After three years, D.C. council hearings, community discussions and at least $68 million, the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast opened with much fanfare Saturday, as local business owners, lawmakers, dignitaries and residents converged on the St. Elizabeths East campus in celebration of what’s anticipated to transform one of D.C.’s most economically underdeveloped neighborhoods.
Hundreds of guests joined D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), surrounded by arena partner organizations Events DC and Monumental Sports & Entertainment and others, in celebrating the ribbon cutting of the 120,000-square-foot, 4,200-seat arena, hours before tipoff at the Goodman League Tournament of Champions.
“Our main focus areas will be basketball, amateur sports, combat sports and concerts,” said Erik Moses, senior vice president and managing director of sports and entertainment at Events DC.
Local officials in 2015 announced plans for the arena, which serves as a Wizards training facility and home court for Mystics and Capital City Go-Go, the city’s new G League team.
Next month, Mary J. Blige and Jacob Banks will perform at the venue’s first concert. MLK Deli, located a couple doors down from The Informer on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, will also serve food in the arena.
Moses, who has been with Events DC for 10 years, said surrounding retail and residential offerings will follow, bringing development to the St. Elizabeths East campus and Congress Heights similar to what has been experienced in other parts of the city.
“We’re on a reservation that they gave us 80 acres of,” Moses said. “This is about re-positioning and giving people a timely reason to experience it. [With] residential and retail, this will be a real neighborhood, not different from what they’re doing at Walter Reed [in Northwest]. A lot of people aren’t familiar [with Congress Heights], and this will make them so.”
The Bowser administration projected the Entertainment and Sports Arena to generate $90 million in new tax revenue over 20 years and attract 380,000 visitors annually.
When city officials first announced the project, construction costs stood at $55 million, to be paid for by Events DC, Monumental Sports & Entertainment and D.C. taxpayers. Monumental Sports & Entertainment also pledged $10 million in neighborhood development over a 19-year period.
Since then, arena construction costs increased twice, the most recent price hike revealed by Events DC CEO Gregory O’Dell in March, to the chagrin of D.C Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At-large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chair of the council’s finance and revenue committee.
In response to concerns the arena’s costs, Bowser cautioned against holding back on an investment would pay dividends for St. Elizabeths East campus and people living in the surrounding communities. In her remarks Saturday morning, she spoke about Ward 8 residents’ longtime desire for the Entertainment and Sports Arena.
“The ANC commissioners spoke up for the project and the people of Ward 8 didn’t let the budget die,” Bowser told audience members to a round to applause as she touted her commitment to equitable economic development throughout the District.
“Our city moves forward with all parts,” she said. “When I came in, we didn’t have major development [here]. In order for that to happen, we had to have a big investment, just like it was at the Wharf [in Southwest]. It had to come from the taxpayer. And doesn’t Congress Heights deserve it?” Bowser rhetorically asked guests, issuing a challenge to those who thought differently.
Local lawmakers in the space on the morning of Sept. 22 included Evans and D.C. Council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8), who also gave public remarks.
Others on the scene at the Entertainment and Sports Arena were Ed Fisher, executive director of St. Elizabeths East campus, Cora Masters Barry, former Ward 8 Council member LaRuby May, and James Butler and Dionne Reeder, D.C. mayoral and Council candidates, respectively.
Before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, go-go band Rare Essence kept guests two-stepping and grooving to classic tunes. People walked around the St. Elizabeths East campus and sampled mini-sandwiches, fried fish, chicken wings, fries, desserts and other food items from local businesses. Face painters prepared children for hours of play, and community members mixed colors on large canvases of their own.
Andrew L. Gaston Jr., Ballou Senior High School staff member and Southeast resident of 30 years, watched Rare Essence with his daughter, grateful that she and other young people will have one more place to have fun.
“It’s a wonderful thing for the community, the kids and the older folk,” said Gaston, also CEO of Go-Go Royalty, LLC, a go-go music preservation company. “It gives the kids an opportunity to go somewhere safe and see sporting events
“This is a place where businesses can attract kids to the neighborhood,” he said. “I don’t have concerns. It’s around the corner and the community is ready for something like this.”
Southeast resident Gladys Mealy, 81, who lives near Brothers Place, said she’s looking forward to shopping and enjoying entertainment just minutes away from her residence. On Saturday, she and her friends immersed themselves in the pandemonium.
“I’m looking forward to the Mystics and the shopping,” Mealy said. “I got enough clothes, but I can buy stockings and go to the drug store and grocery store. It’s good we don’t have to go all the way to Eastover or the Safeway on Alabama Avenue, so I’m looking forward to that.”
For other Southeast residents, like Kellie Carroll, the new Entertainment and Sports Arena, even with its benefits, would cause more financial strife for Congress Heights residents in mundane ways, like new parking meters along major roads.
“You put meters in the poorest part of the city where people don’t have jobs, that’s more pressure,” said Carroll, an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense, as she provided suggestions for attracting residents without means.
“Bring jobs and complementary invitations to people. Collectively we don’t have a lot of money, so they should be mandated to raffle off things for residents,” said Carroll, 52.
The median household income in Congress Heights is slightly above $33,000, with more than a quarter of residents making less than $25,000 annually.
Earlier this month, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner reportedly said 1,000 jobs had been created in the construction of the Entertainment and Sports Arena.
By April, at the halfway completion mark of the facility’s construction, $1.2 million had been doled out in wages to D.C. residents. That month, before a scheduled arena job fair, O’Dell told reporters that out of the nearly 40 percent of the construction workers who live in the District, a quarter live in Wards 7 and 8.
White, a millennial and lifelong Ward 8 resident, said he has been involved in efforts to maintain a balance between economic development and protection of residents who will feel the brunt of increasing property taxes over the years.
Last week, he told The Informer about conversations he had around community land trusts and displacement-free zones, through which the city can maintain affordable housing in resource-filled, economically diverse areas.
In his public remarks on Saturday, White reflected on the significance of the Entertainment and Sports Arena for Ward 8 constituents who felt neglected amid the revitalization that’s engulfed other parts of the District over the last decade.
“This is what I call big vision, and it’s happening in Ward 8,” he told guests gathered under a tent in front of the new arena as he reflected on his family’s history in the community and acknowledged the work of the late Marion S. Barry, his mentor and onetime mayor and Ward 8 council member.
“For far too long, people didn’t want to invest in our community,” White said, stressing the importance of prioritizing residents’ well-being so they too can take part in the economic activity at the St. Elizabeths East campus.
“If you walk along Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, people are not engaged. We must commit to building our people, as we do to building our communities,” he added. “We have some great businesses in this community that have participated and looking for business opportunities. We want to further our commitment to show you can live here, build here and benefit in the long run.”
For Ron Moten, a youth advocate from Check It Enterprises, a clothing store on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast, the city’s youth must be industrious and equipped to take advantage of opportunities that come from the presence of a state-of-the-art arena in Congress Heights.
“My goal is to make sure the young people are part of the economics,” said Moten, who wore a pink campaign shirt in support of Reeder. “Things are moving in the right direction. People should practice citizenship and stay engaged. We have to make sure our people are here and prepared to be a part of the change.”