Category Archives: Land use & development

Let Richmond Be Richmond

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts gallery. Artsy fartsy, it's who we are. Get over it. Embrace it.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts gallery. Artsy fartsy, it’s who we are. Get over it. Embrace it.

I delivered this speech last night to a gathering at the Branch House in an event hosted by the Virginia Center for Architecture. — JAB

Buffalo, N.Y., a metropolitan region about the size of Richmond, is debating how to pay for a new $1 billion stadium complex for the Buffalo Bills National Football League team. The City of Richmond is debating how to pay for a $56 million stadium for the Richmond Squirrels AA baseball team. I don’t know if Buffalo will ever find the money, but it really doesn’t matter. If professional sports is your yardstick of metropolitan prestige, Buffalo is running – maybe I should say stampeding — Richmond into the dirt.

But, objectively speaking – assuming this audience can be objective – where would you rather live? Let’s look at some commonly used metrics:

  • The Richmond metropolitan region has a lower unemployment rate than the Buffalo metro – 4.8% compared to 5.8%.
  • Richmond has a lower poverty rate – 11.6% compared to 14.4%.
  • Richmond has a higher median household income — $55,300 compared to $46,400.

I think we can safely and objectively say that big league sports is no guarantee of metropolitan prosperity.

While Richmond can’t seem to get a minor league baseball stadium off the ground, consider VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art. The community managed to raise $33 million through private philanthropy with no angst whatsoever.

Pro football or contemporary art. What do our choices tell us about the Richmond region? Richmond is an artsy fartsy kind of town. And that’s OK. In fact, I’m going to argue that artsy fartsy is a good thing as we reinvent ourselves for the 21st-century Knowledge Economy.

It is commonplace today to observe that the biggest challenge for any metropolitan region is recruiting and retaining the highly skilled, highly creative citizens – scientists, artists, educators, entrepreneurs – who drive innovation and contribute disproportionately to economic growth. Somewhat more controversially, I would argue, those desirable citizens are more likely to want to live and build a career in a region that has vibrant arts & culture than one that has big league athletics.

If you accept that proposition, then it tells you a lot how we ought to be investing our civic capital. For the billion dollars it would take Buffalo, N.Y., to build a bigger, better stadium for the Buffalo Bills, we could make Richmond the arts capital of the Southeastern U.S.!

The urban geographer Richard Florida made a big splash thirteen years ago when he published the book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.” His argument, boiled down to its essence, is that Americans, young Americans especially, were increasingly likely to choose where to live based on the attributes of the region rather than because that’s where they could find a job. He turned economic development on its head. Instead of recruiting corporations, we should be recruiting the creative class. Corporations will follow the creative in order to gain access to employees with the higher-order skills and aptitudes that are in short supply.

If we embrace that perspective, we need to ask two fundamental questions: (1) What does it take to attract young professionals to RVA? and (2) What does it take to keep them here? In other words, how do we do a better job with recruitment and retention?

Richmond has a relatively stable population. We don’t get a huge flux of people moving in or moving out. Fortunately, we do seem to attract more people than we lose — we experience net in-migration. Between 2013 and 2014, the Internal Revenue Service recorded the influx of nearly 32,000 new “tax returns” into the core Richmond region – by which I mean Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover. During the same period, those four localities experienced an out-migration of 29,000 tax returns. That represented a net gain of about 2,800 tax-paying households in a region with about 300,000 tax returns – or a gain of not quite one percent. That’s not bad. But it could be better: We’re not in the same league as national talent magnets like Austin or Raleigh, much less Silicon Valley.

Interestingly, two-thirds of the in-migration came from other locales in Virginia, only one-third from outside the state. Pending closer analysis of the numbers, I would conjecture that that RVA functions as a regional magnet for talent, as opposed to a national magnet, drawing mainly upon the hinterland of smaller Virginia cities and towns. Many could come from the many fine colleges and universities in the state. But we really don’t know. There’s a lot we still need to learn. Continue reading

The Many Problems of Offshore Drilling

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

Almost five years after the infamous Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama has again proposed opening tracts offshore of Virginia and the southeastern U.S. coast to oil and natural gas drilling.

