Richmond’s Pathetic Leadership

At the Diamond

At the Diamond

By Peter Galuszka

Richmond is going through an existential crisis. Its “leadership” can’t get anything done after wasting the public’s time and attention on the supposed possibilities of this so-called “Capital of Creativity.”

Two examples come to mind. One is the city’s and region’s utter failure to do anything about its crumbling ballpark. The other is wasting everyone’s time on pushing an independent children’s hospital and then having VCU Health and Bon Secours pull the rug out from everyone.

Mind you, you hear ramblings out the wazoo about how Richmond is all about “regionalism” and how the “River City” is just a dandy place to live. One of the worst offenders is Bacon’s Rebellion, which shamelessly crams Richmond boosterism down readers’ throats.

But what really sets me off is a full page and unabashedly revisionist editorial in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Ballpark in the Bottom? Definitely not.” The writers claim they “having listened carefully, and at great length, to all sides, we have become convinced a proposal that seemed promising at first is fatally flawed.”

Yipes! This comes after a couple years of the newspaper’s flacking Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ dubious plan to put a new $67 million stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom for the city’s Minor League AA team, the Flying Squirrels, rather than refurbishing or replacing the crumbling Diamond on the Boulevard near the strategic intersections of Interstates 64 and 95.

TD Publisher Thomas A. (TAS) Silvestri, the one-time and obviously conflicted chair of the local chamber of commerce, pushed the Shockoe idea because that was the flavor of the month with parts of the Richmond elite, including some developers, the Timmons engineering group, the Jones regime and others.

It was a bad idea from the start and had been shot down before. The Bottom has no parking and is too cramped. Even worse, it would disturb graves of slaves and other reminders of the city’s darker past such as being the nation’s No. 2 slave trading capital (this is before the “creativity” part).

The AAA Richmond Braves hated the Diamond so much that they bolted to a new stadium in Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta in 2009. A new team associated with the San Francisco Giants decided to move in. The Flying Squirrels have been an outstanding success and in the five years they have been here, their team has drawn more fans than any other in the Eastern League. In fact, their stats place them among the best draws in all of minor league baseball.

But the Squirrels had been led to believe they would get new or greatly improved digs. Instead of focusing on the Diamond (which has ONE elevator for the sick and elderly and it often doesn’t work). A couple of weeks ago, Lou DiBella wrote an open letter to the community noting that nothing has happened. Their deal with the city end next year, raising the issue of whether they will bolt as the Braves did.

Squirrels owner DiBella

Squirrels owner DiBella

I did a Q&A with DiBella for Style. Here’s how he put it:

“We have been a great asset for the whole Richmond region. Where am I looking? I’m not trying to look. You want me to look, tell me. I want to create a dialogue. I want people to be honest and open and candid right now. If you’re going to screw around with us the same way you did with the Braves, the way Richmond did under false pretenses, and there’s no chance of any regional participation or the city being creative in building a stadium — let me know now because I do have to start thinking about the future.”

He has a point. Richmond did screw around with him. Chesterfield and Henrico Counties did, too. The Squirrels get most of their spectators from the suburbs but their political leaders don’t want to spend anything to help. They neatly got off the hook when they conveyed the Diamond from the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, of which they are members, to the city exclusively.

The Jones administration, meanwhile, wasted everyone’s time (except that of the Richmond Times-Dispatch) by pushing the Bottom idea. The business elite sponsored trips for so-called local leaders to fly around the country and look at other stadiums.

Then, nothing. A development firm called the Rebkee Co. came up with a plan to build a new stadium near the Diamond with private funds. But the city refused to even review the plan. They did not accept formal written copies of the idea.

The Jones team did manage to come up with a summer practice area for the Washington Redskins that is used about two or three weeks a year. It hardly draws anything close to what the Squirrels do, but they had little problem pushing with their idea.

Bill Goodwin

Bill Goodwin

Next up is a stand-alone children’s hospital, an idea backed by a group of pediatricians and Bill Goodwin, a wealthy philanthropist and one of the most powerful men in Richmond. He and his wife pledged $150 million for the project and many, including the RTD, talked about it to death. Goodwin’s idea would be to create a world class hospital on the level of the famous Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia.

Then, without warning, non-profits VCU and Bon Secours health system pulled the rug out from under Goodwin and everyone else. They said an independent children’s hospital wasn’t needed, there was no market for it and pediatric care is moving more towards out-patient service, anyway.

The real reason, says Goodwin, is that a stand-alone children’s hospital would mean that other local hospitals would have to scale back their money-making pediatric units.

