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Muriel Bowser and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis headed to the St. Elizabeth’s East campus this morning to announce the city’s deal to build an arena and basketball practice facility in Ward 8.
Along came what seemed like most of the Bowser cabinet, several Mystics and Wizards players, and Wizard mascot G-Wiz—a hefty entourage that fits what the mayor sees as a big project.
“This is a BFD,” Bowser declared, taking a cue from Joe Biden.
Even the deal’s opponents can’t admit the stadium-cum-practice-facility isn’t a big deal, but it might not be a good one. In exchange for using the arena for his Mystics WNBA team games and as a practice facility for the Wizards, Leonsis’ Monumental Sports will pay $5 million in rent upfront and put $10 million of investments into the surrounding community.
District taxes, on the other hand, will cover around 90 percent of the $55 million project, with $23 million coming from the city and $27 million coming from Events D.C., which will operate the building.
Asked whether billionaire Leonsis was contributing enough, Bowser sidled around the question.
“We negotiated a great deal,” she said.
That question will go instead to the D.C. Council, which will consider the package. Bowser declined to put a deadline on when her administration will send the deal to the Council.
The practice facility will be located on the St. Elizabeths campus, next to the Congress Heights Metro station. Bowser said she didn’t think Metro would have to expand the station.
Speakers at the event kept coming back to the same talking point: that the deal is “bigger than basketball.” Indeed, in order to raise $90 million in tax revenue over 20 years, the arena has to host 90 non-basketball events a year.
“We needed a game changer here at St. Elizabeths,” Bowser said. “We’ve heard a lot of what was going to happen at St. Eizabeths, we just haven’t seen it happen.”
Leonsis said the arena could host bands and children’s shows, although he conceded that it will take a few years to get patrons used to traveling to Congress Heights for events. The planned 5,000-seat arena could conceivably draw the same acts that currently play similar-sized DAR Constitution Hall, which has 3,702 seats.
Leonsis compared the mostly vacant St. Elizabeths campus to Chinatown before the Verizon Center provided an impetus for new stores and restaurants.
“There’s not a neighborhood right around here, so it all can be built,” Leonsis said, looking around the campus.
Of course, Verizon Center-driven revitalization worked so well that some of the area’s last Chinese residents are now struggling to hold on. Asked how she would handle the increased property values in nearby Congress Heights if the project succeeds, Bowser said it was a “conundrum” her administration would look at.
After the press conference, LL was talking with anti-violence activist Ron Moten when a young black man spoke up.
“Let me ask you this,” he said to Moten. “You think we’re gonna be included?”
“We gotta make sure we’re included,” Moten replied.
Photo by Will Sommer