The Kimonos Are Opening in Richmond

richmond-flying-squirrels-comic-nutzy By Peter Galuszka

There’s an old expression called “opening your kimono” that dates back to the 1990s but seems to have roots in Japan. It means having no secrets. When a Japanese husband and wife greet each other, they draw open their clothes to show they are being open – full disclosure in other words.

That’s the good news about the current debate in Richmond, a city chocked full of possibilities yet hamstrung by an infuriating level of pomposity that goes on in perpetuity.

It’s breaking open long-simmering rifts between the counties and the city and exposing flaws on all sides. It also is pointing out that the city’s Ruling Elite, hailed along by its metropolitan daily newspaper, essentially has feet of clay. Despite Richmond’s pretense, it is incapable of doing things that other Southern cities, like Atlanta or Charlotte, handle with ease.

The issue is where to locate a minor league baseball stadium. It is now on Boulevard conveniently located near Interstates 95 and 64. Fans like the current location. Some 64 percent of those who responded to a newspaper survey said so in September. But the stadium, the Diamond, is nearly 30 years old and is crumbling. The region’s inability to do anything about it is one reason why the AAA Richmond Braves bolted to suburban Atlanta after the 2009 season. They have been replaced by the AA Flying Squirrels – a team that has profound marketing savvy and patience.

Now for the players in the drama:

The Richmond Elite. It consists of Jack Berry, a former government bureaucrat who now heads Venture Richmond, a local, non-profit marketing group, Kim Scheeler, head of the chamber of commerce, and Thomas A. Silvestri, the publisher of the lackluster newspaper, the group’s propaganda organ.

Berry revitalized the idea of moving the Diamond to Shockoe Bottom in an op-ed piece in the city’s Pravda (RTD) last summer. Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones has made it a personal campaign. He wants an $80 million project in the Bottom that includes the stadium, apartments, a hotel, a publicly funded parking garage, a grocery store and so on. Also in the group are some developers in the Bottom who stand to make lots of money and an engineering firm that will, too. Lots of public money through bonds sales will be involved.

This group also wants a museum to slavery in the area where selling human beings flourished  to blunt criticism that launching a big in-city development based on entertainment, outdoor bars, baseball and nightlife. It might not suit with Richmond’s horrific history of once being the No. 2 slave trading market in the U.S.

Counter groups. Development proposals are also swirling to rebuild a stadium at the current site and to develop corresponding retail and perhaps some mixed use development there. One idea that came up comes from RebKee Company, a commercial real estate firm based in suburban Midlothian that had been working with Dan Gecker, a Chesterfield County Supervisor who is a commercial real estate developer. Unlike the Mayor and Berry’s Bottom plan, the RebKee idea would not involve public money. In other words – no public risk if it doesn’t work out.

Another wild card is Douglas Wilder, the country’s first African-American governor and former Richmond mayor, who wants to locate a slavery museum downtown near Broad Street at a former Baptist Church that was famous during the civil rights movement and is owned by VCU. Wilder’s earlier plan to build a national slavery museum near Fredericksburg turned into a disaster. However, the fact that such a prominent politician is going against Dwight Jones and his group is extremely significant. Not only does Wilder muddy the waters, he steals Jones’ thunder since Jones is also African-American – a fact that helps provide cover for the rest of the Richmond Elite which is predominately white.

The Average Joes. These are the Flying Squirrels fans who seem very happy with the new team, which does a much better job of keeping them involved than the Atlanta Braves, which owned the previous Richmond ball club. At least half of the fans are from the suburbs and tend to like the Boulevard area since it is easy to get to. Many Richmonders feel the same way. The Squirrels are privately owned and are associated with the San Francisco Giants. The old Braves seemed to be run by a gigantic and bloodless insurance company.

After Berry wrote his ex-cathedra epistle proclaiming the new Bottom vision, Richmond has been subjected to a steady drum beat of Times-Dispatch agit-prop for the idea. But they were stunned when gadfly Richmond Councilman Jon Baliles suddenly floated the RebKee possibility and launched something like the Great Schism (as in Church history).

The pushback was enormous. Berry wrote nasty internal emails, obtained by the media, showing how the Richmond Elite really regards its suburban colleagues.

“It is not about suburban developers keeping suburbanite baseball fans in their narrow comfort zones,” Berry wrote. “It is about expanding comfort zones and rebuilding a city.”

