richmond-flying-squirrels-comic-nutzyBy Peter Galuszka

In a blow to Richmond’s business elite, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones has withdrawn, at least for now, his $80 million project to build a new minor league baseball stadium as part of a mixed-use, publicly-funded development in the city’s historic Shockoe Bottom.

The stadium had been up for a council vote Tuesday night but  ran into trouble when three swing vote councilmen indicated they’d vote it down. Jones says it may come back.

The new stadium which would be home to the Minor League AA Richmond Flying Squirrels was to anchor a new slave museum and mixed use development near the city’s Main Street station downtown. The current location is the crumbling Diamond on North Boulevard.

This is the third time a plan to move the stadium to congested Shockoe Bottom has run into trouble in 10 years. Failure to replace the Diamond was one reason why the AAA Richmond Braves bolted to the Atlanta suburbs a few years back. There are a number of reasons why the plan is dead, at least for now:

  • Secrecy. The third attempt sprang from Venture Richmond, a marketing group controlled by the city’s business elite. From the git go and true to form in corporate Richmond, everything was done behind closed doors. Even when Jones announced the plan formally in November, it was dotted with questions such as what to do about a slave museum since neighboring ground is hallowed with the blood and tears of slaves. Deadlines were missed and missed again to explain what the plan was all about.
  • Bad PR: The arrogance of the city’s controlling interests and the low esteem with which they hold ordinary citizens is breathtaking. The editorial section of the local paper ran story after story propagandizing for the Shockoe stadium. They even ran one incredibly tasteless and bizarre cartoon on a Sunday editorial page. A young-African-American woman, neatly coiffed and carrying design shipping bags, walks arm-in-arm with her studly, white husband wearing a Squirrels cap while playing catch with their mixed-race youngster. One assumes they are walking to the new ballpark past the slave museum. Get it? “Look how far we have gone from torturing slaves to our happy interracial family today.”
  • No other ideas allowed. A Chesterfield development firm came up with a counter proposal to build a new stadium near the Diamond site and add some badly-needed retail. The Mayor and his kin reacted vigorously to shut down the plan. Emails came up among the ruling elite that the plan was not to keep suburbanites in their comfort zones. A big advantage with the so-called RebKee idea is that no public money would be involved to keep the ballpark at its convenient and popular location.
  • Public money? Part of the Shockoe plan would have involved millions in public funds. Some $79.6 million would be funded through bonds let by the Richmond Economic Development Authority. Councilman Jonathan Baliles worried that the city had voted an amendment to be let off the hook for the bonds. They didn’t want to have the “moral obligation.” If not the city, then who gets the tab if it goes bad?
  • The fans don’t matter. Gee in all of this mess and intrigue, no one seems to be asking the Squirrels fans what they think. A few takeaways are that most of  them come from the suburbs and polls show that most like the current site just fine since it is where Interstates 95 and 64 connect. Many are moms and dads with 10-year-olds. Apparently in the thinking of the city’s ruling elite who push the idea of Richmond being “the capital of creativity,” these average suburbanites don’t count. They don’t fit the image of the hip, cool, tat-sleeved yuppie dabbling in the arts or software that they so badly want to use as marketing for the New Richmond they envision. Fact is, many fans with a van-load of kids probably aren’t interested in downing craft beer or designer cocktails right after the game. They probably want to get their tuckered-out tykes back to their boring, car-centric suburban homes. Apparently, they don’t count. I attended a Squirrels game a few weeks ago for Chesterfield Monthly and out of 12 families I spoke with only one wanted to leave the current Boulevard site.

My takeaway? The Squirrels are showing a lot more patience and class than the Braves. Either start something serious at the Boulevard site or come up with a few honest, open and clear proposals. It should not be up to just Richmond, however, even though they own the stadium, since their fan base is out of the city. And if Richmond fails, screw the city and built it at Short Pump or at some other suburban location. Try to stick with private money.

