Tag Archives: Jon Baliles

RVA 5×5: Behind in the Count

by Jon Baliles

Baseball season is in full swing and I have already been to three games to celebrate spring, sport, and sun. And because this is Richmond, I sometimes wonder how much longer I will be able to repeat this ritual in Aprils in the future. This week, the city announced it had reached final terms with developer RVA Diamond Partners to build a new stadium and the massive Diamond District project. But the news was something of a mixed bag for a variety of reasons.

Baseball is all about timing. When the pitcher starts his motion, when the batter cocks and decides whether to swing or not, and whether you can make contact. But after a few days of looking at the deal and reading about it, I realized something about the timing of it is off. This post is not a deep dive into the financials of the deal (that will come soon but not today).
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RVA History: Merging Manchester

by Jon Baliles

I often joke with people when I am asked about Manchester that it was an independent city until 1910 when they merged with Richmond — and they have probably regretted it ever since.

Em Holter has a nice piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the merger of the city nicknamed “Dogtown” that is worth the read.

On the day of the vote in 1910, pro-merger pamphlets were distributed that promised lower taxes, better infrastructure, and free passage into Virginia’s capital city (no more toll on the bridge). Opponents cautioned that annexation would mean increased taxes and inferior services. History can certainly be ironic. Continue reading

RVA 5×5: Valet Parking

by Jon Baliles

There was a lot of talk and coverage this week about the City of Richmond’s Planning Commission unanimously approving the removal of parking minimums citywide with the full City Council expected to take the matter up at its meeting Monday night.

The ordinance as written would allow developers to decide how much parking to include in new developments anywhere in the city — or if they need to include any parking at all to serve the development. For decades, the city-required developments to also provide a certain number of off-street parking spaces based on the size of development, the number of dwelling units, type of use, or total floor area.

The end goal is to allow developers to determine how much parking to provide in their developments and if they don’t have to provide expensive parking, they will then increase the supply of needed housing units. The city recently declared a “housing crisis,” and the need for more housing across the entire region is urgent. The proposal is one of the recommendations from the Richmond 300 master plan, which is in favor of less “auto-centric” zoning and more in favor of denser and more walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.
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RVA 5×5: Heard the Noise, Seen The Light

by Jon Baliles

Well, it seems Mayor Levar Stoney has finally picked up on a problem on Richmond’s streets that many of us have known about for three-plus years. If you live downtown, or in the Fan, Oregon Hill, Jackson Ward, the Museum District, Randolph, Scott’s Addition, Byrd Park, Malvern Gardens, parts of Northside, Monroe Ward, or several other neighborhoods, the sound of jet-like roaring from annoying packs of motorcycles has permeated the air at night (usually on weekends) in a way that would wake Rip Van Winkle with ease.

And for three-plus years, nothing has been done. I have talked to those in public safety who have been told for years that these insanely loud gatherings of cyclists, noisemakers, and idiots — whatever you want to call them — are off limits for stopping or arresting, even if they gather by the dozens (even during the day) and violate the city’s un-enforced noise ordinance or dozens of traffic laws in and around Bryan Park, Byrd Park, or on Broad Street.

But this past Thursday afternoon, several noisy riders caught the mayor’s attention in Shockoe Bottom. He not only called the police chief to track them with an airplane, but he also later made sure that all the local media outlets (all three TV stations and the Times-Dispatch) knew about it. The result was three young men from the Tri-Cities area were arrested (ages 19, 18, 17), one stolen gun was recovered, and one teen escaped.
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RVA 5×5: Monopoly on Richmond

by Jon Baliles

There has been a lot of chatter this week about Monopoly doing a Richmond version featuring notable places and landmarks to replace the well-known properties like St. James’ Place, Reading Railroad, and Boardwalk.

According to Em Holter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the creators of Monopoly want to hear from YOU about what to include in the 22 spaces that make up a Richmond Monopoly board.

“…Hasbro licensee Top Trumps USA, which is tasked with creating the board, will need to hear from Richmonders just what those signature sites are. The company is asking residents to land on chance, draw a card and submit their ideas at richmond@toptrumps.com as to what they would like to see featured on the Richmond Monopoly game before March 20.”

How many jokes can you make using “Stop. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200,” in reference to Richmond?

Ohhh, the possibilities are endless. I can imagine the snarky replies already submitted and soon to be, and it will probably have the Hasbro people wondering just what they have done.

According to Hasbro executive John Marano, “This is a board game built by Richmond, for Richmond. I want them to be proud and I want them to be involved, because at the end of the day, that’s what makes it successful for us.”

