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Why the Convention Center Financing Bill Doesn’t Make Any Sense
Dorothy Brizill
Testimony at the Joint Hearing of the City Council Committee on Finance and Revenue and Committee on Economic Development on
Bill 12-379
May 29, 1998




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Good afternoon. I am Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch, a nonprofit good government organization in the District of Columbia. This hearing today again exemplifies the usual underhanded, unfair, and shoddy practices of this City Council, and the citizens who come to testify are again, as so often before, saddled with the disabilities that this Council consistently imposes on citizens. None of the citizens of the District were given a copy of this financing bill until late last Friday afternoon. And most citizens who tried to get a copy of this bill during the past week were given the old, outdated, unamended version of the bill — because the responsible Committees never provided the office of Legislative Services with the amended version that is under consideration today. This pattern of preventing citizens from getting vital public information about economic development projects is habitual with this Council, and by now it has to be considered a deliberate policy.

Even members of the Council did not receive amended copies of this legislation until late Friday afternoon because the special interests who wrote the bill had not completed it until then. And the Washington Convention Center Authority and the hotel and restaurant industries have also ordered the Council to ignore citizen input and its own deliberative process and to rush the bill to a vote on Tuesday, and the Council has hastened to obey its masters. Does this Council have no sense of shame, and no sense of obligation to the citizens and taxpayers of the District of Columbia? Apparently not.

We have been told that the question today will be whether the convention center can be built for $650 million — not counting the fantasy exhibit space and tunnel between the existing convention center — which the WCCA doesn't own — and the new one, that would more than double the project's cost. The Washington Convention Center Authority meant to spring this $750 million additional project on the citizenry as a surprise at this hearing today — following their usual history of hiding their plans from the public until the last minute, so that the public can have no opportunity to review and comment on them.

But the fictional $650 project cost cap is not the question today. The question is not whether the books can be juggled to make it look as though the convention center at Mt. Vernon Square will cost $650 million. Of course they can. If enough convention center building expenses are ignored, or not counted, or accounted for on other budgetary lines, or delayed, you can always pretend that you believe it will cost less than $650 million. After all, I myself would have absolutely no housing expenses, if I used the Washington Convention Center Authority's accounting methods and didn't count my mortgage, taxes, insurance, utilities, or upkeep.

If you don't count the land cost or the interest cost, and if you postpone a couple hundred million dollars of the building costs to be paid through the operating budget in future years, this convention center will cost less than $650 million. But juggling the books doesn't change the real cost, and you can't force the citizens of the District to pretend that they believe that your pretense is anything more than the sham we all know it is.

The question today is also not whether the convention center will be built in the District or in the suburbs. Advocates of the Mt. Vernon site threaten us by saying that they have moved down the road so far in the direction of this mistake, and they've wasted so much money already planning to build on the wrong site, that it's too late to correct it, and that if we don't accept their initial foolish mistake in choosing the Mt. Vernon site they will forego their own self-interests and won't build any center at all. In their private moments, they will admit that this site is too small, too landlocked, and too expensive. But they will say that they can't possibly admit their mistake; that they have to persist in their folly and their waste of our tax dollars because it is too embarrassing for them to change their positions now.

Believe me, it will be more embarrassing to actually make the mistake and to build a convention center that will be outdated practically on the day that its doors open. Those who vote for this financing bill and for this convention center site should also insist that their names be carved in stone over the doorway. This inscription will remind everyone who, against all good sense and the facts they cannot deny they knew, decided to waste a billion dollars of taxpayer money. But carved in stone or not, your names will be remembered — perhaps in gratitude by the special interests whom you serve, but definitely in disrepute by the residents, taxpayers, and voters of this city whom you scorn and whom you fleece to finance this boondoggle.

Parenthetically, because I know the point will be raised, there is another fiction — that the residents of the District won't be paying for this convention center. We'll be paying in our taxes every time we buy a hamburger at a MacDonald's, every time we sit down to a restaurant meal, every time we rent a car, every time we put up a friend or relative at a nearby hotel. Hotels and restaurants aren't taking the costs of this white elephant out of their profits. Hotels and restaurants aren't paying any additional taxes themselves — they are simply collecting additional taxes from us, and we are the ones who will be paying for it.

The argument that is most often made is that if the convention center is not built on the Mt. Vernon site it will not be built in the District of Columbia at all. But the reason for this insistence on the Mt. Vernon site is never given. Certainly the Union Station site is preferable in size, cost, and amenities. We are not told whether the people to blame for their refusal to build anywhere else are the politicians on the Council or their special interest masters, and whether the reason for their refusal is pride, obstinacy, or spite — since it certainly is neither practicality nor rationality.

But let us examine whether it actually would be a problem if a convention center were built in the suburbs. Even the Washington Convention Center Authority estimates that 60 percent of the economic benefit of the existing convention center goes to the suburbs, and we know that this percentage will only increase with a new convention center. So why exactly should the taxpayers of the District foot the bill and bear the expense, when the benefits will go primarily to the suburbs?

If my husband said to me that we had to build a swimming pool in our backyard, at our expense, for the benefit of the neighborhood, it would not be a convincing argument for him to say that if we didn't build a pool, the Joneses next door would build one that we and everyone in the neighborhood could use. That would not be an added incentive; instead, it would be an argument against our building a pool. I would say to him, "Let the Joneses spend their money for a pool for our use, and let us keep our money for our own benefit." We don't have to waste our money to keep up with the Joneses. We don't have to waste a billion dollars on an instantly outdated convention center simply to satisfy the pride of a few rich and powerful hotel and restaurant executives. If Alexandria, or Fairfax, or Prince Georges County wanted to tax its residents, its businesses, its hotels and restaurants to bring convention business to the metropolitan region — if that far-fetched scenario were actually true — I would let them spend their money and I would thank them for their assistance to the District. If the Council had any sense, it would, too.

So what is the real question here today? It is not the merits of the issue. Those have been well aired and decided, and we all know that this financing bill cannot win any vote based on the merits of building a convention center on the Mt. Vernon square site. The question is the character of our Councilmembers, and who on the Council has the strength and the backbone to vote against folly and waste, and in the interests of the citizens. We will be watching you to see how you decide — not on the issue, but on your own integrity.

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