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Like just about everyone else taking in the new, 2.3-million-square-foot, 17-acre Washington Convention Center for the first time, Sprocket the talking robot is trying to be diplomatic.

“It is a work in progress,” says Sprocket, who looks like a slightly sleeker version of Johnny 5, star of the movie Short Circuit. The facility, the robot adds, is “wonderful.”

All around Sprocket, the new Washington Convention Center is hosting its first major event, the 2003 FOSE information-technology exposition. One attendee, in a moment of relative contemplation, looks up through a window and sees three construction cranes perched against the gray sky. “That sure is a big window,” he says.

The new convention center, which sits between 7th and 9th and N Street and Mount Vernon Place NW, “opened” on March 28, with a ribbon-cutting gala featuring a steak dinner, a laser light show, and an army of scissors-waving District pols. But though the structure, which covers six city blocks, was “substantially complete” for the ceremony, according to Convention Center Director of Public Affairs Tony Robinson, Sprocket isn’t alone in noticing that the building isn’t quite ready for its close-up.

While Halls B and C host FOSE, the three other main halls and much of the rest of the center are still in various states of disarray and incompleteness. Despite the posted signs shepherding attendees toward the exhibit halls and away from the less aesthetically pleasing parts of the building, conventioneers still notice the white paint drops drying on the marble off the main lobby, the escalators that operate only sporadically, and the workers who steadily toil all around them.

Upstairs, at the food court, a sign hanging from the ceiling advertises a Quiznos Subs, a Foggy Bottom Grill, and a Wolfgang Puck Express. The three restaurants are half-built, their cafeteria-style food-delivery systems only partly assembled. A lone worker is buffing the floors where the tables and chairs will soon be. A sign advertising “The Food Show” in big red letters sits on the ground wrapped in plastic.

For now, the food-service action is in Halls B and C.

“I’ve got all my yellow mustards, but my spicy mustard is gone,” yells a worker into his headset. With the upstairs restaurants closed, the responsibility for feeding the more than 20,000 attendees and exhibitors has fallen to Centerplate, a contractor that has come equipped with wide stands offering $9 bean burritos and chicken dishes, as well as slightly cheaper hot dogs. Not everyone is impressed.

“There’s no salad and no fruit,” says one woman. “What are they trying to do, kill us?” Someone points down toward the other end of the massive hall and says he thinks there’s fruit down there. It’s a 15-minute walk from one end to the other, at least. “Has anyone,” she asks, “actually been down there?”

There are blue curtains everywhere, draped over unfinished business. In the hallway, they hide a large, ugly container of metal rods from view and provide a not-terribly-intimidating barrier to what appears to be an unfinished stairwell. The curtains in the exhibit hall are patriotic, bright streaks of red, white, and blue. On one side of the flowing barriers, suits from Intel and Microsoft stand on carpeted floors and hawk their gleaming technologies; on the other, construction workers in hard hats move among the stacked tables and the detritus of their work, their boots scuffing on the concrete.

Not everything is hidden. One elevator on the lower level sits with its doors open, seemingly waiting for passengers; its insides are dark, and there are yellow wires sticking out where the buttons should be.

The majority of the complaints from conventioneers focus on logistical problems, such as the fact that cell phones don’t work on the floor or the shortage of available bottled water. One woman talks about having run-ins with two different malfunctioning toilets, one that wouldn’t flush and another that splashed water all over the seat. Multiple attendees report smelling something burning at various points throughout the day, though they never figure out what it might be.

Outside, a bored-looking construction worker and a seemingly unending chain-link fence keep motorists off 9th Street, where a multicolored row of cranes sits idling. Workers wielding tape measures stand on scissor lifts, while others do their work from the top of the overhang above the main entrance. Across the street, standing water surrounds the old Carnegie Library, which is being retrofitted to become a museum, the sidewalk in front awaiting the bricks it needs for completion. Wooden planks and fenced-in rubble flank the Metro entrance.

The security at the front of the building consists of a request to show an identification card. District resident Angela Bigelow, who is African-American, has brought her suitcase to the last day of the event. Her exhibitor’s guidelines told her not to do so, for safety reasons, but she figured from earlier experience that she wouldn’t get hassled.

“When I first got here,” says Bigelow, “a couple of Shaniquas walked by me with security guard outfits, and they were like, ‘Heeey, girl, how are you?’ They were just, like, wandering around the place.”

After Bigelow set up her station, she discovered water from a beam high above dripping onto the table where she had placed her materials. She repositioned slightly and hoped no one would get wet.

“This place is barely ready,” says Tom Bohacek, standing in line at one of the exhibits next to a guy in a Darth Maul necktie. “A lot of the escalators are broken, and there are walls that still need paint. I didn’t see anything wrong with the old convention center.”

Bill Howell, general manager of FOSE, says that, even with the problems, the building is a big step up from the previous facility.

“The old convention center was a concrete bunker,” he says. “Here we have these beautiful walls of light. I mean, this thing has really gone remarkably well, considering how quickly the building came together.”

Howell admits “it was a risk” signing on to be the first show in the new center, but he says he had a Plan B: to move the event to its old site in the bunker down the block. Despite some nervous moments, he says, falling back on that option “never became an issue.”

The day after FOSE closes, a second event will be taking place, in Hall D: the International Franchise Expo, “showcasing hundreds of franchise concepts” such as Foot Solutions and Dial-A-Husband. Workers preparing for the event carry materials from a row of trucks through the loading-dock doors, while technicians erect structures intended to catch the eyes of conventioneers. There are some 20 events planned for the next couple of months, including the Direct Marketing Association of Washington convention, D.C. Black Pride, and the Kappa Alpha Psi Easter Dawn Dance.

In Hall A, the convention center is at its quietist. The escalator leading into the hall has been cordoned off with yellow caution tape, and the repetitive beeping of a truck in reverse is the only sound echoing through the giant chamber. Round tables are stacked on their sides in groups of 10, like giant coasters, while rows and rows of flat tables lie on rolling platforms across the floor. Construction vehicles slowly drive past stacks of white banquet chairs as a few scattered workers methodically inventory the room.

In the yet-to-be-opened Hall E, representatives from the Assemblies of God are taking a tour. They are sizing up the facility for their national meeting, which will talk place at the end of July. The hall looks like an airplane hangar, and vans and construction vehicles move back and forth along the concrete floor. The Assemblies of God folks, in from Springfield, Mo., are preternaturally cheerful. They aren’t troubled by the center’s unfinished state.

“They’ve got ’til July,” says a pale, 30-something man in a suit. “It’s got to be done by July, right?” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.