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DC joins the private sports arena bandwagon

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On December 28, Abe Pollin gave sports fans and taxpayers in the District of Columbia a late Christmas present when he agreed to finance a new downtown sports arena himself. The 71-year-old owner of the NBA Bullets and NHL Capitals promised to raise $180 million to build a 23,800-seat facility a few blocks from Capitol Hill.

Pollin initially had asked the city to put up half the money, and the D.C. Council had approved a $90-million bond issue to be repaid by new taxes. Congress, however, would have to endorse any bond issue. And last fall, Robert Johnson, president of Black Entertainment Television, offered to build a sports arena and pay for it himself. Since Johnson doesn't own a sports franchise, he asked for assurances that if Pollin sold his teams Johnson would get a chance to buy them.

With Johnson's competing offer on the table and the city's fiscal crisis making national headlines, local officials convinced Pollin to come up with most of the money himself. Taxpayers will still spend nearly $15 million to purchase the site and perhaps twice that much to prepare it for the arena, but the arena will get no other government subsidies. Pollin will pay $600,000 a year to lease the property.

Owners of major sports franchises have often tried to hold cities for ransom, threatening to move their teams if taxpayers wouldn't finance new stadiums. Washington's new arena will become part of a new trend: predominantly private sports complexes. Boston Garden will be replaced by the $160-million Shawmut Center, which will get all of its money privately. Philadelphia's $215-million CoreStates Center will receive only $20 million from local and state taxpayers. And less than 15 percent of the $262 million spent to build the Rose Arena Garden in Portland will come from local taxes.