Tag Archives: Jon Baliles

Diamonds Aren’t Forever

by Jon Baliles

The entire saga of the development of the Diamond District project in Richmond has come full circle in the last 18 months, as Mayor Levar Stoney, desperate for an economic development win after the failure of his Navy Hill boondoggle and two failed casino referendums, has rounded the bases trying to get a baseball stadium built before the franchise was going to be moved by the powers at Major League Baseball (MLB). Finally scoring a run, however, will come with a cost: $170 million to be exact, because that is how much debt the city will issue  to pay for building the stadium and surrounding infrastructure for the rest of the Diamond District development.

The big news broke last week about the new plan to build the baseball stadium but is also being accompanied by a new financing and development structure and procedures. The announcement unfortunately pre-empted the planned Part 3 of our baseball stadium series, which explained that, at this late date, the only option left to get the stadium built in time and not have MLB yank the franchise was for the city to issue general obligation (G.O.) bonds. That was the only evidence MLB was going to accept to prove the money to build the stadium was actually there and construction could actually begin, because all the talk from the city had been just one missed promise after another, and delay after delay.

The bomb was set to explode and the Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) played the last card they had left. They will put the onus of the debt and risk all on the city’s shoulders, issue the debt quickly and get the shovels turning to meet the deadline. But that is not at all how this process began, and it has changed drastically in the many months the city spent dithering. Continue reading

Eclipsing Speech in RVA

Richmond City Hall

by Jon Baliles 

Last month, City Council applied a few new stringent guardrails to public comment at Council meetings by altering their Rules of Procedure under the guise of “streamlining” meetings.

Now, I am all for free speech, but I also understand that people showing up to Council meetings to push for a ceasefire, fight world hunger, or colonize Mars (i.e., things Council can’t do anything about) takes up valuable time on issues that Council should be addressing (or trying to address). City Council is granted specific powers, and resolving world issues is (thankfully) not one of them. The business of local government is local and decidedly unsexy: trash pickup, potholes, schools, housing, public safety, transit, development, etc.

Council used to limit each public comment session at each meeting to eight speakers who sign up beforehand with the City Clerk with a brief description of their topic and are each given three minutes to speak. The new rules do not apply to people speaking to issues on the Consent Agenda or Regular Agenda or budget meetings; but lately, almost all of these eight Public Comment slots have been taken by people calling for or against issuing an official resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza, even though Council has not discussed any such resolution. Continue reading

Small Parcel; Significant History

by Jon Baliles

There was some great news last week as the Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC) scored another big win on behalf of the city when it announced the successfully negotiated purchase of 4.5 acres along the James River from Norfolk Southern near Ancarrow’s Landing. The parcel will be placed into the James River Park System conservation easement, transferred to the City of Richmond, and become part of the park system.

According to the CRLC, the property is 130-feet wide and 2,300-feet long with more than a quarter mile of frontage along the river, and much of the property is part of the Richmond Slave Trail. As part of the Riverfront Plan in 2012, the acquired property was noted as an essential parcel that was shown on some maps as part of the James River Park System and included part of the Slave Trail that was formally dedicated in 2011; but it was still owned by the railroad, and users technically (and legally) were trespassing. Norfolk Southern had owned the property since 1849 through its predecessors, the Richmond and Danville Railroad Company (1847-1894), and Southern Railway (1894-1982).

The transfer will now guarantee public access to this part of the Richmond Slave Trail, which was born from the Richmond Slave Trail Commission begun in 1998 and is a three-mile path with 17 historical markers between the Manchester Docks from which slaves disembarked and were led to the slave jails in Shockoe Bottom, most notoriously Lumpkin’s Jail. Continue reading

RVA HISTORY: Schools Are for Learning

by Jon Baliles

The effort to save the old Richmond Community Hospital (RCH) from Virginia Union’s wrecking ball raises an interesting debate about recognizing history, remembering history, and benefitting by learning from history. Especially when one program is established that then becomes part of a bigger effort and very especially when it is used to overcome something as insidious as segregation. It is also an example of why saving monuments to black history is so important instead of sacrificing them for a revenue stream from 200 apartments.

This story, in a roundabout way, ties in with the opportunity Virginia Union has to create and model a historic preservation program like the successful program at Tuskegee University in Alabama — which is the only Historically Black College and University (HBCU) to have such a program. Doing something like that at VUU centered around the RCH as a starting point and building block could have an incalculable impact for generations of students to come.

