- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The D.C. Council yesterday bowed to a request from Wizards owner Abe Pollin and gave preliminary approval to the sale of $50 million in bonds to fund improvements to the Verizon Center.

The council voted 9-2 to allow the city to increase taxes on tickets and merchandise at the downtown arena from 5.75 percent to 10 percent, with the additional tax revenue used to pay off the bonds.

The measure includes a provision that extends the arena’s ground lease an additional 20 years to 2047, and it requires the Wizards to present a development plan with specific details on the arena upgrades. Operators of the arena also must continue their current lease payments to the city.

The move to raise money for upgrades to the 10-year-old Verizon Center came at the request of Mr. Pollin, who said the improvements are needed to keep the arena modern. Most council members supported the use of public money for the improvements because Mr. Pollin paid for the construction of the Verizon Center with $220 million of his own money, and because the arena has been viewed as a driver for redevelopment in the area near Chinatown.

Mr. Pollin said he cannot pay for the upgrades because he is still paying off about $110 million in debt toward Verizon Center construction. He has also said he cannot raise the money alone because he has no control over ticket prices for the Capitals and teams other than the Wizards that play in the arena.

Planned upgrades include a renovation of luxury suites and a new scoreboard.

The bill requires a second vote by the council before it is approved.

A spokesman for Mr. Pollin did not return a call requesting comment.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, called the area around Verizon Center “the Times Square of the metropolitan region,” and said the arena can maintain its status as an attraction only through constant improvements.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, said he would like to see Verizon Center host more major sporting events, including games of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament and the NBA and NHL All-Star games.

“We ought to be a regular on that circuit, but all of that is predicated on having an arena that is able to do that,” Mr. Gray said. “We won’t be able to do that unless we have a top-drawer, top-class arena.”

Council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, voted against the bill in part because of fear the city would be unable to repay the bonds if there were a player strike or other problem that would cause games at Verizon Center to be canceled.

Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, also voted against the bill and said he was concerned about the city’s recent level of borrowing, which includes $535 million toward a new ballpark for the Nationals. On a per-capita basis, the District has the highest debt of any major city in the country.

“I understand this is supposedly a small amount, but we will reach a point when we will have to pick and choose,” Mr. Wells said. “We have other areas of Washington that need investment.”

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