The plan poses big risks for what may be little gain. Federal surveys show there could be 3.3 billion barrels of crude oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the potential lease area stretching from Virginia to Georgia.

Energy industry officials praised the plan while complaining it doesn’t go far enough. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation condemned it. Besides the ecological risk, the move is a step away from refocusing energy on renewables that do not lead to more carbon emissions and climate change.

Obama’s plan would restrict drilling to areas more than 50 miles off the coast. This is a sop to the Navy and other military which conduct regular exercises offshore and to the commercial and sports fishing industries.

Is the restriction worthwhile? It is generally easier for oil rigs to be placed in shallow water and much of the areas off of Virginia and northeastern North Carolina and off of South Carolina and Georgia are in plateaus that aren’t very deep – maybe just a few hundred feet. Yet the Atlantic takes a huge plunge not far off of Cape Hatteras, descending as much as two miles down.

Drilling in deep water presents special problems for oil companies involving high pressure and high temperatures. That was the case with the Deepwater Horizon tragedy on April 20, 1010 that killed 11 workers. One big factor that a blowout preventer, designed to shut down the rig if drilling hits abnormally high levels of pressure, didn’t work completely. The rig was in 5,000 feet of water and crude spewed uncontrolled. Winds from the south washed the oil towards land and polluted nearly 500 miles of coastline in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. An estimated 49 million barrels of crude were released.

oil-drilling-mapAlthough it isn’t certain if energy firms would drill in the very deep waters off of North Carolina, there is cold comfort in the fact that the Deepwater rig was only 48 miles from shore. In other words, it would have been too close in for the latest plan involving the southeastern coast. Supposedly, blowout preventers have been upgraded but there were still spills involving them off of Brazil and China post-Deepwater.

If something like that happened closer to home, it is not exactly certain where the oil would go. Winds can blow from the ocean and currents are very fickle. The Labrador Current might tend to push spilled oil back onto environmentally sensitive shoreline while the Gulf Stream might tend to take the spilled oil out to sea.

There is no question that drilling off any of the southeastern coast would be of some benefit to the now-struggling Tidewater economy since it has plenty of steel-bending industries, an able workforce and no significant bridges to pass under to reach deep water. It might help since the defense sector is winding down, but who knows what world conflicts will be like in 2025. Hampton Roads would be a more logical staging area than other ports such as Wilmington, N.C., Charleston or Savannah.

There’s a rub, however. The 3.3 billion barrels of estimated reserves isn’t that much. It is a fraction of the total estimated reserves in the country. Energy sector officials claim there is probably much more. Okay, fine, but no one knows for sure. The natural gas reserves involved are also somewhat small – just a fraction of the estimated reserves in the U.S.

It’s not the first time offshore drilling has come up locally. There was a big push for it in the late 1970s, prompting oil rig giant Brown & Root to buy up land near Cape Charles for fabricating rigs. Nothing happened and much of the land now is used for a luxury golf community. Obama was supposed to back lease sales in 2010 but then Deepwater happened. This begs the question – if the offshore petroleum is so valuable, why has it taken so long?

Yet another issue is what cut Virginia would actually get from offshore drilling. There was a flap a few years ago when offshore drilling was being pitched. Some revenues to states from offshore petroleum production are computed by how much shoreline a state has. In Virginia’s case, it is not much, at least when compared to North Carolina. Virginia politicians have pointed this out and hope for some adjustment.

No one can predict energy markets a decade from now. For instance, no one knew that hydraulic fracturing would increase petroleum production by 64 percent and possibly make the U.S. a petroleum exporter for the first time since the 1970s. Granted it is a rock and a hard place kind of choice. Fracking is fraught with pollution problems just as offshore drilling is.

There are certain to be plenty of lawsuits over the offshore plan and economics will likely determine its future. An important choice is whether it is worth risking Virginia’s military, resort and fishing businesses for Big Oil whose promise is uncertain when it comes to offshore drilling.

The Real “War on Coal”

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

By Peter Galuszka

Over in West Virginia, some things never seem to change.