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20 responses to “Richmond Mayor Jones Bunts”

  1. larryg Avatar

    In our current era of bad, bad, bloated, incompetent, corrupt govt – I’m constantly amazed at proposals for govt to do what one would think the
    private sector should do – at least if you believe the small govt critics.

    Perhaps it’s already been said here – but given the problems with schools, public safety, and pensions, etc… with most cities – what’s the difference between Detroit and Richmond when it comes to fiddling while the city burns (financially).

  2. Wow, it’s scary when I find myself agreeing with most of what Peter has written. I think to myself, “Am I missing something? Have I been abducted by aliens and undergone a brain transplant?” Be that as it may, other than his obsession with Richmond’s “business elite,” I think he’s nailed down the main reasons why the Shockoe ballpark project flopped.

    The reason I object to the nomenclature “business elite” is that it implies the existence of something that does not exist in the political world. Yes, there is an elite cadre of Richmond business executives and owners who are elite in the sense that they are richer than everyone else. But I see no indication that the members of this elite all see things the same way, approach local politics in the same way, or all have the same views on the Shockoe ballpark plan. The Venture Forum cited by Peter consists of a handful of individuals who are particularly active in civic affairs but represent no one’s views but their own.

    1. larryg Avatar

      we have our own cadre of such “elites” in Fredericksburg… who play more than cursory roles in city decisions – in my view.

      we too are trying to build a baseball stadium and we too have way more going on behind the scenes than in front of the public.

    2. C. Wayne Taylor Avatar
      C. Wayne Taylor

      “Business elite” may not be the most precise term, but there certainly is a small group of individuals that usually controls the decision making at city hall. “Oligarchy” and “plutocracy” are not quite right choices. Perhaps “power elite” is as close as the English language gets.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Here are Venture Richmond’s contributors. I realize that each one might not support 100 percent of the Shockoe Plan but the list is the list.

    Altria/Philip Morris USA
    Bank of America
    Bon Secours Richmond Health System
    Brandywine Realty Trust
    Capital One
    Cherry Bekaert LLP
    The Community Foundation
    Davenport & Co. LLC
    Ernst & Young LLP
    Genworth Financial
    HCA Richmond Hospitals
    Hirschler Fleischer
    Hunton & Williams LLP
    J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College
    Markel Corporation
    The Martin Agency
    Media General Inc.
    Mercer Marsh
    Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia Fund of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia
    NewMarket Corporation
    NXL Construction Services
    Owens & Minor Inc.
    The Rosenthal Foundation
    Running With Scissors
    Sands Anderson
    S.B. Cox
    Scott & Stringfellow
    SunTrust Bank
    Ukrop’s Endowment Fund of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia
    Ukrop’s Super Markets Inc.
    Union First Market Bank
    The Universal Leaf Foundation

  4. billsblots Avatar

    I think there are differences between Detroit and Richmond. There seems to be a much more diverse economy in Richmond than in old school Detroit, substantial enough to continue to overcome the incompetence and inefficiency ( I won’t say corruption because I don’t know, but probably never to the extent of Kwame and friends) of the City government. The scale of Richmond is much much smaller than was Detroit so can be propped up much easier.

    But 2014 Detroit is well ahead of 2014 Richmond it seems in some ways. Going through a painful but long overdue bankruptcy and state-appointed Emergency Manager has netted some positive results. I can’t explain the geography of Detroit even briefly, but the willingness of the City Council (reluctant willingness in some) to co-fund the building of the future home of the widely beloved Detroit Red Wings hockey team from riverfront to help fill in the gap along Woodward Avenue between downtown and mid-town is a huge win – there are many empty lots there now. The Arena will be just part of the development, along with business sites, restaurants, and new permanent mid- to up- scale housing for the professionals working downtown at Compuware, Ernst and Young, and JP Morgan. Even though private funding constitutes the majority of funding at $385M of the projected $650, the City will actually end up owning the Arena, able to lease it back to Mr. Ilitch and the Red Wings, and use it for concerts and events in the offseason. In addition to the several thousand construction jobs, the new facility and development will create an additional 2,000 jobs beyond those transferring from the old/current arena.