He also raised the possibility that Gecker might be conflicted because he is an elected Chesterfield official – a strange concept because Jones who backs the Bottom plan, is also a public official. It seems it is OK for a public official from the city to back something but a county person must not dare. Gecker responded in a letter to Berry asking him to “refrain from personally attacking people who have done nothing but further economic development in our City. . .” Gecker has developed in-city projects in Oregon Hill and Manchester, among other spots.

True to form, the RTD editorialized today that “An in-your face challenge to the Shockoe alternative is not the way to conduct the public’s business.”

Now, Gentle Readers, that little mouthful from the Richmond Elite’s agitprop organ is truly revealing. In Silvestri-world, once the public is told what’s going to happen, there can be no discussion and no suggestion of alternatives (forget his pointless little “Public Square” extravaganzas).

Never mind that Jones & Co. have not revealed a morsel of detail about the Bottom plan. (Neither did RebKee before it was shot down). Bottom details might be revealed today but it was also supposed to happen in March.

A few more takeaways:

  • Richmond will get nowhere with its current Elite in charge. Other than taking 150 or so local “leaders” on well-lubricated field trips to places like Tampa, the Elite has done little more of late spend a chunk of money building a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins, one of the richest teams in the National Football League. A lot of good stuff happens in Richmond, like “First Fridays” arts walk, but it comes from the bottom up. That is, it comes from underfunded, real artists and others. It does not come from the Ruling Elite. They are pointless and clueless, although they are quick to propose “art districts” after the real people have done the work.
  • The counties are not part of it, either, by desire or exclusion. Talk about “regionalism” all you want, but Henrico and Chesterfield and to some extent Hanover have all said ‘bye-bye” long ago. Two counties have populations of 300,000 each, more than Richmond’s 200,000 and do not have the city’s deplorable 26 percent poverty rate and its decrepit, incompetent public school system. The counties have the vast majority of the area’s retail and most robust housing not to mention much better school systems.
  • One can go back and blame white flight and it’s all true. But it is also, like, so 1950s. More minorities are moving into the counties, notably new immigrants to the country. They are attracted to the same suburban amenities. Jones & Co. can imply that the counties are refusing to participate in a new ball stadium but the counties say they weren’t asked. Well gee, ask them. There is some movement back to the city among young people and aging boomers but the trend hasn’t reached a critical mass yet despite how much it is touted.

Now we know where we stand in terms of Richmond’s pathetic sense of regionalism. The kimonos are open!

14 Responses to The Kimonos Are Opening in Richmond

  1. I’m agnostic as to where the stadium should go. But I resist the stampede to put the stadium in the bottom until we have a clear accounting of the two alternatives. It is absurd for anyone to back the Shockoe Bottom location over the Boulevard location without a clear idea of what the public costs and anticipated benefits would be for each option. Let’s see the private proposal for the Boulevard, and let’s ask tough questions of both proposed projects. Only then should a decision be made.

  2. As I have written before there is a good deal of academic research on using sports venues as tools for economic development and it almost never works out.Check the web site of the National Bureau for Economic Research.This plan has too many moving parts and no specifics. The rumor in the Fan is that the first business in line for the Boulevard is Walmart. That right, economic development is now defined a providing a subsidy to a company whose employees are so underpaid they require $8.7 in public assistance nationally.Its just “Nuts”

    • Taxpayer help for economic development may make sense in SW VA. But why should taxpayers help so-called private businesses in other areas of the state? Landowners and their lawyers are looking for McLean taxpayers to build a new building for the McLean Community Center in downtown McLean to stimulate redevelopment. Commercial landowners in McLean need taxpayers welfare? Give me a break.

      Development needs to pay the bulk of the costs for the infrastructure needed to support the development.

  3. I give Peter credit – for his writing – his journalism.

    we have complaints these days about “media” and if we had a few more Peter’s and a business model to pay them a fair wage – I think we’d be better off.

    One of the things that I find very useful is that Peter manages to get the reader to start thinking about the issue. That’s a talent.

    so thank you Peter. Your efforts are much appreciated!

    • I heard a rumor that Jeff Bezos is going to add resources to local reporting in the D.C. metro area. That’s his best chance at reviving the corpse. Now he needs to fire the editorial board and develop more ways for readers to share their opinions, rather than listen to the stupidity of Hiatt and Hockstader. I rather read Larry, Les, and Peter any day of the week than the isolated and arrogant WaPo editorial board.