Families of the 29 miners killed on April 5, 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch are asking a federal judge to lift her gag order so they can testify before West Virginia legislators considering tougher rules that would make it easier for workers to sue employers over job-related injuries and deaths.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger issued the gag order last year after Donald L. Blankenship, the former chief of Richmond-based Massey Energy, was indicted on four criminal charges for his role in the disaster – the worst one in 40 years. He is scheduled to go on trial in Beckley on April 20.

The question seems to be that the judge is protecting Blankenship’s rights over those of the people hurt by his management. It is not really news in the Mountain State that has always supported Coal Barons over workers. It’s a weird, neo-colonialist thing that never seems to change.

This month, Berger denied a move by several news agencies, including the Charleston Gazette and The Wall Street Journal, to lift the gag order.

As head of Massey Energy, which has since been taken over by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, Blankenship was a true publicity hog. He was never shy about pushing his arch-conservative, pro-business views or bankrolling politicians and judges. Worrying about protecting his legal rights at the expense of free speech is a real travesty.

Yes, there is a “War on Coal” – but the other way around. The conflict is how coal bosses wage war on their employees and their families.

Anticipating the Demise of the Parking Meter

pay_by_phoneAs the City of Charlottesville ponders an upgrade to its downtown parking technology (see “Paying for Onstreet Parking in Cville“), parking guru Bern Grush is looking two steps ahead and thinking about how municipalities should handle the inevitable demise of the parking meter.

At some point in the foreseeable future, parking will be managed in the greater majority of all these cities by all-digital means including phone, Web or in-vehicle, self-paying meters. Accompanying this will be a uniform enforcement approach that uses the license plate number to read parking credentials from the cloud. …

With the top two cell-pay providers in the US each claiming “hundreds” of cities as customers, the trend toward virtual parking meters, digital parking payment, and license plate-enabled parking (LEP) and enforcement credentials appears unstoppable. Many in our industry are increasingly seeing fully wireless parking payment management as the self-evident future.

But that does present a transition problem. Maintaining both parking meters and a wireless system is redundant and expensive. But switching prematurely to an all-digital system can alienate people not comfortable with the technology. Writing in Canadian Parker (flip to page 16) last year, Grush had a few suggestions on how to think about the switch-over.

– JAB

Interview: McAuliffe’s Economic Goals

 maurice jonesBy Peter Galuszka

For a glimpse of where the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe is heading, here’s an interview I did with Maurice Jones, the secretary of commerce and trade that was published in Richmond’s Style Weekly.

Jones, a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College and University of Virginia law, is a former Rhodes Scholar who had been a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. Before that, he was publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, which owns Style.

According to Jones, McAuliffe is big on jobs creation, corporate recruitment and upgrading education, especially at the community college and jobs-training levels. Virginia is doing poorly in economic growth, coming in recently at No. 48, ahead of only Maryland and the District of Columbia which, like Virginia have been hit hard by federal spending cuts.

Jones says he’s been traveling overseas a lot in his first year in office. Doing so helped land the $2 billion paper with Shandong Tranlin in Chesterfield County. The project, which will create 2,000 jobs, is the largest single investment by the Chinese in the U.S. McAuliffe also backs the highly controversial $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline planned by Dominion because its natural gas should spawn badly-needed industrial growth in poor counties near the North Carolina border.

Read more, read here.

(Note: I have a new business blog going at Style Weekly called “The Deal.” Find it on Style’s webpage —   www.styleweekly.com)

Potomac Yard Metro: a Financing Model for Mass Transit

Image credit: North Potomac Yard Small Area Plan

Image credit: North Potomac Yard Small Area Plan. (Click for larger image)

by James A. Bacon

The state will help finance a new Metro station in Alexandria through a $50 million loan from the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board earlier this week. The loan is a key piece of financing for the station, which is expected to cost between $209 million and $268  million to build. In turn, the Metro station is a key piece of infrastructure to advance development of between 9.2 million and 13.1 million square feet of residential, office, retail and hotel space in the Potomac Yard.