    Additional investment has already and continues to come in by an auto parts manufacturer for $50M and 450 new jobs in Detroit and 800+ in Michigan, and JP Morgan’s creating a $100M fund for grants and loans for small businesses and blight eradication.

    The downtown area of Detroit is pretty cool if you’ve never been, complete with its traditional and long standing ethnic restaurants, modern casinos and hotels, new office buildings and recent new professional baseball and football facilities. The existing riverfront hockey arena will be razed for new riverfront development once the new arena opens and begins to connect the downtown and midtown areas (home to mammoth Wayne State University, the Harvard of the Lodge Freeway).

    It’s probably too early to declare that Detroit has completely turned a corner, but it does prove that with a plan and a demeanor that is mostly absent of political rancor that new investment can come quickly.

  5. Breckinridge Avatar

    The TD cartoon/illustration that Peter refers to was indeed bizarre.

    I attended Braves games from time to time, and have not become so attached to the Squirrels. My children were at the right age when we were going to Brave’s games – that’s part of it. But I really could not envision going down into the Bottom to attend a game with the traffic issues. Others cite the current crime problems but I suspect those would move elsewhere if the development happened. That would have been a positive outcome of it.

    The whole thing just wasn’t well presented, didn’t seem fully baked when it was announced. You could just see the fine hand of our old friend Rosie Scenario in some of the projections. And what minor league baseball, housing projects and a monument to the horror of slavery have in common, well, still not getting that. People who consider that be hallowed ground (and I get why they do) were not going to become advocates for this plan, and to think they might was just ludicrous. That was the nuttiest element of this.

    But it ain’t dead. I’m sure the advocates will make another run at this. And those same advocates are just sharpening their own knives waiting for the next Boulevard-based proposal, as logical as that might be. Their way or nothing, I’m afraid.

    1. larryg Avatar

      is the real purpose of this development to push crime somewhere else and make this location a place that will attract people (and business)?

      is this a stealth anti-crime measure?

  6. JOHN1000 Avatar

    Shockoe Bottom for a ballpark? A disaster waiting to happen for many physical and geographic reasons (lack of space, topography, highways and trains).
    The next Hurricane Isabel would wash the ballpark into the James River.
    Maybe a miracle happens and this gets stopped before so much money gets spent in studies and planning that they get to declare that we now have to build it or else all this goes to waste.

    1. larryg Avatar

      surely – they’re not talking about putting ANYTHING on the river side of the flood wall down there..!!!

      1. Breckinridge Avatar

        No, the development would be away from the river, on the correct side of the floodwall, but we all remember what happened when the remnants of TS Gaston filled the Bottom with water and due to a problem with the floodwall, the water did not drain away. The vision of cars floating in those very parking lots and covering the farmer’s market on 17th Street is hard to erase.

        But yes, there is development already on the other side of that floodwall. Before this boondoggle, the plan was to develop something to compete with the San Antonio Riverwalk. Now THAT was funny.

        What Richmond really needs is first class schools and a couple thousand more high tech manufacturing jobs that the graduates of those schools could then qualify for. Not dreams of tourist glory.

        1. larryg Avatar

          thanks Breckinridge.

          the River Walk in San Antonia is basically a canal off of the river – that can be closed if the river floods…

          on the other hand – the Gaston thing was the result of storm water runoff which if they have gotten fixed would not be a problem – however, if they have not fixed it.. jesus H. keeerist… some people – you do not give money – because God never intended for them to be making financial decisions to start with!!

  7. spencer114 Avatar

    The ballpark plan addressed the flooding issue (without the development, the city cannot afford to address it).