The company has done city-specific boards in other cities like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, San Diego, Philadelphia, Boise, Portland, and Sacramento. J.C. Poma, vice president of community relations for Richmond Region Tourism said, “We’re so excited to see what you come up with for this great board game.”

The selections for that board will be interesting for sure when the game is released this fall, but few maps or boards will ever be as funny as the 2015 Judgmental Map of Richmond — when you could still laugh at stuff like that. Maybe Monopoly will top that (but I doubt it from a humor perspective), so get busy and submit your suggestions to Hasbro before March 20!

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This is an excerpt from the original article posted on his blog, RVA 5×5. It is posted here with permission.

RVA 5×5: Incentivizing Derelicts

by Jon Baliles

Housing has become a vital issue all across our region; it is a pressing need, but not simple to resolve. It will be with us for some time to come and we have to seek out a multi-prong strategy to address it. But there are some steps that can be taken to set the conditions of success, one parcel at a time. Joseph Maltby in the Henrico Citizen had an interesting story with wider implications about one of those solutions.

He writes about a development along Chamberlayne Road just north of Azalea Avenue in Henrico County that will see a new, 186-unit, affordable housing development with density (three and four story buildings) along with other amenities. The interesting part of the story is that the eight-acre property was “declared derelict in 2019 and put on the county’s list of properties designated for redevelopment,” and the former Days Inn motel was demolished.
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RVA 5×5: Restoring A Richmond Treasure

by Jon Baliles

One of Richmond’s favorite architectural wonders and spooky places is the Pump House along the Kanawha Canal and adjacent to the Boulevard Bridge. It has been the target and talk of renovations and adaptive reuses for almost a century since it closed in 1924 (the city wanted to tear it down in the 1950s, go figure), and now some federal funding is coming to help jump start the conversation yet again, according to Hunter Reardon at Richmond Magazine.

The nonprofit Friends of Pump House took an interest in preserving the property in 2017 and now $1 million in renovation funds will be used, half of which was secured by Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as part of a federal spending bill signed in December.

The City of Richmond will use $500,000 to “stabilize the Byrd Park Pump House, expand its capacity beyond the current limit of 25 and to preserve it for future generations,” according to a joint statement. The money is expected to be matched by private donations from Historic Richmond.

“It’s sort of a Sisyphean task to preserve an old building like this, but you’d be surprised how good of a shape some parts of the building are in,” says Penn Markham, president of Friends of Pump House. “We’re working on a study with Quinn Evans architects to figure out what needs to be done to spend the money wisely. For example, there’s no point fixing the floor if you haven’t fixed the roof first.”

Fully restored, the site could became a super-popular destination for weddings, retreats, fundraisers, and other cool events with the canal and the James River right outside. And there have long been discussions of varying degree about restoring the canal from the Pump House to Tredegar downtown — it may come in phases, but that would be just about one of the coolest experiences anywhere.

Markham hopes this infusion of cash is the beginning of a full revitalization. “This is the most serious renovation effort in the last 100 years,” he says. “A lot of people have talked about it, but nobody’s ponied up the money until now. It just might work — there are a lot of people in the community that want it to happen.”

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This is an excerpt from the original article posted on his blog, RVA 5×5. It is posted here with permission.

Return to Chickahominy Swamp

by Jon Baliles 

Peter McElhinney at Style Weekly takes us on a retroactive visit through the Chickahominy Swamp and the voice and mind and sounds of the late Richmond music legend Page Wilson. The new online radio station, The Breeze, has begun airing old episodes of Wilson’s weekly visit to his porch in the swamp (which was actually recorded in a music/radio studio but sounded like you were out there.

The new edition, “The Swamp Sessions,” includes an eclectic mix of roots-influenced artists, including the Sun Rhythm Section, James McMurtry, the Irish-superstar Clancy Brothers, local hero Robbin Thompson, and more. Their relaxed conversations and playing were gingerly restored from reel-to-reel tapes.

The entertaining mix of talk and live songs was recorded between 1989 and 1992 for Wilson’s local public radio show, “The Out O’ the Blue Radio Revue,” which ran from the 1990s to the early 2000s on WCVE radio.

The original show was a slice of Americana already a bit retro in its day, a fashion-defying mix of Garrison Keillor’s similarly folksy “Prairie Home Companion” and Wolfman Jack’s midnight pirate station swagger. A lot of the artists who appeared on the shows, like legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt and guitarist Tony Rice – are gone. Others, like Mary Chapin Carpenter, are still touring.