Also for Style, I asked Goodwin for his thoughts. He was flabbergasted at shutting down the idea without warning. He said:

“We were planning for an independent children’s hospital that was regional and would provide more comprehensive coverage than what VCU and Bon Secours are currently providing. This effort would have been a heck of an economic driver for our community and would provide significantly better medical care for children. Better medical education and research were also planned. We would be creating something that was creating good jobs, and it would be something that the community would be proud of, which we haven’t had recently.”

So there you have it, sports fans – a moment of truth. With its current leadership, Richmond couldn’t strike water if it fell out of a boat. You know it when the editorial writers on Franklin Street start revising history.

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11 responses to “Richmond’s Pathetic Leadership

  1. “Its ‘leadership’ can’t get anything done…”

    Other than, you know, bringing a world-renowned cycling race to town, reversing decades of population drain, turning the city’s empty warehouses into lofts and apartments with tax incentives, turning city building facades into giant canvases, having more festivals than you shake a stick at, but go on about how two projects falling through means we have a leadership crisis…

    “One is the city’s and region’s utter failure to do anything about its crumbling ballpark.”

    You use the word crumbling twice, do you have some actual, physical crumble you would like to show us? Concrete separating from rebar? Eh?

    Also, and I realize this is a philosophical thing, but the city doesn’t have a duty to do anything with the Diamond. Yes, they own it. Yes, the Squirrels would like a new one, but building specialized infrastructure for private business is not part of a local government’s civic responsibilities. And, yes, I thought the Genocided Americans training camp was a terrible idea, too, for the same reason.

    “One of the worst offenders is Bacons Rebellion, which shamelessly crams Richmond boosterism down readers’ throats.”

    Yes, I forgot how when I open my web browser, Bacon’s Rebellion opens up immediately and won’t let me navigate to a new page until I read something about how great Richmond is. Thanks for the reminder.

    “The writers claim they ‘having listened carefully, and at great length, to all sides, we have become convinced a proposal that seemed promising at first is fatally flawed.’

    “Yipes! This comes after a couple years of the newspaper’s flacking Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ dubious plan to put a new $67 million stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom…”

    Yipes! People changed their minds! Such failed leadership! What they should have done was keep pushing for a thing that didn’t make sense, the citizens didn’t want and was a terrible idea from inception without ever wavering, ever. That’s what real leadership looks like, never adopting a new perspective!

    “…reminders of the city’s darker past such as being the nation’s No. 2 slave trading capital (this is before the ‘creativity’ part).”

    You hypocrite. The enduring and ongoing nature of white flight and how it shaped the suburbs is – according to discussions with you on this very blog – something that happened and ended a long time ago and there’s no racist taint out here! But when it comes time to find something to bash Richmond with, we need to be reminded about its place as the number two slave trading capital in the country to be contrasted with its current claim as being a ‘creative’ capital.

    “The AAA Richmond Braves hated the Diamond so much that they bolted to a new stadium in Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta in 2009.”

    That, or, the entire organization is run by people who want to get as much as they can out of localities as evidenced by the Atlanta Braves moving from a perfectly fine stadium in Atlanta out into whichever county would give in to their demands.

    “…in the five years they have been here, their team has drawn more fans than any other in the Eastern League.”

    Man, how are people still coming to a crumbling stadium in such numbers?! Aren’t they afraid of ceiling panels or the upper deck collapsing on them? My God, it’s almost like the stadium…isn’t…that…bad.

    And if DiBella and the Squirrel’s organization feels like the city has jerked them around to an unforgivable level and they can get the same amount of patrons and revenue in another location they are free to leave. As you noted, the counties supply much of their fan base but seem disinterested in doing anything to keep them here, so maybe Richmond leadership has decided that being threatened with abandonment by a baseball teams its own citizens don’t come out for in great numbers isn’t a priority threat they need to give in to.

    “…Bill Goodwin, a wealthy philanthropist and one of the most powerful men in Richmond.”

    I can’t believe Bill Goodwin’s failure of leadership as a powerful man in Richmond against a state entity and a non-profit health organization headquartered in Maryland. Wait, that’s not where you were going with that?

    “…and many, including the RTD, talked about it to death.”

    So you’re upset that the idea fell through, but you’re also upset that RTD – which you categorize as Richmond leadership – talked about it too much? That seems…consistent…

    “The real reason, says Goodwin, is that a stand-alone children’s hospital would mean that other local hospitals would have to scale back their money-making pediatric units.”

    Good old liberal Peter, taking up for the downtrodden wealthy and powerful businessman against non-profit health organizations that offer charitable care.

    Normally I’d say something like, “It’s not like Goodwin and others could change their minds and just use that money to endow pediatric wings at existing hospitals” except that you’ve already shown in your response above that changing minds is an example of an existential crisis in leadership.

    Again, Peter, please show us on the doll where Richmond hurt you.