    Calling the Bottom congested is beyond hyperbolic. 70, 000 people work downtown, 32,000 students attend VCU. There are no traffic problems at all. The Bottom used to be a manufacturing center supporting thousands of jobs. Today it is as empty as downtown Emporia. If anything the infrastructure is overbuilt. Congested? By what measure?

    There is certainly a valid argument to be made for the funding of this project, every other argument is just babble.

    As for the question that keeps coming up “how is Richmond different from Detroit” the answer is Richmond’s bond rating. That is the difference.

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      If the ballpark plan requires about 80 million in debt to, combined, build a ballpark, fix the flooding issue, and redo traffic, and the ballpark costs about 55 million, upfront costs which I thought included flood mitigation are about 10 or 15 million, and traffic improvements are about 2 million, there isn’t that much left for additional costs of flood mitigation infrastructure.

      Seems like the city could afford flood mitigation on its own if they wanted to.

      I’ve driven out of the Bottom in rush hour. If you honestly think there are no traffic problems at all, you must be from DC originally. It’s not particularly fun to get into or out of during rush hour, particularly if you’re trying to get on 95. For that matter, it isn’t fun to get onto 64 from there, either.

      A lot of people work downtown, and they stagger their work hours and they go home different ways, and they wait in traffic if they drive. They are not all getting out of the same building at the exact same time and they don’t have a wait-free exit.

      For that matter, a lot of the parking that they use is either specific to where they work (Monroe Building, etc) or in private lots with monthly rental, so where are fans going to park for games?

      VCU is not exactly next door to the Bottom, unless you mean MCV, so I don’t see what that has to do with the ballpark.

      When exactly was the Bottom a manufacturing center supporting thousands of jobs? Serious question, not joking.

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    Simple answer for Richmond …

    Look up this guy and ask him what he’d do:

    Seriously – the man is an absolute genius at urban renewal.

  9. spencer114 Avatar

    I’ve lived in downtown Richmond for the last 20 years. There is no congestion in the Bottom (or anywhere else downtown- Belvidere and Broad can be a hassle, but a very minor one). A three minute delay between the James River Bridge and the I 64 merge is not a traffic problem. The 7,000 baseball fans (1/10th of the normal workday travel) would also stager their departure times and leave on many different routes (far more routes than at the current location).
    I mentioned VCU because that population combined with the downtown workforce nearly doubles the population of Richmond very weekday, and without any real traffic issues.
    MCV would add more folks to the mix (patients and visitors) but the employees are included in the 70k number.

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      Spencer, I’ve worked downtown, and consulted downtown, and yes, there is congestion getting out of downtown onto 95 or 64. Period. It’s not a three minute delay – you are kidding yourself.

      If you live downtown, you’re not commuting and you don’t have to worry about the merges onto the highways. Not the same thing.

      It’s not Reston at rush hour, but the feeds into the highways are awful and badly marked. The merges onto 95 in particular are slow and can be scary, especially for people who are not used to traffic. If you miss the exit, getting back to where you started is confusing, with one way streets and construction and again, bad signage, and it isn’t any easier at night.

      You keep stating that 70,000 people work downtown. Over a million people in the region don’t work downtown, and they aren’t necessarily thrilled with negotiating an unfamiliar downtown grid as commuters, at night, with bad signage and highway ramps that appear to have been designed by roller coaster engineers.

      Most people are not going to use the same roads to get out of VCU that they would use to get out of Shockoe Bottom. VCU backs up to an exit on the downtown expressway, many of the students live on campus, many more live nearby and walk to school, and for those that do use the roads to get home, their arrivals and departures are staggered from 8 am to 9 pm – and often involve a very short drive to nearby neighborhoods.

      People who work downtown arrive as early as 6 and as late as 10, and leave anywhere from 2:30 to 7 pm – and the range is even wider if you take MCV into account.

      OTOH, baseball fans are going to largely leave when the game is over or close to it, and someone heading to 95 or 64 has a fairly limited number of options when leaving from Shockoe Bottom.