“It was interesting to see how many of them, to varying degrees, played along with the whole swamp thing,” says former local radio personality Tim Timberlake, who has been editing the raw tapes into coherent programs. The setup was theater, but the food and the fellowship was real. “It was the same thing every time,” Timberlake says. “But it was different from anything else.”

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RVA 5×5: RVA = DIY

by Jon Baliles

Jack Jacobs at Richmond Biz Sense has an update about the ongoing fallout from the collapse of the Enrichmond Foundation last summer. All of the small organizations that used Enrichmond as a fiduciary lost access to their money (which may be gone for good; stay tuned) and other things like insurance coverage.

While there are efforts underway to transfer two historically Black cemeteries formerly under Enrichmond’s purview to the city, there has not been any statement, hint, clue, concern, or any sign of emotion uttered by the Mayor about when or if the city will help restore the funding of these small groups that do a lot of valuable work to help the City and save staff time.

Since no one at City Hall seems to be interested in helping, Richmonders are doing what they do best — they are doing it themselves (aka DIY).

For example, the group RVA Clean Sweep counts nearly 1,500 people who support it by going around the city picking up trash. They lost their insurance coverage and about $3,000 when Enrichmond folded. Have they quit trying to help clean up the city? Nope.

They held fewer cleanups and told volunteers to be extra careful as they were volunteering without insurance, but they still kept cleaning and sweeping. But no insurance means they were not able to apply for grants or hold as many cleanups as they would like, according to RVA Clean Sweep Director Amy Robins.

But they still held cleanups because they wanted their volunteers to stay engaged. “Robins feared that a prolonged hiatus on activity would cause volunteers to drift away from the cause of cleaning up litter in the city,” wrote Jacobs.
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RVA 5×5: Calling Earl Weaver

by Jon Baliles

There are not many other cities in the country that would debate plans for multiple baseball stadiums in multiple locations over multiple decades and then, after seemingly signing off on a new stadium, roll over after being told by Major League Baseball that public monies must be spent for a batting cage in a stadium that has two years of life left in it.

But hey, this is Richmond, and that is apparently what will happen in the coming months. According to Jonathan Spiers at Richmond BizSense, “For the Richmond Flying Squirrels to be able to play this spring, Major League Baseball is requiring that the city-owned Diamond be upgraded — at a cost of $3.5 million – to meet certain standards for pro baseball facilities. In addition to repairs to the concrete structure’s roof and supports, MLB is requiring construction of a second batting and hitting tunnel as well as renovations to both team locker rooms.”

The City has clearly been sitting on this news and has already filed the permits;  the work will begin ASAP, as the season starts in just over one month. The concrete supports most definitely need looking after and refurbishment; they are old and dangerous; there was a close call when a chunk fell off of one support about 15 years ago and could have seriously injured someone. I try never to sit under one of them when I go to a game; you just never know.
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The Amazing Shrinking Times-Dispatch

by Jon Baliles

You might recall a story from last summer in Style Weekly entitled The Incredibly Shrinking Times-Dispatch about the decline of our local newspaper and the print news business in general. It has been a precipitous and rapid descent.

Now, according to Axios, it seems that shrinking is not only ongoing but might be accelerating: Lee Enterprises is telling some employees that they will need to take a two-week, unpaid furlough or accept a salary reduction, according to an internal memo obtained by Axios.

The larger drama is that Lee was looked at for a takeover by Alden Global Capital last year and Lee laid off numerous employees company-wide and has continued to struggle (along with most legacy print media). The details of the saga can be read about here and are basically portrayed as two sides of the same bad coin. Continue reading

RVA 5×5: Needed Resources for Human Resources

by Jon Baliles

Last week we had a story about a glut of open positions at Richmond’s City Hall and the difficulty in filling them. Lo and behold, the Richmond Free Press this week put out an article about the struggle to fill positions as the department responsible for filling those positions (Human Resources, aka HR) is upside down and employees are being told to reapply for their jobs. In case you didn’t read last week’s edition, the HR department has a lot of vacancies which makes it hard to fill any vacancy in any department. HR “is involved in every aspect of employee services, from hiring and retention to designing and administering classification, compensation and performance evaluations, overseeing employee data, handling employee grievances and providing training and development.”