While the Metro project doesn’t pass the Bacon litmus test for 100% user-pays financing, it does better than most  mass transit projects Virginia has underwritten, and it would open up 300 acres for high-density, high-value development only five miles from the core of Washington, D.C.

The Potomac Yard, to be built on an old CSX railroad marshaling yard south of Ronald Reagan National Airport, could be Northern Virginia’s most important urban infill project of the early 21st century. Plans call for the creation of between 4,300 and 7,100 residential units, 3.2 million and 4.2 million square feet of office space, nearly 800,000 square feet of retail and 740 hotel rooms. We’re not talking about development that might happen… some day. There is a strong, demonstrated demand for the kind of walkable urbanism planned at Potomac Yard.

From what I can tell from perusing public documents, the City of Alexandria is approaching this project the right way. The land use plan calls for creating a balanced mix of uses in a walkable environment with the goal of maximizing transportation infrastructure by distributing peak traffic over longer periods, maximizing internal trips and maximizing transit use. The plan also would put most parking underground, reducing the need for parking spaces by creating opportunities for shared parking, such as office buildings using parking during the day and residences during the night. Highest density development will be located around the Metro station.

I will say this: $200 million+ strikes me as an extraordinary amount of money to build a single Metro station. There are complicated trade-offs to be made with the station siting. A final decision and cost have yet to be determined. The problem is that the station must work within narrow confines around the existing rail line. Depending upon the design alternative selected, that entails building pedestrian bridges, retaining walls and/or new Metrorail bridges. The complexity of the construction staging is rated moderate to high, and considerable construction would take place along live tracks.

Complexity comes with the territory in in-fill projects. The key question is whether the project creates sufficient value to justify the higher cost. And there’s really only one way to tell: Are developers willing to absorb the cost of constructing the Metro station, or would doing so price their office, residential and retail space out of the market?

We’ll never know the answer because Alexandria isn’t loading the full cost of the Metro station construction upon the developers who stand to benefit through higher rents and leases on their properties. According to the Potomac Yard Metrorail Station Environmental Impact Statement, the project cost including interest will total $496.6 million. In 2010, the original idea was for developers to contribute $74 million directly, another $194 million through revenues generated through a special tax district, and the rest through regular taxes paid, which Alexandria would use to support municipal debt. But financing plans have evolved since then. Now the City of Alexandria is seeking $67 million from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. And the loan from the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank (VTIB) lock in an interest rate of 2.17 percent over 30 years, reducing much of the interest expense.

In a presentation to the CTB, Assistant Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue described the VTIB loan’s complex debt structure. Repayment is secured by a combination of revenue from the special tax district and moral obligation of the City of Alexandria. Not all details have been finalized. “Upon CTB approval,” states the presentation, “additional specific loan terms will be determined as project, schedule and related documents are finalized.”

Bacon’s bottom line: There are still big unknowns to this project. We don’t know how much the Metro Station will cost. A final design hasn’t been selected, and almost every mass transit project known to man seems to undergo mission creep and cost escalation. Further, we don’t know the final terms of the VTIB loan. With those important caveats, it appears that this project comes closer to to paying its own way than any Virginia mass transit project I can recall.

There are no federal dollars. There likely will be state dollars, but they will come from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which means that down-state taxpayers will not be subsidizing the project. The commitment of VTIB funds represents a small interest rate subsidy and there is a small risk that the money may not be paid, so in theory state taxpayers could be on the hook for some portion if things turn sour.

But this project differs from every other Virginia mass transit project in that developers will contribute a $74 million (2010 estimate) through direct contributions, $194 million (2010 estimate) through special tax district contributions, and millions of dollars more through payment of regular taxes used to service City of Alexandria municipal bonds. That’s a far greater contribution than will come, say, from developers/property owners of the Silver line or property owners along the Norfolk light rail line.

This is a preliminary analysis based upon a cursory examination of public documents. I invite closer scrutiny by others. But my impression is that, when it comes to paying for mass transit, this is probably the best deal that Virginia taxpayers have ever seen. The Alexandria Metro station should serve as a mass transit-financing model for the rest of the state.