  2. A nine day bike race? Wow!
    Every cityis seeing people moving on.
    Why don’t youtry takingan 85-year-old to the diamond and aee what happens with the elevator?
    Have you actually been in richmond?

    • “A nine day bike race? Wow!”

      Awww, that’s cute that you think attempting to denigrate one of the jewels in world cycle racing’s triple crown as a “nine day bike race” has a chance of succeeded at anything other than displaying your provincialism.

      “Every city is seeing people moving in.”

      Except Detroit, Chicago, Trenton, Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo…

      “Why don’t you try taking an 85-year-old to the diamond and see what happens with the elevator?”

      Is it going to turn into smaller pieces in an entropic and uncontrolled fashion ? Or is it just going to maybe not work?

      Not saying the Diamond doesn’t have problems and could not use some repairs, but a broken elevator is not the same thing as structural deficiency.

      “Have you actually been in Richmond?”

      Yep. I’ve lived Downtown, in the Museum District, behind City Stadium and currently call Brookland Park my home.

  3. Cue up the doll.. this should be interesting!

    sorry.. I’m soooo baaaadddd..!

    • Here’s the thing, Richmond leadership is far from perfect. I hate the Jones administration. I think the Washington Dan Snyder is a Terrible Owner and Human Beings into town was a terrible decision supported by questionable math with benefits that have not and will never materialize. Last I checked, the office space on the practice field still hadn’t been filled, and the promise of more business space was one of the primary arguments for moving the Diamond and clearing the space for more offices that wouldn’t be filled. Moving the Diamond to the Bottom was always a stupid idea and Jones, et. al was wrong for pushing it as hard as he did and at the expense of competing plans.

      Jones backed into the mayoralty after Doug Wilder proved to be a narcissistic failure and has done nothing except display ethically questionable connections to and promotion of local business interests. I haven’t liked a Richmond mayor since Rudy McCollum and the current city council leaves much to be desired in providing a check on the mayor’s wishes. The Richmond Public Schools is stuck between having terrible administrations at some of its schools and having to fight for funding from the city (which has money for vanity projects like the practice field and moving the Diamond to the Bottom) while waiting to see if the new superintendent it going to stick around.

      There is a lot the city and its leaders could be doing better. Peter just didn’t find it because he doesn’t actually care what’s going on here unless it gives him a chance to tilt at old grievances.

  4. I agree with LOTFL. I’m not sure your two cited issues are commensurate to an “existential crisis”. It’s also not immediately apparent to me how VCUHS and Bon Secour bowing out of the independent children’s hospital could have been handled better by any other city. I am also in the camp that a renovation is suitable for the Diamond; as it is tough to reconcile that kind of spending on something that is already working.

    Peter, you’re criticisms without suggestions of solutions aren’t worth of hill of beans. Was there any purpose to this article besides plugging your own articles? Perhaps Bacon skews pro-Richmond (region) because there’s a lot to love. It never seems like blind homerism to me.

  5. Richmond’s leadership needs the criticism even if it has to come from DC and Peter. The stadium in the Bottom was a dumb idea from the get go. Killing the children’s hospital in order to quash the competition was crass and self serving.

    But Peter, I agree the ASSUMPTION in your piece is that the real fault here is letting the FSqs get away without more of an effort to keep them happy somehow in Richmond. And that assumption just doesn’t hold water. The old Diamond has location, access, space, and compatible surroundings. And history — it’s on a piece of the State Fair Grounds from way back (pre-ARE), a place with a long Richmond tradition of public outdoor entertainment. Why not fix it and enhance it? I bet a new elevator at the Boulevard Diamond would cost less than just one of the many parcels required at the Bottom site.

  6. I agree with Acbar .. what’s wrong with fixing up the place?

  7. So fix it. But there is no plan to do even that.

  8. Richmonders have opened their pocketbooks for a lot of causes and institutions they believe in — the new VCU Institute for Contemporary Art is just the latest example. Or, if sports is your thing, look at the tremendous support that coalesced around VCU’s basketball program. Perhaps the failure of leadership shouldn’t be laid at the feet of “Richmond leaders” generally but at those who pushed the particularly flawed idea of baseball in Shockoe Bottom to the exclusion of any other alternative.

    As for the children’s hospital, the economics of pediatric health care are really complex. I’ve heard plausible sounding reasons to support a dedicated, free-standing hospital and I’ve heard plausible reasons for not building one. I haven’t had a chance to sort through all the issues — and either has anyone else (at least not in the media). I can understand Bill Goodwin’s frustration — I’ve heard whispers that he was willing to pony up a lot more than $150 million to make the children’s hospital happen — but the full story of how the talks broke down has yet to be properly told. I don’t presume to know enough to cast any stones.

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