Sherwood's Notebook: Snow Before Cherry Blossoms

As the week began, those of us in the local news world were gearing up for maybe the first real snow of the season. Other than those workers who get paid extra to plow, shovel and sand, the TV types in the city are the most enthusiastic when flakes begin to fall.

But on Monday, we also had our first taste of spring. And we liked it.

It was bitter cold as the National Park Service announced that the peak period for this year's cherry blossoms is expected to be the week of March 26. That's about a week later than in 2012.

Apart from the heralding of spring, and the easy walk from my home, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival means big money to the city and suburbs.

"To put it in perspective," said D.C. Events CEO Greg O'Dell, "we see about a million people at the convention center on an annual basis. We actually get that in a two-week time period [for the cherry blossoms]."

And over the course of the four-week festival, O'Dell told NBC4, "We'll see over a million people -- and that's over $100 million in economic impact. It's a really big deal for the city."

Despite the bitter wind on Monday, busloads of tourists already were streaming to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that sits right on the fabled Tidal Basin. It was just a preview of what's to come.

Mayor Vincent Gray said he hoped that the battle over federal budget cutbacks would not discourage local visitors who might be worried about their jobs.

"We hope, frankly, people will come out and be a part of the [festival] and take sequestration off your minds," he said.

That sounds like a good idea.

■ By the numbers. The National Park Service released statistics last week that showed the area's federal parks are an economic engine even without the Cherry Blossom Festival boost.

A report just released showed that in 2011 there were 44.5 million visitors to the national parks in the metropolitan Washington area. The report said those visitors spent $1.37 billion and supported about 17,000 jobs in our area.

So welcome those tourists. We do, but we still laugh at the late comedian George Carlin's take on tourists. "Why do we call it the 'tourist season,'" he asked, "when we can't shoot them?"

■ Another sign of spring.
At the end of this month, the Washington Nationals will be back on the field at the ballpark in Southeast. The championship team (isn't that fun to read?) plays a charity exhibition against the New York Yankees on Friday, March 29. The Nats will open their regular season at home the following Monday, with a series against the Miami Marlins.

■ Sulaimon and scandal.
After baseball and the cherry blossoms, we're sorry to bring up some unpleasantness.

While the mayor clearly was enjoying himself at Monday's festival event, but we poured cold water on his week when we reminded him that Wednesday was the second anniversary of the Sulaimon Brown scandal that has hung over his administration and clouded the many good things people say Gray is doing.

Two years ago this week, The Washington Post's Nikita Stewart reported that Brown, a minor candidate for mayor, had told her that he had taken money from the Gray campaign in 2010 as a reward for attacking then-Mayor Adrian Fenty on the campaign trail. U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen began his investigation almost immediately thereafter.

It's been a burgeoning criminal investigation into a much bigger “shadow” campaign for Gray that spent about $650,000 to help elect him. Some key Gray operatives have pleaded guilty; others are still facing potential charges. The mayor himself said early on that he had done nothing wrong, but in more recent months, he has simply declined to comment.

Some citizens think the two-year investigation has gone on long enough, that Machen ought to bring charges or close up shop. But it's not that easy.

The investigation has ensnared businessman Jeffrey Thompson, whose network of campaign giving and city contracts dates well before Gray's campaign for mayor. It's a complicated mess that only now is being unraveled. Thompson hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing, and he hasn't spoken even once publicly about the probe.

At the cherry blossom event, Mayor Gray was wearing a spectacular pink tie for the happy occasion. Reminded of the unhappy anniversary coming up, he shook his head and said he wasn't aware of the milestone.

He really does try to keep the investigation zoned out of his time as mayor. Whether or not he runs again, he wants to be remembered as a good mayor.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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