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 They have been replaced by the AA Flying Squirrels – a team that has profound marketing savvy and patience.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