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Patton Boggs partner Matthew Cutts is making a name for himself in Washington as chairman of the board of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. Being appointed earlier this year to the position by Mayor Adrian Fenty meant — above all else — one thing: make sure the city’s new baseball stadium comes in on time and on budget. The commission is a board of 11 people, all volunteers, with a staff of 60 people. It’s an infrastructure that can lead to big success or public failings. Cutts spoke with Legal Times reporter Nathan Carlile about what he wants to accomplish.
LT: How much of your energy is dedicated to the ballpark? Cutts: The sports commission is of course responsible for building the stadium. So I’d say about 80 percent of our time is dedicated to this ballpark: the construction and management. We have to make sure it stays on time and on budget, all while continuing to negotiate with the Lerners [who own the Washington Nationals]. Now maybe 20 percent of it is trying to build up a portfolio in other areas.
LT: How much pressure are you feeling as far as getting things in line for the stadium? Cutts: Oh yeah, it’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot at stake. If you know that area around the stadium, there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be updated. If you’re going to have 40,000 people converging, then sidewalks need to be upgraded, signage, Metro. So we’re coordinating with with the Department of Transportation. At the end of the day, we need the fans to have a good experience. So that means getting to the ballpark easily and getting back easily. Right now, for example, they’re lowering the South Capitol Street bridge because it’s elevated and people can’t walk across the street. From the commission’s perspective, our biggest challenge is making sure the stadium doesn’t go over time or over budget. There’s a cap in place. The citizens of the District of Columbia expect not to pay any more than that. I feel it is my job to do everything within my power to keep us at the legislatively imposed cap. But it’s close, and everyone knows it’s close. Whenever we report [to City Council], we show them how much money we have left. And things come up. With a big project like that, there’s only so much that you can foresee. It’s my job to monitor that constantly.
LT: What is the sports commission’s revenue source? Cutts: We’re a self-sustaining commission. We don’t get an appropriation from the city. Like a corporation we need to make money, bottom line. Now, we also have an incredible human infrastructure. The idea is to make enough revenue to where we can pay dividends back to the citizens by sponsoring teams and youth leagues. For example, we just signed a memorandum of understanding with the D.C. public school system to rebuild the athletic program in five D.C. schools, because we have the infrastructure to deliver this product for them. Everyone knows that improving the school system is the mayor’s No. 1 priority. The schools reached out to us for help, and so we said of course. It’s important to every citizen in D.C. to have better schools. We also give $200,000 to various high school teams. We have our criteria, but like a rowing club could write to us and say they need new uniforms, and they go through the application process. So, on top of being self-sustaining, we try to give what I consider dividend payments back to the citizens. When there’s a city title basketball game, we sponsored the lunch in advance. All of that is out of our own pocket.
LT: Outside of baseball, what are some other challenges you face? Cutts: Our job is going to get harder in 2008 when we lose the parking revenue at the new baseball stadium, which is why we’re trying to increase the usage of the [D.C.] Armory. In my opinion, it’s underutilized. It’s there, it’s a sunk cost. We’ve already paid for it and everything that has to do with it. Let’s put it to use, let’s get antiques shows, car shows and other events that will bring in additional revenue. We just did a mixed martial arts tournament that was very well attended. Some local promoters did it. I think around 2,100 people came out to watch. There was just a boxing event two Fridays ago that was very successful. It was televised by ESPN. Again, that’s just putting it to use and generating some revenue; people are coming into the city, they’re spending money, they’re bringing excitement back to that part of town.
LT: Are there lawyering skills you’ve acquired at Patton Boggs that you use during commission work? Cutts: Government relations is one. I mean, it’s a public entity, and we’re trying to push and make sure that our agenda is accepted by people here — those skills you learn at a law firm. There’s also attention to detail. I’m a litigator. The rule there is, “don’t leave things to be decided later.” You know, let’s think this project through from beginning to end. Another skill is big project management, especially with the baseball stadium. You have a lot of moving pieces, a fast track, and a timetable. You need to be able to make sure that everything’s coming together at the very end, whether it’s a motion, or argument, or opening day. All of these things have to be coming down to a single point, and you can’t lose track of anything.
LT: Why did Mayor Adrian Fenty pick you? Cutts: I helped volunteer at some small events for him during the campaign. Nothing monumental. So, then when he won, I reached out to his transition team and asked if I could be helpful; you know anything they needed. So I started working with the transition team, doing a lot of what I do here at the firm. But I also made it very clear that it wasn’t full-time work for me and that I wanted to return to Patton Boggs.
LT: Then when it came to being appointed to the commission, how did that come about? Cutts: It was short. Someone told me that the mayor wanted to see me. I went into a conference room with him, he had a proposition for me. He told me what he wanted. I was honored. I told him I just wanted to talk to the firm about it and make sure they were OK with it. And this was at 7 p.m., and he said that he would like to know by 10 a.m the next morning. That’s how he does things. But why he picked me or anything — that’s a question for the mayor.
LT: How have the hours spent on the commission affected your work at Patton Boggs? Cutts: The firm has been very good to me because the firm believes in public service. Patton Boggs is from D.C. and many of us live in D.C., and if we’re able to contribute to D.C. then we should. That’s expressed from the top down, that’s the mentality. A lot of the honchos around here have been in public service, and they know what it means to give back to the community. I am putting in a lot of hours with the commission. So it does impact the traditional way I contribute to the firm, which was billing hard litigation hours, but there are other ways to contribute: still being a good firm citizen, and generating business for the firm.
LT: Have you brought in a few clients as a result of your appointment? Cutts: Nothing directly. I mean, I certainly am exposed to people I never would have been exposed to but for this. Which is a benefit, otherwise we’re volunteers, we don’t get paid for it.
LT: What are your impressions after a few months on the job? Cutts: I know a lot of the mayor’s new appointees, and I speak with them, and we all have the exact same opinion, which is: plenty of times you feel overwhelmed, plenty of times you feel you’re in over you’re head. But all of us agree, if this bus came by again, we’d jump on again. You feel like you’re part of such a bigger thing. As daunting as you might think it is, the mayor is one year older than I am and he’s running the city. I’m the thinnest slice of the pie that he’s working with, so that keeps me in check.
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