- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission was almost solely focused on the issue of baseball for more than a decade. But with a team and stadium now in place, the commission is faced with the question: What next?

Armed with a new chief executive officer and some cash from the city, there is a focus on bringing new events to Nationals Park and RFK Stadium. There’s talk of reshaping the D.C. Armory into an entertainment venue. And, long term, there are thoughts of new homes for D.C. United and the Washington Redskins.

But it will be a tough slog.

In a twist of irony, the commission’s success in building Nationals Park indirectly created a cash crunch. The commission had collected more than $5 million annually in rent from the Nationals at RFK, but the rent payments on Nationals Park will be used to pay back construction bonds.

“We’re a victim of our own success,” said Bill Hall, the commission’s vice chairman.

The D.C. Council in May reluctantly approved $2.5 million in subsidy for both the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years to keep the commission afloat. Given the budget troubles, there was speculation the D.C. government would absorb the commission in similar fashion to the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation and National Capital Revitalization Corporation.

The commission’s future got murkier when CEO Greg O’Dell was recruited to head the Washington Convention Center Authority, but Erik Moses, the former director of the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development, took over as commission CEO at the beginning of this month.

“I think it’s good for the commission to have to justify its existence and defend its resume from time to time,” said Hall, who recalled a similar ordeal after the Redskins left the city in 1997. “We are here to stay, and we will continue to demonstrate the value that we bring to Washington.”

Hall, Moses and commission chairman Matthew Cutts are still negotiating with the Nationals to finish final details of the new ballpark and collect the first rent payment. But they have found there is time to explore other initiatives.

“We do have more time,” Moses said. “Part of the challenge for me and the board is trying to refocus our attention to those things outside of baseball and the construction of the stadium. And that takes some time because for the last four or five years, this organization has been focused on one goal.”

Now the commission has two main goals: luring events to Nationals Park, RFK Stadium and the D.C. Armory and lending expertise to companies and other agencies in the city.

There are some early signs of success. The commission hosted the city’s high school baseball championship game at Nationals Park in May. A recent Ethiopian Sports Federation festival at RFK Stadium attracted more than 45,000 people, and in June the commission helped the Washington Kastles build a temporary tennis stadium.

But commission officials want to do more. Its marketing consultant, Desho Productions, created a database of potential events for RFK and the Armory but has yet to receive credit for attracting one.

To trim expenses, the commission laid off workers and now operates with a skeleton crew. There is one person on staff in charge of all marketing and communications. Only one lawyer is available to draw contracts and help negotiate leases.

“We don’t have marketing people,” Moses said. “We don’t have sales people. Are we going to be an organization that picks up the phone when people call and say, ‘How much can we book the Armory for?’ Or are we going to make those phone calls? And my view, and the chairman’s view and the board’s view, is that we’re going to make those phone calls.”

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