  4. Les,
    I’ve heard a baby Wal-Mart, less than half the normal size.

  5. Why isn’t this going out to bid, getting ideas and proposals from various parties, and then choosing the best deal from the lot? What’s the hurry?

    The initial deal doesn’t sound like a good one – the people who will be making money aren’t paying for it. You have city residents, including very poor people, paying for improvements to benefit developers who I am fairly certain are not poor.

    Why not see if other commercial developers – including, horrors, some from out of town – are willing to cut a better deal for the city? Might even have two different deals with two different teams of developers, one in the Bottom and one at the Boulevard.

    Meanwhile the paper, totally un-ironically, quoted the mayor telling kids from Open High that they’d have to identify ways to pay for the school maintenance that they protested for. This within a week of news of a nine million dollar surplus, nearly fourteen million allocated for the Bottom plan, and a nearly two million dollar plan announced to buy a rec center. Um, I think I’ve identified ways they could pay for maintenance, and that’s without looking at the books.

    The impression this gives, loud and clear, is that schools are not a priority with the city management. WHY is the city pursuing tourism jobs (which are low-paid, often part-time, cyclical, and do not have benefits) while ignoring education that could get kids better jobs? This at the exact same time tourism cities are working to diversify their economies?

    If they improved the schools – if the city provided an education comparable to Chesterfield or Henrico – you wouldn’t need to spend tens of millions every few years on economic development. People want to live in the city, but don’t want to send their kids to city public schools. They move when they have kids. Give them decent schools and they’ll stay.

    • Taxpayer subsidized development in the Commonwealth’s capital is obscene.

      • It comes off as simply stupid, to be kind of blunt here. The things that appeal about the city – its history, the characters of its neighborhoods, its people, and the distinctive and appealing mix of organic development, are all pretty much ignored.

        Look at the most popular Richmond tourist attractions – Maymont, Byrd Park, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, the Science Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – all with history and personality and character, and all organic to the neighborhoods they occupy.

        What you seem to get from the city government in Richmond are large, wishful-thinking megaprojects – many have no local character, often don’t fit in well with their surroundings, and aren’t very appealing. Some of them have as much Richmond character as a Howard Johnson’s.

        Spend the money doing basics right, as Jim suggested in another post here, and you’d see better economic improvement. I have never heard anyone say they moved out of the city because it didn’t have a publicly funded mall, or a publicly funded ballpark in the Bottom. I have heard plenty of them move when their kids got to school age, or after they hit one too many potholes.

        Seriously, I went to Maymont recently – one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, one that consistently brings people into the city – and there were potholes that could swallow a SmartCar.

        • well I mostly agree but point out that the current stadium came to exist (I guess) as some sort of idea that it added to the character of Richmond and in theory would spur economic spin-offs.

          I see in the papers this morning that owners of Condos that sit on the banks of the James, built during the recession, are going to be auctioned off.. (as opposed to people climbing all over each other to buy them).

          doesn’t sound good.

  6. I’m in the middle of some research and came across this:
    http://www.countyhealthrankings.or/app/virginia/2014/rankings/richmond-city/county/outcomes. These statistics demonstrates that
    Richmond has very deep, and frankly dangerous, societal problems – none of which can or should be solved with a baseball stadium, especially when this project is nothing more than a pilot program dressed as a proven and legitimate solution. It’s appalling that the leadership of this city is spending one moment considering any taxpayer money on this type of infrastructure. Their behavior is nothing less than thuggery, and I might suggest despotic. I’m horrified by their behavior – from the mayor to Berry to the people who will make money from this. They clearly have no regard whatsoever for the long term health of the city.

    They need to explain how a baseball stadium is the answer for economic development when the city ranks 121 out of 133 counties in Virginia in overall “health outcomes” – including (to name just a couple of markers) almost twice the number of premature deaths than the rest of the state, three times the number of reported sexually transmitted infections. In addition, only 7% of third graders PASSED the SOL math test during 2012-13 school year. We have the worst schools in the state of Virginia, and we have one of the lowest percentages of primary care physicians, dentists, and mental health providers. The brokenness of this city goes on and on and this group suggests that putting a baseball stadium, using public funds is the answer instead of using those funds to begin addressing the societal infrastructure. It’s simply heartbreaking.

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