Back to Pork at Ft. Pickett

fort pickettBy Peter Galuszka

It was curious that Gov. Terry McAuliffe, while emphasizing that the state needs to wean itself from the sweet milk of federal spending, pushed a very interesting government project in the piney woods of Nottoway  and three other counties.

In his speech to the 2015 General Assembly on Wednesday, McAuliffe said he was “thrilled to help convince the State Department and the General Services Administration to choose Fort Pickett as the home of the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, bringing as many as 500 jobs and millions in investment along with it.”

The U.S. State Department has been trying for years to get an adequate training facility for its guards and U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The U.S. Marines they use are pretty much ceremonial and the deployment of private armies such as the former Blackwater of Moyock, N.C. is fraught with problems as several recent high-profile court trials attest.

The need for well-trained, non-privatized guards was underlined on Sept. 11, 2012 in the bloody siege of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Last spring, Ft. Pickett, a Virginia Army National Guard base, was chosen for the $461 million Foreign Affairs Security Training Center which will create 1,500 permanent and part-time jobs.

It’s a project both parties can love. Republican U.S. Reps. Randy Forbes and Robert Hurt are smitten as are Democratic U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and of course, McAuliffe. It may be ironic that the Ft. Pickett site can draw such bipartisan support in Virginia when Republicans beat everyone up so badly, especially former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, over Benghazi. It’s also curious that a national security expense like this goes down so easily with politicians while accepting federal money to expand Medicaid coverage to 400,000 lower income Virginians is such a no-no. Conservatives argue that Medicaid would hurt budget discipline, but won’t this training center do the same?

The State Department says it has 2,000 security people in 160 countries and plans 75 more. They now take a 10-week training course at a military base in West Virginia that includes a local race track that is considered inadequate.

Ft. Pickett is probably a logical site. Its 45,000 plus acres were carved out of several counties during World War II and an airfield was built. During the Cold War (as now) the facility was used for artillery and tank practice since its rolling pine-gum forest somewhat resembled the terrain of Eastern Europe where the real fighting might be.

It had been marked for closure but somehow survived, sustaining the small town of Blackstone where one often sees troops in utilities at the local Hardees or McDonald’s. From time to time, Ft. Pickett hosts special guest trainees such as the Navy SEALS, the Marines, Army rangers and Delta Forces, the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement and others. I live about 20 miles from the base and from time to time, my house shakes either from artillery shots or helicopters that roar at low altitude. One particularly loud weekend, I looked up the fort’s website to see who was there. It was the Canadian Army shooting up Old Virginny.

There was a rumor going around a couple years ago that Ft. Pickett housed a to-scale mockup of Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan and that SEALS used it to train before killing him. The story was so juicy that it ended up on the Blackstone Chamber of Commerce Website for a while but I don’t think it is true. It was probably in North Carolina at a CIA base at Harvey Point on Albemarle Sound or at Ft. Bragg.

The State Department facility will be built on 1,500 acres of land and supposedly 10,000 students a year will use it. I can’t understand where they get that number if there are only 2,000 State Department guards, but never mind.

The base used to be fairly open. When my German Shepherd was alive sometimes we’d drive down there to see what was going on. Usually, nothing, but on occasion you’d see helicopters or an Air Force cargo jet practicing takeoffs and landings.

The facility will help the local area but I am sure the old access will be limited. Meanwhile, it’s back to federal money that Virginia loves so well, at least in this case.

Henrico Still Building Schlock

west_broad_marketplace

Artist’s rendering of West Broad Marketplace

by James A. Bacon

The developer of the West Broad Marketplace, which will bring a Wegmans grocery store and outdoor gear retailer Cabela’s to western Henrico County, promises Richmonders a shopping treat that “I don’t think you’ve experienced before.” That may be true. Unfortunately, Jack Waghorn, president of Vienna-based NVRetail, will replicate the experience of driving through traffic-clogged thoroughfares and parking in vast, open-air parking lots that Richmonders will find all too familiar.