The architecture program created at Tuskegee in 1893 (which led to the historic preservation program) was so lasting and impactful it quickly became a main contributor in educating almost 700,000 black children across the south for decades in what were known as The Rosenwald Schools. Continue reading

A True Community Hospital

by Jon Baliles

Virginia Union University announced recently that it would utilize several parcels it owns just north of the main campus to build a new $40 million development with up to 200 apartments (some market and some lower income) and possibly some homes and commercial space for students or the public, which would create a revenue stream for the school and shared profits with the New York developer.

But the development project would come with the cost of demolishing the old Richmond Community Hospital (RCH), first opened in Jackson Ward in 1902 at the dawn of Jim Crow by black physicians to treat Richmonders who were not allowed to be treated in white hospitals. The building that now sits on VUU property on Overbrook Road was purchased and opened in 1932.

Eric Kolenich wrote in the Times-Dispatch that “across the street was a neighborhood of prominent black residents, called Frederick Douglass Court, that later was home to civil rights attorney and federal judge Spotswood Robinson.” The hospital moved to Church Hill in 1980 and the building has been vacant ever since. A VUU spokesperson said the school determined there was no way to save the building. But the local preservation nonprofit Historic Richmond weighed in and has suggested that because of its historical significance, it could be incorporated into a larger project and still produce revenue for the university.

Michael Paul Williams wrote an excellent piece noting that “We live in a city chock-full of adaptive reuses, including of the former Westhampton School building by Bon Secours. Shouldn’t we be as passionate about preserving our  bricks-and-mortar black history while it’s still above ground?”

That is why a group of Richmonders dedicated to preserving the derelict structure have organized to try and save the building. They are asking VUU to incorporate the structure into its plans. VUU needs the revenue stream that the project would bring, but the group and others believe there are ways to do it and preserve the building and its history. Continue reading

RVA Meals Tax: Practically Poetic Injustice

by Jon Baliles

As noted, two weeks ago City Council approved the change to city code to make sure the city’s Finance Department only applies meals tax payments to the month for which the invoice is submitted. So, no more of the shady practice that had been applying a portion of say, May’s tax payment, to an outstanding balance from April’s bill. The reason that’s a bad idea is that the city could put any account in arrears but the business owner never knew because the city had a practice of not informing the business they were in arrears, which led to the crazy snowballing of interest and penalties that resulted in bills of $37,000, $50,000, and $68,000.

Samuel Veney, the owner of Philly Vegan, who was told by the city he owed $37,000 in penalties and interest, was eloquent and forceful at the City Council podium on February 12th. He implored Council not only to listen, but to hear what he way saying — he wanted to make sure they heard how he was missing time with his children and spending too much time dealing with the city’s screw-ups instead of working at his business. Said Veney:

What we are saying to y’all right now is to take the opportunity to make change happen. It shouldn’t have gotten this far and now that it has you actually have the opportunity to actually make change happen in a better way for our city. Continue reading

The Case for an RVA Meals Tax Amnesty

Richmond City Hall

by Jon Baliles

Today we are posting a special edition featuring an email from former restaurateur Brad Hemp that he recently sent to City Council about the meals tax fiasco you have probably heard about as a result of seven years of neglect at City Hall. The Mayor raised the meals tax in 2018 to help build new schools and pledged in return he would also help the restaurants. He raised the tax, and three schools were built, but he forgot about helping the restaurants.

Now, here we are, years later, and the only thing coming from City Hall are vacillating and daily changes and pledges to fix the problem on a “case-by-case” basis (in a vain attempt to get the media stories to stop). As someone who lived and breathed the restaurant business (and could teach the Mayor and Council a few things about it), Hemp has some suggestions to fix the mess. The question is, will the Mayor and City Council finally listen and do something?

The best government is almost always the one that listens. It makes it easier for people to enjoy their lives, better their neighborhoods, open or run a business, and have fun. The worst government is almost aways one that pretends to know everything and thus ignores listening to or helping the people by doing things like, just as an example, forcing through a second casino referendum right after the first one lost. Another way to demonstrate bad government is to find straw-man excuses for erroneous billing of residents for personal property, real estate and water, and misapplying payments of meals taxes for restaurants and never notifying anyone when a bill is late while interest and penalties skyrocket. The “leaders” at City Hall say it’s the fault of state code, or the postal service, or bad technology, or the current lunar cycle. Don’t look inward to see if it’s an internal problem, blame it on everyone and everything else. Continue reading

RVA HISTORY: Strides of Strength

by Jon Baliles

Richmond unveiled a new sculpture last week on the site of the old Westhampton School (near St. Mary’s Hospital) that marked the desegregation of the West-End school in 1961. The 12-foot piece, entitled “Strides,” marks that day when 12-year old student Daisy Jane Cooper (now Jane Cooper Johnson) arrived as the first African American student following a three-year legal battle that took a U.S. District Court’s intervention. (Photo courtesy of Bon Secours.)

