- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

As sporting events go, the series of boxing bouts tonight at the D.C. Armory likely will be viewed as unexceptional. But symbolically, the event marks a turning point for the future of the aging facility adjacent to RFK Stadium: The city’s sports commission plans to spend as much as $10 million to transform the Armory into a full-time venue for live sports and other events.

The night of boxing, which will air live on ESPN, is the first major sporting event to take place at the 10,000-seat Armory in four years and only the second to be held at the facility, officials believe, in decades.

If things fall into place, however, the bouts will be the first of a horde of similar events from professional lacrosse to volleyball to both college and professional basketball.

“The Armory is revenue-producing, but we feel like we can push that,” said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive officer of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “But we have to invest the money in it.”

The Armory was built in 1941 as the headquarters of the D.C. National Guard, which used the facility’s 64,000-square-foot main hall for drills.

The sports commission, through an agreement with the National Guard, controls the main hall, which has recently played host to circuses, political rallies, job fairs and conventions. The building also was used to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The commission plans to host at least two more boxing events and a mixed martial-arts event later this year, but sporting events at the Armory have been rare primarily because of the lack of air conditioning and locker rooms.

Mr. Lew is performing cost estimates to determine which upgrades will be needed to attract a full-time tenant and sporting events to the Armory throughout the year. He said preliminary estimates call for about $8.5 million to cover the cost of an upgraded electrical system, a basic air-conditioning system, a new scoreboard, locker rooms and repairs to bleachers and other seating.

“This will allow us to maximize its potential,” Mr. Lew said. “It fills a void, and we believe it’s probably long overdue at this point. This is the first time in the 21/2 years I’ve been here that there seems like a genuine level of support for what we’re talking about. I really believe that from a timing standpoint, maybe all the stars are kind of lining up.”

Renovating the Armory has been on the commission’s agenda for years, but efforts frequently were sidetracked by other priorities, such as luring a baseball franchise to Washington and building a new ballpark for the team. But with the ballpark construction well under way, the Armory has drawn new attention.

“Over the last two years, because of the magnitude of the baseball project, prior to this it would have been risky or even foolish to try and do other things,” said Matthew Cutts, who took over as sports commission chairman in March. “I think we’re in a position now to go back and say, how can we promote sports and entertainment in the District of Columbia? We have these assets and venues, and we want to maximize them.”

Mr. Lew and Mr. Cutts took board members on a tour of the facility earlier this month and formed a committee charged with bringing more events to the building.

Both men said that the Armory is underutilized even in its current state but that larger revenue-producing events can’t be held there without significant renovation.

Improving the electrical system and installing air conditioning is at the top of the list.

“Once you get to the late part of May and June, it’s so hot in there that you can’t really have fans and players and teams performing in there,” Mr. Lew said. “And those are the best months in terms of families and kids and stuff, so you find yourself losing those months because of the weather.”

The commission last year installed a new basketball floor at the Armory and is in the process of refurbishing certain areas of the facility to allow for locker rooms.

As many as a half-dozen funding options are on the table, including using the National Guard connection to receive at least some of the necessary money from the federal government.

But the commission members met most recently with D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi and his staff to discuss selling $10 million worth of bonds — enough to cover renovations and any unexpected costs — backed by future revenues generated at the Armory.

The city could reduce the amount it borrows to as little as $6 million by partnering with private banks through a special program designed to funnel money to historic buildings like the Armory.

But finding the money up front to satisfy bond rating agencies could prove challenging.

“With bond financing, you need to show a dedicated stream of income,” Mr. Cutts said. “And you can’t get a dedicated stream of income without a tenant, and without the upgrades to the facilities, you can’t get a tenant.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. It’s like, who can we go and talk to when the negotiation begins with ‘by the way, we don’t have team-style locker rooms and there’s no air conditioning, but we want to talk to you about bringing your team here’?”

Potential tenants include the National Basketball Association Development League and the National Lacrosse League (NLL), an indoor lacrosse league that has signed a memorandum of understanding with the sports commission to play at the Armory. The agreement with the NLL also calls for the league to build its Hall of Fame somewhere in the District, and the league has promised to fund lacrosse programs for every high school in the District.

NLL Commissioner Jim Jennings said he is waiting for the sports commission to sign the memorandum of understanding and said upgrades to the Armory are a crucial part of the deal.

“We told them that if they made those improvements, we’d bring a team,” Mr. Jennings said. “You need locker rooms, you need improved seating. And you need to clean the place up, basically. I think it would be great if that came to fruition and it would be a good venue for us.”

Any borrowing of money for Armory upgrades would require approval from the D.C. Council, which has not been formally briefed on the commission’s plans. Council members, many of whom supported the sale of $535 million in bonds for the Nationals’ new ballpark and $50 million in bonds for upgrades to Verizon Center, said they would support upgrades to the Armory but stopped short of saying they would support the use of public money.

“The renovation of the Armory is definitely something that is needed,” said Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat and member of the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue. “Certainly, a public-private partnership would be something I could stomach. I think that would be our first choice.”

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