Not out of commission

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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.”

But selling will be tough. RFK is 47 years old, making it a secondary choice for many concerts and events. And the commission has estimated it will cost $6.25 million to add air conditioning, improve lighting and upgrade restrooms at the D.C. Armory to make it an attractive place for events. Early plans call for renovating the Armory to make it suitable for concerts and some sports, but the improvements likely will require a private partner.

“It’s a 68-year-old building,” Moses said. “It has the issues you would expect. It’s going to cost something, and we’re not in a position to put a lot of capital dollars into the building right now.”

Commission officials appear resigned to attracting smaller-scale events.

“I don’t want to be the guy who runs out and tries to chase the Janet Jackson concert for five months when there’s no way in hell Janet Jackson’s going to play RFK or the Armory,” Moses said. “You could spin your wheels chasing events you’re not real well-suited for.”

Commission officials said they know D.C. United will move into a new soccer-specific stadium within the next several years. Once that happens, the commission must decide whether to continue using RFK to attract events or consider demolishing it.

“We’re right at that point of ‘What do we do with this facility?’” Cutts said. “We have a number of ideas floating around, but none of them have any more traction than the next.”

One proposal Hall and council member Jack Evans championed calls for RFK to be demolished and replaced by a new, retractable-roof stadium for the Redskins. But that idea has yet to progress beyond cocktail party chatter.

“We’re still working through it,” Cutts said. “One thing we want to do is find out what we could offer [the Redskins]. Until we know that, there’s no point in having a conversation with them. It’s certainly something that we think we’d be willing to put some time and effort into it.”

And for now, commission members aren’t allowing ambition to outpace their abilities.

“Matthew and I play this game all the time, where we bat big ideas back and forth about what we could do,” Moses said. “And we could throw 100 of them up against a wall every day, and I could spend a bazillion hours chasing each of those.

“But if we don’t have the team and resources to pursue those kinds of initiatives, I don’t want to be accused of wasting valuable time and resources on something that is unlikely to happen. On the other hand, I do want to think big. So I think that will be the challenge, figuring out how we swing for the fences but maybe not every time we come up to bat.”

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