- The Washington Times
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ted Leonsis told a D.C. Council committee on Wednesday that his controversial plan to put high-definition flat screens outside the Verizon Center could help teams inside the downtown arena lift the Stanley Cup or don championship rings one day.

Mr. Leonsis, president and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the arena and the city’s Capitals, Wizards and Mystics pro sports teams, testified that pending legislation to help him obtain up to nine HD panels would fill city coffers with tax revenue and provide his company with the kind of advertising revenue needed to sign big-name athletes.

Monumental wants to replace massive vinyl banners and a pair of electronic signs marred by “broken pixels” with the smaller, more energy-efficient signs, which would lie flat against the arena’s exterior walls.

The bill introduced by council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, would not greenlight the installation but set the conditions under which Monumental could apply for permits from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Ms. Alexander, chairman of the Committee on Public Services and Community Affairs, said she hopes to mark up the bill for the full council’s consideration before summer recess in mid-July.

Making his case to the committee, Mr. Leonsis said Monumental operates at a deficit because of high operating costs and more than $125 million in debt related to the arena’s construction.

Competing sports franchises obtained more financial assistance for their venues than Monumental did, affording those teams more financial leeway to acquire great players, he said.

“Our goal is to be perennially playoff teams and to compete for championships, and frankly that costs money,” Mr. Leonsis said.

Cash flow from the exterior screens would help Monumental break even and one day make a profit, he told council members.

Critics of the proposal predict the screens will be a blight that could distract drivers, detract from the District’s charm and spoil views of the Old Patent Office Building across from the arena along Seventh Street Northwest.

“In New York City, Times Square is not opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” said Thomas Bower, president of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, to Ms. Alexander’s committee.

Mr. Leonsis‘ company projects the signs will generate $8 million to $10 million in tax revenue for the District over the next five years.

From the dais, Ms. Alexander said it is no secret that the Verizon Center has served as “a catalyst for economic and commercial development” in the Chinatown and Penn Quarter neighborhoods since it was built in 1997. After the hearing, she said Monumental’s plan appears reasonable and takes into account many of the concerns of local businesses and residents.

“I think if [the plan] would add to the District of Columbia, then I’m not opposed to it,” Ms. Alexander said.

But opponents such as Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, painted a dismal picture of the screens as light pollutants that would create a harmful distraction.

“It’s like having a big TV screen across the street,” she told the committee.

Other witnesses said they think Monumental is getting preferential treatment through legislation that exclusively addresses its business needs, although Ms. Alexander later noted the bill could set precedent for other sports venues, such as Nationals Park in Southeast.

Monumental officials said the new screens would be dimmer than the GEICO video screen that already juts out from the building.

“It’s not like someone is flashing a strobe light,” said Randall Boe, executive vice president for Monumental, as he flipped through slides in a video presentation for the committee.

The screens would shut off at midnight and not emit sound, qualities that assuaged some local business owners’ concerns. An advisory committee has been established to vet any of the community’s ongoing concerns.

Monumental officials said they would like to have screens up by the fall sports season but would comply with the city’s timetable.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said the arena has been a “huge boon for the city” but digital signs have “always been controversial.”

“No one will always be satisfied,” Mr. Evans said. “No one will always get what they want.”