Well, the worst kept secret in Richmond was finally announced yesterday, when Mayor Jones unveiled his plan for a baseball stadium and substantial ancillary development in Shockoe Bottom.
I'm actually sick of this discussion. It's been written about ad nauseum, including last week's cover story for Style Weekly. The public is tired, having fought this plan two time - three times? - before. And I think that is exactly what the Mayor and the Richmond business community pushing this plan are counting on. They have won the war of attrittion by wearing the public down and being better financed. Well, and all the back-door dealing certainly helped. Kudos for the Machiavellian decision to announce the new plan on November 11, 2o013, and have the first City Council meeting discussion of the proposal on Monday, November 25, 2013, the week of Thanksgiving. Shades of Redskins Training Center and Treegate. Also kudos for getting City Council teed up to approve the first ordinance with no detailed information about the financing. Here's my favorite quote:
"The precise financing details have not yet been made clear, but city officials have made assurances that the new tax revenue from the development would cover the costs incurred by the city."
Kinda makes me think of Obama's promise that I could keep my health plan. But I digress.
The plan centers around a new minor league ball park in Shockoe Bottom to replace the Diamond on Boulevard. Included in the plan are a Hyatt hotel with a 65,000 Kroger on the ground floor, apartments, an as-yet-unfunded "Slavery Heritage site," and structured parking. The usual suspects in the real estate development world are involved: Charles McFarlane for the hotel, Louis Salomonsky for the apartments, and Highwood Properties for the to-be-developed future commercial component. Venture Richmond - the front for all the major corporate interests in town - is cheer-leading, as are the Richmond Squirrels' management. Mayor Jones' cronies have fallen in line, including Delores McQuinn, the Head of the Slave Trail Commission, who apparently believes this plan, with an unfunded slave heritage site and assurances of signage for the Slave Trail, is the best we can do on commemorating the history of the area. None of that is surprising. However, Charlie Diradour, the leader of the previous "Baseball on the Boulevard" movement, expressing openness to the proposal - now that IS a surprise.
I'm not going to go on about why I think this is a terrible idea. You can go back to 2009 and my multiple blog posts on the subject if you want read more detailed analysis. My opinions haven't changed. But I am going to raise a few questions that I think deserve answers. Now mind you, I think these questions deserve answers. I really don't think we, the public, are going to get honest - or even dishonest - answers. But I might as well ask the questions, right? So here it goes:
1. Where is the almost $80M the City of Richmond is going to contribute coming from?
2. Why is there no public funding in this proposal for the slavery heritage site that is proposed? This seems to suggest the slavery heritage project is an after-thought, to address the criticism of people who object to a baseball stadium on a site of such historical importance. Is this true?
3. Why is the tax increment financing ("TIF") for this project adequate in 2013, when it was determined to be completely inadequate for the similar 2009 proposal? Put another way, how is the proposed financing different in 2013 from the failed proposal in 2009?
4. In light of the significance of the area to the history of the slave trade in America, don't you think it is tawdry, tacky, and disrespectful to put a baseball stadium smack in the middle of it?
5. Why couldn't you remove the stadium from the plan, and instead substitute a museum to emphasize the history of the area? Why couldn't the additional, economic development components of the plan - hotel, apartments, retail - be centered around such a museum, rather than a ball park? If you contend a history-centered project would not work, can you explain why?
6. For the Squirrels, how do you as an organization intend to address the poll results that showed that 67% of fans did not favor baseball in the Bottom, and only 22% did?
7. Again, for the Squirrels, do you believe you will have sufficient new fans/attendees coming from the areas immediately around the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium to make up for the residents of Henrico County, Chesterfield County, and Hanover County who have said they will not patronize a downtown ball park? If you do believe there will be additional new fan base, what studies or documentation do you have to support this position?
8. How do you address the perceptions that Shockoe Bottom is not safe or family-friendly, especially in light of quotes like the following:
"I told my son who lives downtown to stay away from Shockoe Bottom for his own safety," Venture Richmond Executive Director Jack Berry said. "That's pretty bad when the guy who's promoting downtown feels that way."
"Shockoe Bottom Firms Urge Action to Stop Violence," May 14, 2010.
That's enough. I don't have the time or the energy to devote to anything longer than this 15 minute, stream-of-consciousness post. And I don't think anything I or members of the public say are going to change this plan one iota. The only thing that might - and I say might - derail this plan is if the public outrage over the desecration of such a significant and largely intact historic slave heritage site got so big, and so significant, that the administration and the real estate development and business community had to back down. And I mean national level outrage, not just local level outrage.
Here's the saddest thing, to me, about this whole thing. I don't think it's going to work. I think the baseball stadium piece is going to be a gigantic flop. If 67% of your surveyed patrons are saying they ain't coming, I think that's something you should listen to. I just don't see you replacing 4,000 fans with an equivalent number of Ledbury-shirt-and Shockoe-Denim-wearing downtown hipsters. I mean, they might come once, to check it out. Hell, I'll come once, to check it out, and I am the laziest person in the world about venturing out of my own neighborhood. But if you think enough of the "Creative Class" are going to attend ball games to replace the urban and suburban families that currently are the main patrons of Squirrels baseball, I think you are delusional. I mean, the hipsters might come once to watch a pig towed around the infield and six dudes dressed up in wigs and maid uniforms dancing to "Footloose," but I don't see them buying season tickets.
Maybe I will be completely and utterly proved wrong. If this plan moves forward, I sincerely hope I am stratospherically wrong. I am a born-and-raised Richmonder, and I love this City, despite all its dysfunction. I want any City development, especially something as massive as this, to be a success. But I don't believe a Downtown ball park will be successful. And more importantly, once we've destroyed and built over historically significant sites, there is no going back.
I believe Downtown development should be what's best, not what is expedient and not what makes the private sector the most amount of money right now. I think Downtown development should be focused on what is unique about Downtown Richmond. That is the history, and the river. Not baseball.