City Paper is not for tourists
Marriott has worked hard to become the District’s official hospitality provider.
When Mayor Anthony A. Williams was campaigning for a school-board reform referendum in 2000, then-Host Marriott CEO Terence C. Golden contributed $25,000 to the cause. When tourism plummeted after Sept. 11, Marriott International Inc.—along with Verizon and American Express Co.—contributed a total of $1.1 million to the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp. And Golden himself—a cheerleader for D.C.’s renaissance—served as chair of the Washington Convention Center Authority.
Business interests, of course, drive the company’s civic generosity: Marriott operates 5,884 hotel rooms in the District, 3,000 more than its closest rival, Hilton Hotels Corp.
These days, though, Marriott may need some valet treatment from city hall, as it fights for the crown jewel of the local hospitality trade: the “headquarters” hotel for the $799 million convention center now under construction. At first blush, the new convention center shouldn’t need such a monstrosity—after all, there are already 4,301 hotel rooms within an eight-block radius of the Mount Vernon Square site.
But conventioneers in town from Des Moines and Duluth—weighed down by complimentary products from the show—don’t want to brave the vicissitudes of shuttle transportation in returning to their mini-bars and free HBO. “Having a headquarters hotel is important to any new convention center,” argues Tony Robinson, a spokesperson for the Washington Convention Center Authority. That’s because headquarters hotels guarantee ample blocks of rooms years in advance for large conventions.
Hence their appeal to Marriott and its competitors in the hotel biz. Last June, the District issued a request for proposals for a headquarters hotel and drew bids from Marriott and Hilton, along with two lesser entities. The city pledged to select a winner by Dec. 19, 2001. On that schedule, the hotel wouldn’t be completed until at least 2005, two years after the convention center opens.
Marriott, partnered with the JBG Cos. and Kingdon Gould, originally proposed building a 1,500-room hotel at 9th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, on the west side of the convention center.
Upstart Hilton, along with the Landmark Organization, pitched a 1,400-room hotel bounded by 7th Street and New York Avenue NW on the convention center’s east side. Both proposals conformed to the city’s specifications; they promised finished products nearly identical in lot size and square footage.
The two competitors, however, obviously didn’t employ the same accountant: Marriott outlined a conventional finance proposal, in which the company would assemble the land and build a hotel. In return for providing the convention center a hospitality anchor, the hotel would keep all tax revenue from occupancy, sales, food and beverages, and parking.
Hilton, though, went with a 21st-century public-private partnership sort of deal. The idea was that the city would form a nonprofit corporation that would issue tax-exempt revenue bonds to finance construction of the hotel. In this model, the taxes and net operating income generated by the hotel would be used to pay off the revenue bonds. When the taxes and income exceeded the bond payoff, a few years down the road, the city would keep the difference—as well as own the land and the hotel after 30 years.
Hilton would make its money as the hotel’s operator.
After wading through all the municipal financese, Hilton claims that the difference between its bid and the Marriott proposal amounts to $3 billion over 30 years. “[I]f the competing proposals are judged solely on merit, with a level playing field and transparency in the selection process, I believe the Hilton proposal will win. It is the best deal for the District,” said William Edwards, vice president of Hilton Hotels Corp. and general manager of Hilton Washington, D.C., in a March 8 press release.
The Hilton plan apparently spun a few heads in the city’s Office of Planning. On Dec. 21—two days after the projected final selection—the office asked both bidders to try again, issuing a letter that suggested that the companies consider both private financing and the nonprofit model: “The [memorandum of understanding] should provide the option for the District to utilize a private financing structure or a non-profit corporation (‘NPC’) financing structure,” it read.
In between the acronyms was a subtly worded message to hometown favorite Marriott: We’re giving you a second chance.
In response to the city’s revised request, Marriott submitted a nonprofit structured financing arrangement yet envisioned retaining ownership of the property. Hilton didn’t substantially alter its bid, under which the city would own both the land and the hotel.
Those involved in the competition deny that the second round of bidding allowed Marriott to play catch-up. “We’re going right through the process exactly as advertised,” argues James Arthur Jemison, project manager for the D.C. Office of Planning.
The next pen-pal exchange between the city and Marriott came on Feb. 20, when the Office of Planning issued both companies a “best and final offer” letter once again detailing how financing could work in the public-private partnership that Hilton prescribed. The letter provided Marriott one last shot at finessing its financing plan.
“We are going through a deliberate process. We want to ensure that it is cost effective, makes economic sense, and is the best value for the city,” explains Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Eric Price in a written statement.”It is difficult to finance hotels in this market. We are proceeding both with a method that is financially achievable and a transaction that is best financially for the District.” Price will not comment on why his office didn’t make a choice based on the original proposals.
