[from June 1998 issue]

As the Convention Center debate continued to rage this spring more disturbing facts kept emerging--hard facts, in fact. Largely due to the persistence of members of the Committee of 100 and of the Shaw Coalition, as well as a few city council members--principally at-large member David Catania and Ward 6 member Sharon Ambrose, we have developed an even greater skepticism as to the appropriateness of locating this project nestled in the largely residential Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood.

If we had known back in the winter when we penned our monthly "From the Publisher's Desk" column what we now know, we're certain we would have taken a much harder line against the thing. (See, "Convention Center Conundrum," InTowner, February 1998, page 2.)

We are especially disturbed by what we see as the misrepresentations, as it now appears, that were put forth by the proponents regarding the guarantee of jobs galore for Shaw area residents. Those promises would, upon close examination of facts not previously understood by the public, seem to be nothing more than a sham--or to put it more delicately, be merely smoke and mirrors.

Here's the deal: WCCA (the Washington Convention Center Authority) and several Shaw neighborhood groups formulated with builder Clark-Smoot an agreement on jobs and apprentice programs. Presumably included in this agreement, and trumpeted by the WCCA, is a guarantee that 51 percent of the jobs will go to DC residents. But here's the rub: the contract doesn't actually provide for this result, notwithstanding the representations that have been repeated by the proponents.

The contract merely states that Clark-Smoot need only use its "best efforts" to reach the 51 percent goal--but that goal applies only to new hires! It is not clear, nor have there been any assurances to offset this concern, that Clark-Smoot and its many contractors don't already have all the workers they need already on their payrolls or under contract so that there could very well be in fact no new hires and therefore the community would get 51 percent of zip!

Anyway, all these assurance about 51 percent may be moot since the builder has broken off discussions with WCCA over this issue and has seemingly discarded the very plan they worked out with the Shaw community. Did the neighborhood's Ward 2 councilmember, Jack Evans, know about this wrinkle? Apparently not, since he, along with Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith and mayoral candidate Harold Brazil (plus Councilmembers Jarvis, Cropp, Allen and Thomas) voted on the first reading to support the financing package. But five members--Catania, Ambrose, Ward 3's Kathy Patterson, Ward 5's Kevin Chavous and at-large Hilda Mason) voted against. A second, and final, vote is scheduled by the city council on June 16. Make your calls now.

This serious, and even cruel, misrepresentation regarding job opportunities which gave hope to so many is reason enough to decide that locating the Convention Center behemoth in Shaw is not worth the sacrifice to the long-range quality of life for the neighborhood. But there have emerged in recent weeks other compelling reasons to doubt the wisdom of trying to squeeze this thing where it won't fit.

It's not just the recently announced admission that it will be too small within 10 years (really meaning six years, since one must subtract the four years it will take to build the thing; so there will only be six useful years available) that's so worrisome, but also that in order to make it possible to be constructed at a cost not to exceed $685 million, all sorts of major expense items have just disappeared from the ledger with no explanation of where the money will come from for those critical things.

For example, the $685 million "guaranteed maximum price" does not include any budgeted funds for environmental clean-up of contaminated soil, of which there is believed to be substantial amounts; the "GMP" does not include the costs of pumping ground water during construction and thereafter, yet that area of the city is laden with ground water thanks to suppressed streams that were diverted underground in the last century, nor is there any indication that anyone has considered the long-range adverse effect on a wide area around the center that is anticipated due to shifting of the water table thanks to the massive ground water displacement that will occur.

And, there's more: Not included is the cost for masonry material for the outer walls, the cost of installing the promised state-of-the-art voice, data and computer systems and networks in the building for the use of the paying customers, the cost of the catering and banquet kitchen equipment, the cost of a facility where trucks servicing the conventions will be parked, and the cost of an off-site construction materials storage yard. All these costs add up to an overwhelming amount of money, yet there seems to be no dedicated fund for all these things.

Coopers & Lybrand, which may have been working with "cooked" numbers, would have us believe that everything will be covered by the new hotel tax which will be a marvelous source of revenue for years to come because DC's hotel occupancy, which was an astounding 68 percent two years ago, will just keep growing to has much as 75 percent later in this decade. Talk about wishful thinking! This just won't happen; in fact, there will be--there always is--an economic slowdown and the private sector will definitely cut back on spending big bucks to send people to conventions. (It happens every time; in fact, the feds and state and local governments, which once were big delegate-senders, have long since cut way back.) To be sucked into this fantasy would be making the same blunder the city government, with the connivance of the city council, made in the 1980s. (Even then the council's finance chairman, John Wilson, was raising a red flag, but no one paid attention.)

Well, the proponents must be really scared that they are going to be proven wrong some day. They have even gone so far as to send out city inspectors from the public works department to write up fines against citizens who have posted protest signs against the convention center--that's the department that has trouble keeping the streets clean because they claim to have too few resources!

The problem with that tactic is that DC law (not to say anything about the First Amendment) does not prohibit the posting of political messages in public space (except on trees). Commercial advertising, yes; but not protest signs. Believe it or not, DPW has decided to categorize these protest signs as commercial messages!

We have learned that Channel 4 may have uncovered a nasty bit of scandal: that Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, a strong proponent, is behind this move. We fervently hope that this information is wrong. Evans is too much of a quality guy to let himself get pulled down like this--but then, the convention center conundrum has turned a lot of reasonable people into monsters. Let's back off while we still have an opportunity so that we can not only safe face, but also save a little grace.

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