March 10, 2012

The Howard Theatre and the value of public investment

The Howard Theatre’s renovation, in which the District government invested $12 million, got us thinking about the role of public finance in development projects.  The use of public money or, alternatively, the granting of tax abatements to private projects, elicits controversy.  Opponents argue that such investments are give-aways to well-connected businessmen.

In the case of the Howard Theatre, the District’s investment in the venue, which the District government technically owns, is a good investment that is economically justified.  The new venue and streetscape in front will improve the perception of the area and thus improve property values in LeDroit Park.  The former is an improvement to the quality of life while the latter is an improvement to the District’s tax base.

Though the theater is technically just outside LeDroit Park, the path from the Shaw Metro Station to LeDroit Park typically brings people in front of the theater.  When the District-owned theater was decaying and vacant, it served as an awful first impression of the area.  A barbed wire fence under the awning and marquee made visitors well aware that a strong wind gust could cause the awning to collapse.  The heaps of litter and scurrying of rats certainly didn’t help perceptions, either.

Work crews are reconstructing the entire street, including sidewalks and lamp posts, and when the renovated theater opens next month, much of the former blight will be removed.  Smooth, wheelchair-accessible sidewalks will replace broken concrete. Lamp posts will provide ample light.  A statue on the sidewalk and a statue atop the theatre will add to the sense of place for this important historic venue.

The theater itself, renovated and gleaming, will attract patrons several nights a week and the building will have to remain in good order.  Clean surfaces and façade adornments will replace trash, decay, and danger.  The block will be unrecognizable from before.

These improvements will undoubtedly improve how visitors and residents view the block and perhaps how they view LeDroit Park. The quality of life improvements are certain.  From a financial standpoint, the improvements will likely boost surrounding property values and thus property tax revenues for the District.  In doing so, the additional revenue may far exceed the $12 million of public money invested in the site.

Correction: An earlier version of this post understated the dollar amount of the city’s investment.

Categories: Development Projects, Good Goverment, Howard Theatre
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5 Replies

  1. In addition, to the $4 million TIF, the District provided an $8 million grant. So the District’s investment is at least $12 million.$29M-Deal.pdf

    Barry - March 11, 2012 @ 6:41 pm
  2. Thanks for the correction, Barry. I have updated the post.

    Eric Fidler - March 12, 2012 @ 12:36 am
  3. Let’s not forget how important it is to preserve historic sites too and give them a second life. The theatre has witnessed and hosted numerous notable acts over the decades and it’s great that it will be able to do that for decades to come.

    …and it will be a boon to local businesses when people come to eat and drink before or after a show. All in all a great win for the community and DC.

    Ghosts of DC - March 12, 2012 @ 10:42 am
  4. I hope that it is a success, but didn’t the District do a similar financial investment in the Lincoln Theater and just last year had to bail them out from going under because it isn’t self sustaining. I’ve never been inside of the Howard Theater (it was already boarded up when I came to that part of town 23 years ago), my hope is that it can be more versatile than the Lincoln, so as to attract many different types of venues.

    Dan - March 12, 2012 @ 4:14 pm
  5. I tend to take a less sanguine view of these performing arts boondoggles, given this city’s dismal track record. Meanwhile, there are plenty of venues like the 930 Club make a go of it and contribute considerable taxes to city coffers, without resorting to handouts.

    Paul - March 13, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

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