Congress Heights Awaits Entertainment and Sports Arena

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Before a packed gathering at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center last month, a roll call was given acknowledging the contributions of 18 certified business enterprises to site preparation and construction of the new 4,200-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena. Scheduled to open in Congress Heights in September, the facility will be the home of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Washington Mystics and the National Basketball Association (NBA) G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go, and will serve as a practice facility for the NBA’s Washington Wizards.

“In five years we will be a $40 million company,” Fred Hill of Bangor Street SE told the audience. Hill sported a fluorescent sweatshirt screened with the logo of his company, Gotta Go Now, a portable sanitation company servicing the construction site. After recognizing a number of trade companies and their workers, nearby MLK Deli was lauded for providing catering for the meeting’s more than 100 attendees.

With the pouring of concrete beginning last July, the raising of steel superstructure this past October and the exterior expected to be completed by March 2018, 80 percent of the development work has been purchased, according to information shared with the public. As of late last year, Ward 7 and Ward 8 businesses were awarded $8 million in contracts, exceeding an initial goal of $5 million. At any time, there are 60 to 70 workers on site with one in four of them living in Wards 7 or 8. As of late October, local workers had accrued more than a half-million dollars in earned wages.

To secure skilled workers in sprinkler fitting, sheet metal, carpentry, drywall, ceramic tile and masonry, and “lots of painters,” there will be ongoing outreach to more than 20 workforce development organizations and trade unions. In the coming weeks, solicitations will be released for a food and beverage provider, IT provider, janitorial services and security services. Qualified bidders will be looking to hire local residents.

Neighborhood Investments Accompany Arena
While significant attention was devoted to the labor component of the development, Greg O’Dell, president of Events DC, who will manage the arena, confirmed that Congress Heights and adjacent neighborhoods will be supported over the next 19 years with $10 million of investments through a community benefits agreement (CBA).

Following an exhaustive process of meetings in which more than 3,000 individuals were contacted, with more than two dozen local nonprofit community and faith-based organizations represented, the CBA was recently finalized.

“The CBA is good because it will benefit some of us in Ward 8, and anything that benefits Ward 8 is an improvement,” said Sandra “SS” Seegars, a respected and long-time civic leader in the Congress Heights area. Seegars has chaired the Community Outreach Committee since the spring of 2016, when initial meetings began to form the CBA package, and has advocated for local scholarships and free meeting space, among other amenities.

“It is never easy,” remarked O’Dell, referring to the CBA. “There have been lots of starts and stops east of the river. Initially there was a mistrust but we made sure we built rapport with the community, as well as establishing benefits.”

Reserving judgment on the potential impact of the CBA, Seegars said, “If we put the right people on the Implementation Committee it will pan out. If not it, will be like the rest of them and won’t go anywhere.”

According to information disclosed at the meeting by Randy Boe, an executive with Monumental Sports, aside and separate from the CBA, $60,000 was committed this year through the Monumental Sports Entertainment Foundation (MSEF) to support the United Black Fund and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Parade, Shoot Hoops Not Bullets Basketball Tournament, Congress Heights Day and annual operations of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. In subsequent years, MSEF funds may be directed toward a variety of organizations, events and causes.

Future of St. Es East versus St. Es West
With all regulatory approvals obtained, the St. Elizabeths East (ESA) campus is fully under construction, with the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development managing ongoing site infrastructure. A topping-off ceremony was held on Jan. 11, while road work and utility infrastructure are continuing with the next phase of development.

“Our job is to bring people to the city,” said Event DC’s O’Dell, who manages multiple venues across the city including the Convention Center, DC Armory and Nationals Park. “From our perspective we have a mission to manage these venues to drive economic development for the city.”

O’Dell sees the ESA “as a chance to be a catalyst for this area. We are making this investment in hopes it will be a catalyst for other investments to come.”

Whereas, more than a decade ago, the federally owned West Campus was tapped to consolidate the sprawling Department of Homeland Security and predicted by some to bring economic development to Congress Heights and adjacent neighborhoods, it appears the DC government is poised to strike first with its revitalization efforts.

“We are bringing life back to the long-vacant St. Elizabeths East campus with the Entertainment and Sports Arena, new affordable housing, office and retail space, transforming it into a place to live, work and be entertained,” explained Chanda Washington, director of communications for the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

Following the success of Gateway DC, a green space and pavilion on the East Campus which has hosted the Broccoli City Festival and other musical acts since its opening in 2013, the new arena is planned to be more than the home court of established and emerging basketball talent.

“What makes the Entertainment and Sports Arena extra special is that it is a first-of-its-kind, dual-practice facility and entertainment venue in the country and the first new major entertainment venue to be built east of the river in decades,” Washington said. “This facility represents the administration’s commitment in making St. Elizabeths a sought-after destination for all residents and visitors of Washington, DC.”

According to a report last month by Federal News Radio (FNR), while the West Campus’ Center Building, where the DHS secretary’s office has long been planned, is fully funded and under construction, “excessive deterioration and structural repairs” have caused unexpected delays. Many years ago, on a tour of the Center Building with federal officials, I was told that when the building was vacated the heat was inadvertently left on for an undisclosed amount of time, causing incalculable damage to the 19th-century structure.

A chart compiled by FNR suggests that occupation of the Center Building may be pushed back as far as the first quarter of 2019, with full renovation of the West Campus, including a new access road, delayed to 2024. For information on the renovation of the West Campus visit www.stelizabethsdevelopment.com.

For information on the development of the East Campus visit http://stelizabethseast.com.