DC Liberals Scrap Over New Wizards Arena In Poor Community

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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The Washington, D.C., mayor and members of the Democratic city Council are at odds over a proposed multi-million dollar project to build a practice facility for the Washington Wizards basketball team, which critics say could run massively over budget.

Originally announced in September, the practice facility would also serve as the arena for the Washington Mystics, a women’s basketball team, as well as a venue for concerts and other events in the city. The development site is in the eastern part of the St. Elizabeth’s campus in Ward 8. Proponents of the plan argue it will be a boon for the struggling community, which some charge is often overlooked by D.C. Council funding projects, reports Washington City Paper.

Critics of the proposal are concerned over the potential unmitigated costs to the city once development begins. The plan to build a 5,000 seat facility in Ward 8, originally announced in September, carries a price tag of roughly $50 million. The costs are distributed between sports group Events DC, Wizards-owning firm Monumental Sports and the District government, with the city footing $23 million of the development.

“The issue here is not accountability for spending too much in Ward 8,” LaRuby May, Council member for Ward 8 wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post. “It is that the District hasn’t spent enough in Ward 8. The District has invested in assets that have been anchors to development in affluent neighborhoods, but now that the investment is an underserved community, the strategy should change?”

In its current form the D.C. government is on the hook for any overrun costs that arise as the development project unfolds. The District historically struggles to stay within budget on large development projects. The city built Nationals Park on a $435 million budget, but costs ran out of control, and the final estimate came to around $700 million, reports The Washington Post. D.C. taxpayers were responsible for the difference, and that sting has remained in the Council’s memory.

At-Large member Elissa Silverman, one of the few Independents on the D.C. Council, introduced a bill in March capping the District’s total contribution to the Wizard’s facility at $50 million. Cosponsoring the bill are five other Council members, including prominent Council Democrats Kenyan McDuffie and Mary Cheh. Backlash from fellow Council members supporting the stadium project and Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser has been swift.

“It boggles my mind that being responsible and disciplined with our budget is seen as an act of heresy in this city,” Silverman told Washington City Paper.

Proponents of the deal such as Mayor Bowser argue the project will rejuvenate the Ward 8 community, which they say is in need of financial stimulus. Bowser says the plan will create jobs, businesses and bring in $90 million in revenue for the city over the next two decades. Supporters of the plan have bashed Silverman and the $50 million budget limit for the city.

“This rush-to-judgment crusade limits investment in a community that has been underserved for decades,” May wrote in her op-ed for The Washington Post. “It does not consider that this investment in our community is bigger than basketball. Again, we are being forced into the shade.”

Silverman defends her position, arguing greater transparency is needed in the process, especially on the issue of overrun costs. In a recent op-ed in the Greater Greater Washington, Silverman blasted the current plan as fiscally “reckless,” saying costs could easily exceed $100 million once development commences.

“The District has a poor track record delivering capital projects on time and on budget,” wrote Silverman. “If we don’t bring a basic level of transparency and accountability to the Wizards project, it could easily grow far beyond our original $50 million investment. A reckless approach to budgeting will not bring more permanent jobs and development to Ward 8, and, in fact, it could impact the money Events DC has available for important promises it has made in terms of workforce development and community programming.”

Due to the private funding involved in developing the site the project does not need approval from the D.C. Council. The site is expected to begin early infrastructure work in April.

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