      1. larryg Avatar

        re: ” OTOH, baseball fans are going to largely leave when the game is over or close to it, and someone heading to 95 or 64 has a fairly limited number of options.”

        we have two similar issues ongoing in the Fredericksburg Area.

        One is a minor league baseball team and stadium – next to I-95 and there are
        big concerns with what event traffic will do to the existing traffic.

        the second is a racetrack locating next to I-95 in Spotsylvania county – and in that case there are no doubts about it’s impact and the interchange is going to be significantly upgraded to keep the event traffic from seriously impacting I-95 on the on and off ramps.

        I would not think ANY city would want a venue that increases peak hour traffic…or created peak-hour-like traffic for events.

        if you look at the southbound ramps from I-95 into that area of Richmond – imagine hundreds or thousands of cars trying to exit at that ramp for a
        ball game. it’s going to more than likely back up onto the ramp and into the mainlines of I-95 (ironically where VDOT is located).

        Down our way – when you propose something like this – VDOT reviews it and decides what additional infrastructure has to be built to mitigate impacts and that’s why a new interchange is required for the racetrack that Spotsylvania approved…

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I agree with Larry that downtown would be badly impacted by baseball traffic, unless it’s a weekend afternoon game. There are only a few on/off ramps there. Traffic can get congested on I 95 very quickly if there is a wreck. The eastern part of I 64 over the Shockoe Valley likewise is a regular bottleneck.

    The Boulevard location offers access to I 64 west which is probably where at least half of the fans go. At that point, there’s no big problem from an I-95 backup. Driving from the Bottom, suburban fans, who are the fan base, not downtowners, would have to drive north through any I 95 congestion tot he Bryan Park interchange.

    Plus going to and from the Bottom parking they plan to build would involve several more stoplights and a slower process because it would be multi-level parking at a new facility. Yet another issue is that the city would want $30 million in public money for a facility that would be used a few nights a week for only five months of the year. UNless, of course, there’s a huge boom in office employment downtown which I do not envision.

    You are seeing the evolution of a new Canal or 6th Street market place on which the city lost about $800,000 a year before it was torn down. If you want to see the wondrous Canal Walk, go see it. Nothing there but floating trash.

    Downtown Richmond has its successes such as the Folk Festival in a different part of the area and First Fridays, which sprang up organically and in spite of the city on Broad Street. The latter was begun by gallery owners and tattoo salons and then the city leadership tried to march to the front of the parade after it was a success and claim as their own. “It works! We’ll designate it an ART DISTRICT.”

    The city needs to give up on the Bottom and try to get some private money to redevelop the Boulevard site. They might get suburban county help if they were asked and not insulted as Jack Berry, head of Venture Richmond did, when a Chesterfield developer pitched a privately-funded redevelopment of Boulevard.

    Another problem is that Richmond, one of the most historic and tragic towns of the Civil War, seems to be nowhere in this 150th anniversary of the war. Who goes to the Museum of the Confederacy when you have to confront MCV-VCU parking? Ever get a ticket in Richmond? Even if you pay it, they keep billing you.

    So, forget the Bottom, Redo Boulevard or find a suburbanite site.

    One of Richmond’s greatest failures is that it has a truly lovely asset with the James River but it has squandered it completely. Yah, you have Brown’s Island but it is hard to get to. Years ago, the city should have set aside the banks for parks, just like CHicago did with Lake Michigan. But, being Richmond, corporations ruled.

    Reminds me of the story of when Andrew Carnegie approached war-devastated Richmonders about helping to rebuild with a big donation for a public library. Snooty as ever, the ruling elite told him that “Gentlemen buy their own books.”

    That about says it.

    1. larryg Avatar

      I think – at the least – a traffic and parking study should be proffered before any decisions made.

      we seem to be starting out with an “idea” without a feasibility study (or perhaps there is one and I’ve not seen it).

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