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 They have been replaced by the AA Flying Squirrels – a team that has profound marketing savvy and patience.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!