With a unanimous vote last Saturday, County board members brought Arlington one step closer to becoming the team headquarters for the Washington Capitals.
But the joint future of the hockey team and the county is by no means assured. Board members gave the OK to building plans for the team offices and practice facilities at Ballston Common Mall, but construction of the building awaits approval of a business agreement.
The Caps rink will add two stories to the Ballston parking garage, a full eighth floor of the garage, and a ninth floor with team offices. On the eighth floor, the Caps will build two ice NHL-regulation size rinks, locker rooms, training rooms, a café, an arcade, party rooms and meeting rooms.
Outside, the team’s presence will show up with panels around the top of the garage, with the team logo and pictures of caps players, a lit sign of the caps logo, an announcement board, and a video wall at street level, designed to draw in pedestrian passers-by.
That understanding will be ironed out as part of the business agreement between the Caps and Arlington. County staff will say only that that agreement will come to the board "at a future meeting, sometime this year," with no set date. But team officials and board members are optimistic about plans to build the team’s practice rinks and offices atop the parking garage of the mall.
"Our goal is to begin construction this summer," said George Parr, director of operations for the Caps. "Starting this is just as important as the completion date."
Similarly, Board Chair Chris Zimmerman said the Caps plan was a rare opportunity, a new 145,000 square foot building that didn’t cut down any trees and didn’t pave over any land.
"I certainly think it’s interesting to talk about doing something creative with the area over the garage," he said. "Usually, these kind of projects are land intensive, but we all know land’s expensive. But it makes sense here," Zimmerman said, noting the mall’s proximity to the Ballston Metro station and I-66.
The board vote meant that there were only "loose ends to be wrapped up" in the business agreement, Zimmerman said.
<b>Signs of the Times</b>
<bt>In letters to the board, and in public comment before the board vote, sentiment leaned largely in favor of the Caps rink. Local youth hockey leagues, from inside and outside Arlington, urged board approval.
Robert Bliss, organizer of the varsity and junior varsity teams at Bishop O’Connell High School, told the board hockey was one of the fastest growing sports in the area, with 90 teams in Maryland, and 30 in Northern Virginia.
Popularity would surely grow if the Caps came to town, he said, and with the winter Olympics, he expected to see the popularity of women’s hockey grow as well.
The biggest complaints about the project came from neighbors of the mall, concerned about the team sign. Bernard Berne and Gail Dennis both told the board they hoped to see changes in the signs on top of the garage.
Board members passed the proposal with no changes to the sign. Caps officials had reportedly been irked during negotiations over plans by county proposals to change the sign.
But Parr said the team was happy with his experience in Arlington. "Arlington’s been great, really working with us," he said, on design plans and on the details of the business agreement.
<b>Hammering Out Details</b>
<bt>The hockey team has agreed to pay for full construction of its facility, estimated to cost between $15 and $20 million, with the understanding that the county will pay for the construction of the actual eighth floor of the garage, between $3 and 5 million.
The payoff for the county comes in increased visitors, with Capitals’ practice sessions open to the public, an increased profile in the region, and with some 500 hours of ice time available for exclusive county use.
In addition, the team agreed to make nearly 300 hours of ice time available to Arlington high school and amateur hockey teams before others in the region, with more available as more teams form.
In truth, though, the two rinks would be available to the public most of the time, attorney Tim Sampson said Saturday. The Caps need only 500 hours a year, and if the rinks are open 18 hours a day, 360 days a year, there are more than 12,000 hours for public use.
The Caps are offering the ice at $275 an hour at peak times. Hockey organizers in the area say that ice time at rinks in Cabin John, Anacostia and Reston can cost between $210 and $255, varying from rink to rink. A team of 20 players needs about 6.5 hours of ice time a week, they say, double that if they offer varsity and junior varsity squads.