August 3, 2011; Source: Washington Post | The common explanation of the failure of the Washington, DC Pope John Paul II Cultural Center was that it had the bad fortune of opening just six months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks plunged the nation’s capital into a tourist recession. Now, after years of troubled operations that just about shut the facility down, the Archdiocese of Detroit—which created the center—is selling it to the Knights of Columbus. Some aspects of that story just don’t wash, and questions abound:

1.  The center opened 10 years ago, and Detroit was no less a struggling city in 2001 than it is now. Why would the Archdiocese of Detroit, which has an obligation to serve people in the Motor City, sink tens of millions into a visitors’ center in Washington that had no direct positive impact on and probably little benefit to Detroiters? Remember, Detroiters protested the archdiocese’s investment in the Washington-based center at the time of the center’s creation. 

2.  Tourism in DC has rebounded (ask any city resident). But how could anyone expect a center celebrating the life of Pope John Paul II to attract numerous tourists in a location way off the beaten tourist path?

3.  According to the Detroit Free Press, “In 2006, Cardinal Adam Maida, then head of the archdiocese, said he would recover “’every penny’ of local money he lent to the center,” but newspaper reports suggest that the Archdiocese of Detroit sunk some $54 million into the center but will only be getting $20 million back in the sale (despite a property appraisal for $37.7 million). How will the archdiocese—or the Roman Catholic Church writ large—compensate the Detroiters who placed donation envelopes into the collection baskets at church every week?

4.  In roughly 2004 through 2006, there was quick turnover of executive directors at the center. Doesn’t it seem like there were management and mission questions that needed some expert OD intervention? Especially since the center’s management and business turmoil resulted in the dismissal of 90 percent of the employees in May of 2006?

The executive director of the center told the Washington Post, “This purchase is good for the church, good for the Knights of Columbus, good for the [Pope John Paul II Cultural Foundation] and good for all those who have faithfully supported the foundation and cultural center over the years.” It’s certainly attractive for the Knights, giving them a Washington base for their 1.8 million members.

But what about the Archdiocese of Detroit? Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron says that the $20 million will help stabilize the archdiocese’s finances (the Knights of Columbus are paying Catholic University, which is adjacent to the center and has a secured interest in the land, an additional $2.7 million). Somehow, that doesn’t seem to add up to compensating Detroiters, whose donations were the basis for this failed venture in the first place.

—Rick Cohen