in place.
Corrections: A previous version of this article reported that Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White’s trip was the most expensive, at $3,500. Records not initially provided to LL show that White canceled his initial hotel reservation at the Venetian and instead stayed at the MGM Grand. The total cost for his trip, according to the additional records, was about $2,570.
Chanell Autrey, committee director for Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, took the most expensive trip, at $3,100, not $2,900 as previously reported. LL regrets the errors.