At age 9, Jane was having to travel five miles to get to the segregated Carver Elementary School. In 1958, civil rights attorney Oliver Hill submitted an application to the Richmond City School Board on behalf of Jane’s mother to transfer Jane to the all-white Westhampton School. The State Pupil Placement Board rejected the request, which led to the lawsuit that lasted three years and resulted in a groundbreaking victory in 1961. It impacted not only Richmond City schools but other localities as well — and the ruling meant that African-American students no longer required permission from the State Board to attend a white school.

A year after first walking through the doors of Westhampton, Cooper also became the first African-American student to integrate Thomas Jefferson High School in September 1962, after deciding she wanted to go there instead of the all-black Maggie Walker High School. Continue reading

From Sanctuary to Stooge

Mayor Levar Stoney

by Jon Baliles

Most of us have tried hard to block out Mayor Stoney’s July 4th fiasco, when his then-police chief tried hard to impress the boss and concocted a fake foiled mass shooting plot at Dogwood Dell on July 4, 2022. The Mayor denied he ever knew about it. The chief said he knew about it beforehand but claims to have never told the mayor or any of the officers working the event in a public park that annually draws thousands of people. Within days the story fell apart and it was revealed in court a few weeks later that there was no — as in zero — evidence that there ever was a planned mass shooting.

You might not also recall back in 2017 when the newly installed Mayor Stoney unofficially declared Richmond a sanctuary city and would protect people that might be in this country illegally from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He said, according to CBS6, “We need to protect our children and our families so they can learn and prosper. That means protecting all of our residents… and protecting them regardless of whether they have legal status in our country.”

The reason that these things are related is that the man falsely accused of plotting a mass shooting is wishing he had never come to Richmond or heard of Levar Stoney. If Stoney actually meant what he said that day in 2017 about protecting immigrants, then Julio Alvarado Dubon never would have been falsely accused of a mass shooting or spent the last 17 months in jail, and is now facing deportation back to Guatemala. Continue reading

Richmond’s Meals Tax Disaster

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney

by Jon Baliles

(These reports were published first by RVA 5×5 and are republished here with permission.)

Starting about 25 years ago, Richmond’s restaurant scene began its ascent into the local consciousness as our region’s favorite (and only) professional sport. Offerings expanded and ventured into new directions and opened peoples eyes and expanded our tastes; it drove creative chefs to new heights, and we appeared in list after list of publications that officially put Richmond on the foodie map.

It was also, ironically, not long after that when restaurants became the “Sherpa” of sorts to help fill the city coffers. In 2003, City Council approved a one cent meals tax increase from five cents to six cents to help fund the renovation of Centerstage downtown. Many restauranteurs opposed the funding of an arts center on the backs of their customers by raising the pass through tax to fund one specific project. That deal later was overhauled and refinanced in 2006, but the one cent increase was not repealed as had been promised and it remained on the books as a permanent source of revenue to fund other city needs.

Then fast forward to early 2018 when Mayor Stoney pushed for a 25% increase in the city’s meals tax from six cents to 7.5 cents. It was a highly contentious debate that rightly riled up many restauranteurs who once again saw it as an unfair burden on their businesses alone that made their patrons’ bills higher with each bite and drink. They argued for another funding solution that was fair and spread across the city and not just on their industry. Continue reading

Keep Carytown Safe for Cars

by Jon Baliles

The debate about making Richmond’s Carytown a car-free zone is edging closer to the forefront in recent months with strong opinions, interesting suggestions, some good ideas, and some bad ones.

The Times-Dispatch Editorial Board weighed in with its opinion, and it was vocal. It’s worth the entire read and filled with stats you probably never heard of, such as that of the 250 or so pedestrian malls created in the U.S. since the 1960’s, only about 10 remain. The piece is filled with great information and two quotes worth noting:

Making Richmond a walkable paradise is certainly a worthy goal. But turning Carytown into a pedestrian mall, and undercutting the businesses that have made it into a regional shopping destination — is not.

The editorial points out that making Carytown car-free could lead many shoppers (who come from near and far) to go elsewhere, and worries that the owners of the unique mix of shops and merchants could be driven out of business, which is also a way of making it a car-free zone. It also points out that many in Carytown are open to new ideas, and certainly to making it safer, but skeptical of closing it to cars. Continue reading

The Mailman Did It

by Jon Baliles

They say bad news comes in threes, and this week is no exception for news from the City of Richmond’s Finance Department. This week wasn’t just raining; it has been a monsoon when it comes to sloppy administrative work, penalties, interest, and deflecting blame.

