D.C. Armory has long existed in the shadows of the city’s sporting spotlight. While adjacent RFK Stadium gets dressed up for the Washington Nationals, a planned ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront moves toward reality and MCI Center prepares for this week’s ACC tournament, the armory remains an afterthought.
It has been that way for years. Ever since the armory, also the home for the D.C. National Guard, lost its status as a regional boxing mecca in the 1980s, a slow decline set in; the facility at 2001 East Capitol St. now is perhaps best known as a home for traveling circuses and Inaugural Balls.
But more than 60 years after the armory opened, the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission is aggressively pursuing a wholesale renovation that will include a new facade, a much-needed air conditioning system, improvement to the locker rooms and a new floor for basketball. Further down the wish list is a new, premium-grade indoor track. The current aim is to have most of the upgrades in place by early 2008, the same time the Nationals’ new ballpark is due to open.
“This is a critical facility, and it’s long overdue that we get it up to date,” said Mark Tuohey, sports commission chairman. “We’re going to have to figure this out. If we can get the locker room, floor and [air conditioning] done, it’s fat city for us, and we’ll be in the mix for all kinds of events for the armory.”
Tuohey and the commission are eyeing a wide variety of events for the facility, which can seat nearly 10,000 for most functions. If the improvements can be made, bids will be made for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournaments, city high school basketball championships, top-tier amateur track meets and a franchise in a pro basketball minor league now being contemplated by NBA commissioner David Stern.
But finding the money for the ambitious wish list is precisely where dreams turn murky. The bill for the renovations could run as high as $75million, said David Wherley, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard. Roughly $10million of that would go for air conditioning and related utility work. Without air conditioning, the sports commission generally does not book events between May and September.
The U.S. Department of Defense has made a few allocations for armory improvements over the last several years, most recently an $800,000 grant to shore up falling concrete from parts of the facade. Design work for several pieces of the renovation plan also has been completed. And predictably, the feds stand as the current focus of the lobbying efforts for more funds.
But nobody has stepped forward with a comprehensive investment in the facility’s future. And borrowing against the increase in Armory booking revenue expected as a result of the renovations is all but impossible without long-term leases in hand first.
“This is not a simple thing, but I think we’re trying to convince various constituencies of what this could be and try to build bridges,” Wherley said. “The armory obviously has its purpose as a National Guard center, but I also want to make this a true community center focused on youth activities.”
Followers of the sports commission and District politics will recall that many city officials have banged the armory renovation drum in the past. In particular, Bobby Goldwater, former commission executive director, tried to recapture its storied boxing past through the booking of a handful of mid- and lower-tier bouts.
But a number of issues — including internal financial problems within the sports commission, the failed bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the continued decline of organized boxing — have conspired to depress any urgency by public officials to pump serious money into the armory. A $5million sum earmarked for improvements in the sports commission’s 2003 budget quickly was removed by the D.C. Council.
There is some pull, however, now on the side of Tuohey, Wherley and other advocates. The sports commission, after many years of political troubles, is riding a big wave of momentum after the high-profile success in the Montreal Expos relocation derby and the celebrated birth of the Washington Nationals. And the lobbying for funds now includes a pointed message of the need for enhanced security in the age of terrorism.
“We obviously want to upgrade this as a sports facility, but this also needs to be available to the city as a shelter in the case of an attack,” Tuohey said. “There are so many potential uses for the armory, but that one is very, very important.”