By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
One evening last summer, Mayor Bill Euille honored a straight-A T.C. Williams student and champion boxer named Iesha Kenney, who trains at the Alexandria Boxing Club.
Congratulating Kenney on an international tournament win, he read a proclamation in her honor before the city council. He also offered a few parting words of encouragement: “Know that your city is behind you,” Euille said.
These days, she is not so sure.
In recent weeks, city officials have been talking behind closed doors about making significant changes to the Alexandria Boxing Club’s presence at the Charles Houston Recreation Center. The adjustments could force the club where Kenney trains to cease operating as it has for more than two decades or see its hours dramatically scaled back, even as several of its elite boxers bring acclaim to the city and fuel talk of potential Olympic bids.
Details are hard to come by because city officials have not sought public input or informed the Parker-Gray community, which has enjoyed the presence of boxing in one form or another for generations.
The boxing club runs without city funding under a D.C.-based nonprofit called Fight for Children, which leases space at the Wythe Street recreation center from City Hall at no cost. The latest lease expired earlier this year.
But the club continues to run on a month-to-month basis, overseen by trainers who juggle other full-time jobs and boast a remarkable track record of transforming local kids into elite athletes. Just a few days ago, for instance, Troy Isley, 15, won the Ringside National Championships for the second year in a row.
“They shouldn’t mess with it,” said Isley, who routinely got into fights after school until he found the club.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” added Troy’s father, Kevin Johnson. “It’s real hush, hush. I think they should give the community a chance to voice their opinion and they don’t want to do that because they realize everybody’s going to be against it. But once they pass it, it’s going to be done.”
Boxing club officials declined to comment or discuss the impact of the proposed changes on the organization, citing ongoing negotiations. Among individual boxers, however, there’s palpable concern.
City officials confirmed they’re working on a new lease that would include several adjustments. One proposal calls for a scenario wherein the boxing club would operate for about three hours each evening every other day throughout the week. Participants would have to register through the city’s recreation department.
That’s vastly different from how the club operates today. Boxers usually train at the gym each day from around 4:30 p.m. to closing. There’s no online registration. Instead, it’s a haven of sorts that welcomes everyone.
On any given day, there’s a mix of boxers, young and old. Hardened trainers and boxing lifers watch from plastic chairs alongside parents of young athletes just learning the sport.
Younger boxers train with their parents’ consent, but can only participate if they keep up their grades. Report cards hang tacked to the walls along with yellowed newspaper clippings, belts, ribbons and posters of big fights.
The club continues to thrive in a rapidly changing community. Once almost an exclusively black neighborhood, that area of Alexandria has seen expensive townhouses rise up all around and LA Boxing Gym and Starbucks open just a few blocks away.
In boxing circles, the club has a strong reputation. Both Isley and Kenney have been mentioned as possible Olympic contenders, along with older nationally ranked professional and amateur fighters who call the club home. One fighter — Antoine “Action” Douglas — recently headlined a match on Showtime. Just a few weeks ago, Taiwan’s national boxing coach brought his fighters to train in Alexandria for nearly a month.
But for all the many accolades of its boxers, the club’s immediate fate remains unclear.
The city’s push for significant operational changes in the club’s lease deal seems driven, at least in part, by its “cost recovery” initiative. The plan was outlined in a memo last summer that notes Alexandria recoups only about 12 percent of its operating budget through fees and charges, compared to 34 percent for recreation departments nationwide. Officials also want more control, hoping to track who comes and goes at the boxing club.
But there’s little hard information about proposed changes and how much revenue they’ll generate. City Councilor John Chapman, who serves on several committees related to youth and recreation, said he was surprised when a community member told him about the issues facing the club during a visit to the rec center on Friday evening for an unrelated event.
Chapman decided to drop in on the club on his own. During his visit, he said Euille stopped by, too. The mayor didn’t know anything about the situation, either, according to Chapman.
“So I don’t think that this has gone up to the council level,” Chapman said, adding that he planned to investigate. “I don’t know the specifics, but from what I’m hearing it’s not workable and whatever proposal the city has come up with is not something I’d want the city to move forward with.”
