MCI Center ode to consumerism New D.C. arena offers sports, entertainment, could rejuvenate area

November 25, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A 12-foot-tall Tina Turner in a miniskirt is belting out a song without sound, dwarfing construction workers who hustle around her in bursts of motion.

The focus of the fuss is not the lion-haired singer, but something with perhaps even greater appeal for this city: A 20,500-seat sports-and-entertainment complex that many hope will spark a business revival in a troubled corner of downtown Washington.

As crews prepare the new MCI Center for its opening next Tuesday -- laying the floor, testing the fire alarms, trying out the large-screen television with a giant, gyrating Tina -- some folks here envision it bringing more than winning teams and sports fans.

"My hope was that the MCI Center would be the catalyst to turn the city around," said Abe Pollin, the owner of the Capitals hockey team and the Wizards basketball team, the two professional franchises that will make the MCI Center their new home. "Somebody had to step forward."

Pollin says he is that somebody. It is his dream that the arena will rejuvenate a long-struggling area of the capital and transform the way sports complexes are used. He wants to make the building at least as much the center of attention as the events it attracts.

The $200 million sports complex will double as a tourist attraction, open 365 days a year. The idea has its allure. Walt TC Disney Co. came calling for a space in the center, but the site was already taken, and Pollin had to turn the company down.

While other sports complexes may offer a microbrewery or a gift shop, the MCI Center is unique for its whole-hearted embrace of large-scale consumerism. Few arenas offer so many ways for people to get separated from their money. Behind the arena's arched concrete and glass facade is a restaurant where diners can watch the Wizards shoot baskets on their practice court.

Also available: An interactive gallery with nine "Attraction Zones" that allow visitors to ski in a cyber-slalom race, hurl balls at an on-screen Ken Griffey Jr. or huddle with a computerized Joe Theismann.

The virtual jock can be quite happy here. Indeed, sports are only the starting point. How else to explain the presence of the Discovery Channel's three-story gift shop, where visitors can buy a replica of an 11,000-year-old saber-toothed cat head, or a pocket hammer-hatchet equipped with its own fishing tackle?

Located at the outer edge of Chinatown -- on F Street NW between 6th and 7th streets NW -- the MCI Center is big enough to house US Airways Arena, the suburban Landover facility that it is replacing. The old arena will accommodate only amateur sports, while the new one will be home to the Wizards, Capitals, Georgetown University basketball and the city's new women's NBA team.

Pollin is touting the arena, which he financed, as a return to city planning in the tradition of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. While critics complain that Camden Yards' prosperity has not benefited merchants much beyond the immediate stadium area, the ballpark inspired similar stadium projects for the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers.

In Washington, the MCI Center is meant to serve as much as a tourist attraction as a sports arena. "Most arenas are kind of like sleeping giants -- you wake them up for an event and put them back to sleep until the next one," said Marc Goldman, an MCI Center spokesman. "Every day, the MCI Center will be awake and alive. We're trying to be a destination on a grand scale."

The arena's fate is in some ways hitched to that of the neighborhood, a dreary collection of empty lots, vacant buildings and government offices a few blocks north of the National Mall.

City planners point to proposals for a convention center and the new Washington Opera House as evidence that this troubled city enclave is finally turning around.

What's more, they hope the arena will help Washington overcome one of its weaknesses as a tourism destination, remaking its cold white-marble image into something a little warmer.

"The image of Washington is, 'Oh, all these boring monuments to dead presidents,' " said Marie Tibor, a tourism official with the Washington, D.C., Convention and Visitors Association.

"We hear that all over the world -- it's like Ottawa. 'It's clean, but why would I plan my vacation there? Where is the fun?' We need to find ways to bring the fun back."

Some critics have faulted the city for failing to draft a unified plan to redevelop downtown Washington. Rather, the district over the past few years has simply studied competing ideas.

No matter what happens to the neighborhood, local business owners believe that as long as the MCI Center stays open, their futures are secure.

About two years ago, after hearing the arena was coming to the neighborhood, Scott Spicer expanded the plans for his restaurant and named it the Arena Cafe, for the sports complex across the street. Next week, he will begin doubling its hours and its staff.

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