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When Abe Pollin announced that he was moving his basketball and hockey franchises from the suburbs to Chinatown, Mayor Marion Barry hailed a new engine for economic development in the District. City planners spoke of a downtown revival. And area entrepreneurs like Terry Suggs queued up for choice contracts.

Suggs makes his living giving people directions. His business, Capital Signs, located in Shaw just three blocks from Pollin’s new MCI Center, designs placards for buildings and stores in the metropolitan area.

Suggs knows that he could offer some help to sports fans in search of a refill or a place to unload a little of their own. But he says that he never saw any sign that the proprietors of the $200-million arena were interested in doing business with their new neighbors. Suggs sold six signs and a few dry-marker boards to the arena only after getting an inside tip on the job from a friend. A contractor from Maryland got most of the work.

“There’s 1,000 signs in there. I’m in there doing six pieces. Most of what got in [the MCI Center] I could have done,” Suggs says. “They didn’t look in my direction. If they went to the yellow pages, they’d see I’m right there.”

Suggs has a right to be disappointed. After all, Pollin owed the city something in return for the $56 million in public money used to clear the arena site and refurbish the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro stop. In talks with city officials, Pollin and other arena boosters framed the project as a boon for the embattled Shaw community, which lies between Logan Circle and North Capitol Street. Shaw was a thriving center for business and nightlife in its heyday but never recovered from the destruction inflicted by the riots of the late ’60s. Many businesses and middle-class families fled the neighborhood, and its economic core disappeared. Drugs and crime slowly filled the vacuum.

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The MCI Center looked like an ideal stimulus package for Shaw. The 950,000-square-foot facility packs not only a sports arena but also restaurants, shops, and an interactive sports exhibit open even when local teams have the night off. Neighborhood activists, however, contend that the arena has failed to convert on a promise to give qualified residents a chance at the nearly 2,000 jobs created by the arena.

According to Susan Gilbert, director of employer services for the city’s Department of Employment Services (DOES), the MCI Center hired 421 District residents for the project’s 1,052 construction jobs—despite an agreement that at least 51 percent of all MCI hires be District residents. Only 67 of the workers left the MCI work site for homes in Shaw at the end of the day. And none of the subcontractors who did such work as installing electrical wiring or pouring concrete came from Shaw.

Arena officials plan to make up the deficit by giving a majority of the 900 service sector jobs—many of them low-skill positions that pay little more than the minimum wage—to D.C. residents. Mary Davis, vice president of human resources for Centre Management, which monitors the arena’s day-to-day operations, reports that 88 percent of the 218 service workers brought on board so far live in the District. A detailed picture will not be available until mid-December, when the arena and its subcontractors complete their hiring.

“We’ve hired some wonderful people from the District,” says Davis. “I’m very excited about what we’re doing. I’m very excited about the effort we put forward.”

When presented with the complaints of Shaw activists, MCI officials cite a disconnect between their needs and the neighborhood’s resources. “There were no businesses on the construction site that could bid on packages,” explains Jim Minor, the affirmative action officer for Clark/Smoot Construction. “If there [were], I didn’t find any—simply because they don’t exist.”

But while Shaw is teeming with unemployed residents capable of handling grunt jobs as ticket takers, ushers, and food service workers, only 24 residents have been tapped for those positions.

“If there are people working from Shaw, where are they?” asks Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner Leroy Thorpe. “I sent hundreds down there to MCI. They were all turned away except for three or four people.”

Or they arrived too late. Most of the prime construction work was already contracted by the time neighborhood leaders met with arena officials to enhance Shaw representation in the MCI workforce. On Nov. 20 last year, John Stranix, chief operating officer for the MCI Center, signed a memorandum of understanding with a group of community activists including the neighborhood’s ANC representative, members of the Shaw/Northwest Task Force, and Ward 2 D.C. Council rep Jack Evans. The agreement was to establish a permanent community liaison staff to help plug local businesses and residents into MCI Center business, but the liaison never materialized.

For local businesses that lacked the financial wherewithal to win a contract outright, MCI agreed to a “dialogue” about opportunities and to explore mentorships with existing USAirways Arena vendors.

Activists such as Thorpe and Shaw Task Force member Rodney Foxworth point to the agreement as proof that MCI failed to channel resources and funds to local businesses.

“MCI said if we find these businesses, they’d help build capacity and mentor those businesses in an open, clear-cut process,” says Foxworth. “It was our understanding that there were going to be two or three or four businesses from Shaw physically inside. But that didn’t happen.”

Barry Silberman, a spokesman for Centre Management, insists that community leaders read a little too much into the agreement. “We’re trying our best to comply with commitments we made with the city. No specific commitments were made with Shaw,” Silberman insists. “We’ll help out with our human resources, but not from a funding standpoint.”

Silberman says there was discussion with community leaders about opportunities for Shaw businesses to receive administrative support and technical assistance from arena officials, but no funds were designated or guaranteed. He also notes that when the MCI Center offered to help local businesses to get up to a level to bid competitively with other firms, only one business came forward.

Silberman insists that the MCI Center’s commitments to the neighborhood are right on target. He cites eight job fairs held in recent months to boost the number of Shaw residents employed by the MCI Center. In addition, MCI has teamed up with some neighborhood nonprofits to sponsor job preparatory programs for the 600 jobs yet to be filled inside the arena.

“The community got on board late, and we weren’t as organized as we needed to be,” says June Hirsh, an aide for Evans. “I don’t think initially MCI was as responsive as it needed to be. If it weren’t for community organizations, I don’t think we’d have whatever we have now.”

If the opportunity was ever there, it is now officially missed. Shaw, which nobody argues is a hotbed of entrepreneurial interests, will remain stuck to the bottom while an economic behemoth rises in its midst.CP