Think of it like a clogged sink — it takes forever for the water to get through. And reporter Jeremy Lazarus notes that word has leaked out that everyone in the department was “told at a staff meeting in early February and urged to reapply for new positions that are being advertised, but that there were no guarantees they would have jobs. But three department employees have separately told the Free Press that effective Friday, all of the remaining full-time employees are to be laid off except for the three top managers….”

And one employee spoke directly but anonymously: “We’ve been told our department is the heartbeat of City Hall, but we’ve been left in the dark. None of us knows what will happen. Maybe we’ll all get rehired. Even so there will be fewer people left to do the work,” the employee said, as result of the transfers that have already taken place.

“I don’t know how everything we’re involved with will get done,” one of the employees said. “The city is fortunate. Instead of running for the exits, for the most part, everyone has stayed on and kept focused on the work. But it becomes so stressful when the reward for loyalty is uncertainty and worry. This is not what we signed up for.”
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Top Three Financial Takeaways from RVA

Nothing but blue skies over Richmond? Not yet.

by Jon Baliles

Last week Richmond’s Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) reported to City Council that the Annual Comprehensive Financial Report (ACFR) was completed and had been turned in to the Virginia Auditor of Accounts. The report was due in mid-December, but better late than never I guess (and still it was way earlier than Mayor Jones, who tuned them in super-late three years in a row).

The external auditor called in virtually for the brief presentation to Council and went over their firms’ processes and evaluation methods (video starts at 1:03:30 mark) but never referred to any numbers or conclusions; she pointed out that certain figures could be found with corresponding footnote numbers in the report, which Councilors did not have.

After the auditor finished her brief presentation, Councilwoman Jordan had to inquire as to what figures the external auditor was talking about and where could she see them (at the 1:11:25 mark of the video) because the Council did not have the audit report in front of them so they could ask questions. The auditor told her they disclosed what they were required to and that she would be happy to go into the numbers. That’s when CAO Saunders stepped in and told Council the reports had been delivered to each Councilor’s office on Friday. Talk about collaboration and communication.

Councilwoman Lynch also asked the external auditor for the “Top 3 bullet points or risks” from the audit. Continue reading

Roller Coaster Casino Ride

by Jon Baliles

The road to a casino in the General Assembly is on a roller coaster ride that is careening down the hill and likely to jump the tracks at any minute. Last week alone, the bill that would allow a casino referendum in Petersburg and block a second one in Richmond until Petersburg has a chance has taken the following ride:

  • Cleared a Finance General Laws subcommittee on a 7-2 vote on January 26;
  • Cleared a Senate General Laws committee on a 11-4 vote Wednesday;
  • Failed in a Senate Finance committee on a 7-8 vote Thursday evening;
  • Cleared a House of Delegates General Laws subcommittee on a 5-2 vote on Tuesday;
  • Cleared a House of Delegates General Laws committee vote 7-4 on Thursday;
  • Cleared the House of Delegates Appropriations committee 11-9 on Friday afternoon.

So what’s next? Well, there are three possibilities: (1) the bill dies because the House and Senate won’t find a suitable compromise, which means the Petersburg proposal could vanish and Richmond gets another referendum; (2) the Petersburg referendum is inserted into the final budget language (as it was last year) and their referendum will proceed and Richmond’s put on hold; or (3) the zombie apocalypse will commence.

Personally, I’m rooting for the apocalypse. Continue reading

RVA 5×5: State of The City – What The People Think

by Jon Baliles

There is a little-known part of Richmond’s City Code that requires the City Auditor to produce a “Services, Efforts, and Accomplishments” (SEA) Report by conducting a thorough poll/survey of Richmond residents to see what they think about the level of service and performance and deliverability of City government. In other words, it’s the poll that every politician fears more than anything because they can’t B.S. their way past the peoples’ opinions of what they see and experience every day.

Doug Wilder used to say (and still does), “The people are always ahead of the politicians,” and that is never more accurate than with the SEA report presented by the Auditor in February 2022. It received virtually zero attention, but that’s usually what happens with bad news. You try and bury it, label it fake news, or quickly move on to something else.

SEA reports include questions like: Are you satisfied with the overall direction of the City? What is your opinion of the value of services for the taxes paid to Richmond? Does the City do a good job informing residents about issues facing the community? Is the City open and transparent with the public?

The reason this 2022 report is relevant 11 months after it was issued is that tonight, Mayor Levar Stoney will deliver his penultimate State of the City speech that will undoubtedly be an upbeat recitation of his accomplishments and how great the City is doing — in his eyes. His office put out this four-minute video a few weeks ago to tee-up the talking points and set the stage for his speech (and perhaps his next campaign). Continue reading