The Henrico Wegman’s is scheduled to open in mid-2016, with a counterpart in Chesterfield County opening around the same time. Henrico County officials were on hand for a ground-breaking yesterday. No doubt county leaders are pleased that Henrico citizens will have access to the popular, high-end grocery store, not to mention the tax revenues generated by the store and the 550 to 600 full- and part-time jobs created.

As can be seen in the artist’s rendering above, however, West Broad Marketplace will perpetuate the dysfunctional low-density land use patterns of post World War II sprawl that has already made the Short Pump area a congested hell hole. I avoid going there if at all possible, and others do, too, although sometimes they have no choice because that’s where the region’s upscale stores are concentrated. Driving in and around Short Pump is always a dismal experience. When I visited one time last month to do some Christmas shopping, traffic was so gridlocked that cars were backed up onto I-64, causing a slowdown on the Interstate. That may sound banal to Northern Virginians but it’s unprecedented for the Richmond region.

The traffic congestion in Short Pump is the foreseeable consequence of zoning for mile after mile of single-use shopping-center development around the intersection of Interstates 64 and 295. Planners allowed for no other connectivity: shopping centers don’t connect with each other, much less with nearby residential neighborhoods. There are no side streets to divert traffic. All cars pile onto West Broad Street. The area is utterly unwalkable — visitors have no choice but to drive their cars from destination to destination, adding to the congestion — and there is no mass transit.

The county will never have enough money to build its way out of this mess. Indeed, the problem is so bad that congestion is radiating out from the Short Pump area to places, like the Innsbrook commercial park, where traffic conditions once were tolerable. At some point, I predict, conditions will become so atrocious that — Wegmans or no Wegmans — affluent households, corporate offices and high-end retailers will seek somewhere else in the Richmond region to locate. When the 30-year amortization of all those commercial buildings expires, retailers will pack up and follow. Once the newness wears off, there’s nothing to keep anyone there.

Wind Power Hits Some Nasty Gusts

offshorewindturbines By Peter Galuszka

Wind power has taken some hits with the New Year.

A proposed 145-acre, 20-megawatt project in Clarke County is being scuttled because Dominion Resources has shown little interest in buying its power. In New England, a pioneering offshore wind project, Cape Wind, is on the ropes because of the merger of two utilities and opposition by one of the Koch brothers.

According to the Winchester Star and blogger Iveymain, OCI Power is pulling the plug on its plan to erect 100,000 solar panels – enough to power 20,000 homes –due “due to the lack of long-term solar procurement efforts by Dominion and other VA utilities.”

There is no clear program in Virginia to push solar power. The General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe have paid lip service to the idea but haven’t done anything to actually fund it. Moreover, Virginia has no mandatory renewable portfolio standard as do other states so efforts for renewable energy are set up to dawdle. Dominion also has been slow, if not downright negative, about buying renewable party from third party sources.

Cape Wind off Cape Cod had been might have been the nation’s first real offshore wind farm. It would run 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound with electric utilities buying the output.

But the project’s price tag of $2.5 billion seemed daunting. One group, National Grid had agreed to buy half the power, but another utility, NStar, wanted to drop its interest in the project when it was being taken over in a $17.5 billion merger with Northeast Utilities.

Cape Wind had drawn opposition from people one might expect, such as conservative activist William Koch, who owns millions of dollars’ worth of seafront vacation real estate, but also from odd sources such as the late TV anchorman Walter Cronkite who likewise owned waterfront land.

Closer to Virginia, there have been auctions of offshore areas from wind farms. Dominion has about $50 million in federal funds to build two, six-megawatt turbines 27 miles off the Virginia shore. Dominion says it wants to develop wind, but the reality is that it wants to take tiny steps to it while dominating the market.

Another factor is the rush to natural gas that has Dominion and other regional utilities pitching billions worth of pipelines. Cheap gas hurts renewables because it takes away the urgency to get them going.

That may change. There is so much gas and oil, in fact, that drilling is slowing quickly. Petroleum prices are way low. This is a normal cycle. When production slows because of low prices, supply will likewise diminish. When that happens, prices will rise and drilling will be robust again.

The problem is really an economic one. As long as natural gas remains in its current cycle, it’s going to be really hard to force a play into wind – at least – without some kind of top-down, government involvement. Dominion, once again, is getting away with playing it just as it wants.