“We should be promoting it and making much more of a benefit,” he said of the boxing club.
“We’re not paying staff there. We’re not paying for the equipment they use. We don’t have to subsidize any insurance. They come prepared with all of that stuff, so why would you look to take out a program like that or even tone it down? It just doesn’t make any sense to me because we have kids out there who need that outlet.”
What’s more, Chapman thinks there should have been an effort to solicit neighborhood input, a thus far missing perspective that could help inform city officials about what’s important to the community as they weigh the club’s future.
City recreation officials, however, say there’s nothing sinister afoot. Routine lease deals are negotiated all the time by city staff, and getting public input generally isn’t part of the process, officials said.
Jim Spengler, director of the city’s recreation, parks and cultural activities department, said nothing has been finalized. But he cautioned that his staff must treat all sports programs fairly. They want to avoid a situation where one program questions the resources given to another one.
In addition, he added, issues of “equity” involving sports across the city have been discussed at the city’s youth sports advisory board, whose meetings are public.
For his part, Euille described himself as a longtime supporter of the boxing club, but added that he’s not getting involved — for now. City staff will brief Alexandria’s top elected officials at the appropriate time, the mayor said.
“I get involved in something when I know the facts,” he added. “I have no facts. I have not been briefed by staff or anyone, so I have no comment.”
Pressed on whether there ought to be a mechanism for public input, the mayor said the public doesn’t typically get involved in lease or contract arrangements.
“If people want to make comments, they certainly can in writing or whatever, you can’t prevent any of that from occurring, but there’s no formal process, for instance, where there will be a city council meeting or public hearing or anything like that,” he said. “That is just not how we do business.”
Still, the mayor said he would do everything he could to “sustain and maintain” the club either at the Charles Houston center or elsewhere in the city. But he said it’s too early to comment on any specifics.
“Up until now I have no knowledge … about any ongoing discussions, so it’s not fair for me to comment,” he said.
While city elected officials remain appear largely unaware of the situation, David A. Miller, division chief for the city’s recreation department, said the D.C.-based nonprofit overseeing the club and the city already agreed to a “framework.”
Miller said the next step is to draw up an agreement that can be signed in the next 30 days that would allow the boxing club to operate three evenings on weeknights and again on Saturdays. He was unsure whether the lease would need to be presented to city council.
He said there was no public outreach because it’s the “normal course of business” to negotiate a lease, which then is sent to the city attorney and city manager for their approval.
The boxing club has faced uncertainty before, but it found a lifeline for years in an unlikely alliance with Joe Robert, Jr., an amateur boxer who frequented the gym. He also was a wealthy businessman and philanthropist.
Robert founded Fight for Children, which helped fund the small boxing gym before expanding to support educational initiatives in Washington. Its board includes former District mayors Adrian Fenty and Tony Williams as well as prominent Washington business figures. These days, most of the group’s charitable work takes place in Washington.
When Robert died of brain cancer in 2011, Alexandria’s boxing club lost one of its biggest supporters.
“We were doing the boxing club before anything else,” said Jeff Travers, director of external relations for the nonprofit. “It’s obviously important to us so we’re trying to work with the city … because we want this to continue.”
So does Kenney.
The teenager walked into the gym about five years ago not knowing anyone or anything about the sport. She didn’t want to hang around her house all day, so she read books in the corner of the gym while other boxers came and went.
Eventually, though, she started training. She hasn’t stopped since.
Among her accomplishments, she’s won a host of national and international junior and youth championships. The official biography of Kenney on the U.S. Olympic Committee website lists her coach, Kay Koroma, as her greatest inspiration and her training facility as the Alexandria Boxing Club.
On a recent afternoon before training, Kenney said she felt great as she recalled the night she was honored by the mayor and city officials last summer. But she had a harder time finding words to describe her feelings now amid the uncertainty facing a club whose fighters and trainers she considers family.
“Heartbroken,” she said. “Heartbroken.”