Marriott has the same policy. “The District has asked us to not get into specifics of proposals,” says Dan Mahoney, vice president for hotel development for Marriott. “It’s a fairly fluid process that we have been going through.”
LL proposes no revisions to that characterization.
The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club has positioned itself as the New Hampshire of District politics. The primarily gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered political organization is typically out first, endorsing candidates each election year way before the official filing deadline in July.
Indeed, the club’s Monday-night endorsement meeting was about as raucous as a Saturday night in Dixville Notch. With no challengers present at the 7 p.m. start time, members rubber-stamped the candidacies of incumbents: Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who came late because of a concurrent community meeting in his turf, arrived, by LL’s watch, at 8:08 p.m.—and was unanimously endorsed by 8:14.
Ward 6 council hopeful Keith Andrew Perry, who officially announced his candidacy Saturday at Ebenezer United Methodist Church, arrived 22 minutes earlier, at 7:46 p.m. But Perry wasn’t so fortunate: Club members had given the unanimous nod a half-hour before to Ambrose, who had informed the crowd that she was there despite having tickets to the opera. That’s the gay equivalent of pointing out your car’s FOP sticker when a police officer pulls you over.
Perry later informed those in attendance that he had raced over to One Judiciary Square after learning of the evening’s event from a club member. “I wasn’t aware of it,” says Perry, who has been actively on the hustings for the past few months. “Absolutely, I’d like to have the endorsement of as many organizations as possible.”
Club members then defended themselves against appearances of running a different kind of old boys’ club. “We’re not trying to keep it a secret,” explains President Kurt Vorndran. Vorndran says that he checked with the city’s Board of Elections last week in an effort toward inclusiveness.
“Most political players in this city have someone in the club looking out for them,” he adds.
* The following appeared at the bottom of yellow fliers distributed last Saturday night at Our Lady of Perpetual Help: “IF APRIL 7 IS YOUR BIRTHDAY: You are mystery figure. People attempt to penetrate your moods, thoughts, but seldom succeed.You give off vibrations indicating you are your own person…”
April 7 is D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s birthday.
Cafritz supporters celebrated with a late-night bash that evening, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s Panorama Room in Ward 8. Though coordinators later reported that partygoers had donated more than 8,000 volunteer hours to D.C. Public Schools—the suggested contribution—more than a few tables remained empty all night.
While Cafritz was busy recruiting school helpers, three of her fellow elected school board members—District 2 Representative Dwight Singleton, District 3 Representative Tommy Wells, and District 4 Representative William Lockridge—were in New Orleans, attending the National School Boards Association Conference.
The board’s appointed members—those education wizards brought in to save our schools from the democratic process—had other plans for the night. Appointed member Charles Lawrence told colleagues that he couldn’t find a baby sitter. Laura Gardner had other family commitments. Marian Saez was out of town. Cafritz’s political patron, Mayor Williams, had an unexcused absence. After waiting until midnight for Williams to arrive, birthday coordinators eventually proceeded with the presentation of presents and singing of “Happy Birthday.”
Partygoers knew of Hizzoner’s whereabouts by reading the newspaper the next morning: He was attending a black-tie tribute to Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn at the Ronald Reagan Building.
* When Detectives Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson would respond to a call to corral some hoodlums in East L.A., they’d fire up their 1974 Ford Torino, put on their game faces, and slap that red cherry on the roof.
LL thought that ritual had gone out of style—until we glimpsed a red police light perched on the dashboard of Ward 5 Councilmember Orange’s black Cadillac.
Had the District’s recently self-proclaimed “official watchdog” truly taken the law into his own hands?
In February 2000, Metropolitan Police Department analyst and security-firm executive Carl T. Rowan Jr. was charged with impersonating a police officer after placing flashing red and blue lights atop his car while supervising a motorcade for the prime minister of Montenegro. Rowan was later found not guilty.
Orange says he’s not a Starsky and Hutch wannabe. He’s a law creator, not an enforcer. “It was provided to me by the 5th District [police station],” Orange explains to LL. “And my predecessor had the light.”
The late Harry Thomas Sr., whom Orange defeated in 1998, cruised Ward 5’s streets and alleys every day in his black Thunderbird LX, reporting potholes and missing street signs. His successor clocks almost as many miles on his odometer. Orange, an omnipresent politician who races around town to community forums and neighborhood events practically every evening, swears he’s flipped the light on only twice: once to keep pace with Mayor Williams in a procession, once to dash over to the White House for a briefing on the anthrax scare.
But Orange notes that its effectiveness has limits: “One thing about the light is that it doesn’t have a siren.” CP
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