Takeaways From Bob McDonnell’s Sentencing

Mcd sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

The outpouring of support for convicted former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was overwhelming at his sentencing hearing yesterday at which he was told that he will serve two years in a federal penitentiary.

And this very support stands in marked contrast to McDonnell’s performance on the witness stand during his marathon trial last summer. There he alternated between saying that he “holds himself accountable” and then blaming his aides, vitamin salesman Jonnie R. Williams and, of course, his estranged wife Maureen who was set up to take the fall.

So which Bob is really Bob?

In U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer’s courtroom, the hours’ long reading of letters of support and 11 witness testimonials from the stand became tedious and repetitive. Bob kneels down to comfort a sick woman. Bob helps out Katrina hurricane victims on his week-long vacation, builds a basketball court and breaks his jaw. Bob restores voting rights to 8,128 convicted felons who had served their time. Bob’s only flaws are his gullibility and naïvite. Bob writes thank you notes.

The most impressive supporter by far was L. Douglas Wilder, the former Richmond mayor who became the first-ever African-American governor. Always unpredictable, the Democratic politician came down hard on Bob’s side, saying he’s known him for years and found him to “to be of his word.” Wilder touched off applause in the courtroom he blamed Williams as “the man who started this bribe” as “the one who got away clean.”

All of these people were trying to convince Judge Spencer that Bob should not get jail time but 6,000 hours of community service. One option would be to stick him in a service coordination job on the island nation of Haiti. The job normally would pay $100,000 including benefits but Bob wouldn’t get the money and would work and have to sleep in a hot and buggy room. Other possibilities including holding an unpaid $60,000 job coordinating a food bank in southwest Virginia.

To his credit, Judge Spencer didn’t bite. Prosecutor Michael Dry said that McDonnell is free to do all the community service he wants after he serves his time behind bars. McDonnell could have gotten more than 12 years in prison. Spencer gave him two.

The sentence is on the light side but is probably fair. McDonnell has been tremendously humiliated. He completely dishonored his public trust and will go down in history as the Virginia governor who was corrupt. At least he is getting some jail time.

And he might win on appeal. It’s not a slam dunk but there is respected legal opinion out there that “honest services fraud” can be viewed in a tight or loose focus. Spencer chose a tight focus but we will have to see if the appeal McDonnell has filed gets to the U.S. Fourth Circuit and then Supreme Court.

Next up is wife Maureen, who is a tragic figure and also was convicted of corruption. Her own daughters characterized her as a sick woman who badly needs help. Some columnists have pumped her up, saying she’s the unsung heroine stuck raising the kids while the ambitious politician is selfishly away building his career.

Something about that argument doesn’t ring true to me. Maureen McDonnell may well have despised the time Bob spent away from her but she also was right beside him, pushing her own agenda such as selling nutraceuticals and backing pet programs such as marketing Virginia wines and helped injured military veterans. As First Lady, she was no shrinking violet when it came to letting her wishes known to state employees.

She comes up for sentencing Feb. 20 and now that her husband’s fate is known, it seems likely she won’t get any jail time. If so, maybe she can get the help she seems to badly need and the McDonnell family can start to heal their terrible wounds.

One of the character witnesses Tuesday was William Howell, the Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates who provided the enormously valuable insight that “people would describe Bob as a Boy Scout.” Not only is Howell’s remark insipid, it hides how much he’s responsible for maintaining the total mess that policing ethics among Virginia public officials has become.

No matter how many Wednesday morning Bible studies Howell says he attended with McDonnell, he still did nothing to improve regulation of political donations and gifts. If anything, he’s the problem not the solution since he minimizes every decent initiative to rationalize Virginia’s loosey-goosey system. If there were clear rules, McDonnell may never have gotten caught in his quagmire. He might have known when to avoid crossing the line.

Howell told the court that the General Assembly is busy setting its house right and that McDonnell’s predicament “Most certainly . . . has had a deterrent effect.” That was likely the most ridiculous statement during the five hours of court testimony on a horrid sentencing day.