Madison McNamee with NBC12 filed a story last night that says a number of residents in the West End, all in the same area/street, never received their real estate tax bills and were fined with penalties and interest by the city for untimely payment. The residents on a street just off of Grove Avenue never got their bills and never knew about it until they were sent a hefty late fee with interest, and the residents were told it was the fault of the Postal Service.

Resident Ken Davis is a former Deputy Attorney General who said he always pays his city taxes and has lived in the neighborhood for decades, but got hit with $800 in fees and fines, which he paid immediately. He said under Section 58.1 3916 of Virginia Code that “penalty and interest for failure to file a return or to pay a tax shall not be imposed if such failure was not the fault of the taxpayer.” Continue reading

Casino’s Last Stand: A Nauseating Display of Hate

Downtown Richmond

by Jon Baliles

The second casino referendum will be decided on Tuesday and it will be a vote (again) on whether or not Richmond wants to do the get-rich-quick schemes to help people or do the hard work of methodically mapping out a strategy and building a future. The get-rich-quick schemes like the casino and Navy Hill only benefit the select few, but the promoters promise the world to everyone and benevolence as far as the eye can see — vote for it and approve it for YOUR benefit, they say. It will be better FOR YOU than it will be for us, they boast.

We called B.S. on Navy Hill and we need to do it again with the casino, which will be a predatory drain on the community and do more harm than good, despite what they promise. And this will not be a policy wonky dive into the casino, I promise. That’s because this issue is sadly a nauseating reveal of what the casino developers really think about Richmond and Richmonders, told in their own words.

News came out this week that the promoters of the casino have been going on radio in recent days and trashing everyone in Richmond that does not support the casino. They have spent more than $10 million to try and convince people to vote for it, but they are badmouthing and trashing opponents on their own radio stations for all to hear with vile and offensive an inexcusable comments demeaning people of all kinds — black and white; the rich, middle class and poor; churchgoers, pastors. It did not matter. It was open season on anyone who didn’t support the casino; they especially went after Jim Ukrop and they absolutely thrash Tim Kaine because he voted no in 2021 and said there were better ways to promote economic development in Southside. Continue reading

Resorts Like Airports

by Jon Baliles

There has been a lot of boasting from the casino advocates about their partnership with Kentucky-based Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI). The rebranded Richmond Grand casino developer Urban One is a radio and TV conglomerate that has said they are partnering with CDI because of their huge capitalization and experience with casinos. But let’s take a look at Churchill Downs’ casino portfolio, because it’s not what the casino advocates have been claiming.

CDI is obviously world-famous for the running of the Kentucky Derby horse race, and they have expanded their portfolio to include more and more gaming facilities in recent years. CDI bought out Peninsula Pacific Entertainment (PPE) in a $2.75 billion deal in 2022, and PPE had been Urban One’s original partner in the first, failed casino referendum. The deal included the Colonial Downs Racetrack in New Kent, as well as six Rosie’s Gaming Emporium historical horse racing facilities across Virginia plus two smaller casinos, one in Iowa and one in New York. But among the eleven casinos in the CDI portfolio, none are anywhere near the scale what they promise for Richmond. And none of those eleven casinos resemble anything grand — except for the indisputable fact that the house always wins, even if the resort looks more like an airport.

The Richmond Grand advocates claim their casino will have a 250-room hotel, an entertainment/concert venue with 3,000 seats, a TV and film production soundstage, and 15 restaurants and “dining options.” But if you look at their other casinos, they are all small casinos in small markets and are not even close to the “resort” they claim to be bringing to Richmond. Continue reading

Deep Dive: Casinos, Highways, and Ignoring RVA Voters

Downtown Richmond

by Jon Baliles

Republished with permission from RVA 5×5.

They say the past is prologue and that if you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it, among other famous quotes that have stood the test of time. And they have a factor of truth and lesson in them. And so is the case with next month’s casino referendum, the second one we have had the chance to vote for because the first one was ignored by city leaders in 2021.

This Deep Dive is a look back at the last time Richmond faced two referendums on one topic in short succession — the people were asked to vote to register their voice and they said no to the city leaders, planners, and business leaders. Both times, the people’s voice was ignored, and both times the city leaders overruled their vote and their voice and pursued their plans irrespective of the results — with disastrous and long-lasting consequences.

This may be starting to sound familiar. Continue reading