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Richmond councilwoman wants referendum on Coliseum redevelopment financing; special meeting scheduled

Richmond voters may get to weigh in on whether public dollars should pay for a new downtown arena.

The Richmond City Council will hold a special meeting Tuesday on whether to include an advisory referendum on the November ballot about financing for the centerpiece of the $1.5 billion Coliseum redevelopment project. Calling for the referendum is Councilwoman Reva Trammell, the 8th District representative.

“Personally, I’m tired of rich corporate millionaires and billionaires trying to drain city coffers of our taxpayer money to finance their pet projects,” Trammell said in a text message. “My view is if they want to build something, let them do it with their own money.”

Trammell said she wants voters to answer this question: “Shall the city of Richmond support taxpayer funding, estimated to be as much as $600 million, for a new Coliseum or arena in downtown Richmond?”

Under the proposal Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration unveiled last week, public dollars would pay for a new 17,500-seat arena to replace the Coliseum.

Asked whether the mayor supported Trammell’s proposal for a referendum, Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said in an email that the council should “first read the proposal” and let a council-appointed commission review the deal, as originally planned. He added that council members “should do the job the citizens of Richmond elected them to do, rather than alter [the council’s] process because a few special interests pressure them to do so.”

The new arena is the centerpiece of the mixed-use development proposed by NH District Corp., a private group led by Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, which would privately source $900 million for other parts of the project.

Its plans also call for a high-rise hotel with at least 525 rooms; 2,500 apartments, with 480 reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; a renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements to make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the area.

Money for the arena would come by way of a special tax zone called a tax-increment financing district.

All new real estate tax revenue from the zone, either from new construction or rising property assessments, would go toward debt payments on a $350 million bond offering for the arena. The money would otherwise go into the city’s general fund, which pays for core services such as police and schools.

As proposed, the district would be bounded by First Street, 10th Street, Interstate 64/95 and Byrd Street, a swath of downtown about eight times larger than the 10-block area where the proposed arena and mixed-use development would rise.

Over 30 years, the city would owe about $570 million to investors who buy the bonds. Previous figures from an earlier iteration of the plans pegged those costs at more than $600 million.

The city’s financial advisers, Davenport & Co., have said the project could net enough new tax revenue to pay back the money in as few as 21 years. That would bring the cost down to about $476 million.

Supporting Trammell’s call for a referendum is Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman.

“It would be a strong indicator of where the community is on what we should be doing with their money,” Gray said.

The results of the referendum would not be binding on the council’s decision to approve or reject the project.

A separate referendum concerning the use of tax-increment financing may also appear on city voters’ ballots. More than 14,000 people signed a petition vying for a proposed change to the city charter that would require 51% of the money captured through the tax-increment financing district to go toward modernizing the city’s schools. A review of those signatures is ongoing.

The council is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. Tuesday.


JOE MAHONEY/times-dispatch  

Brielle Finney, 2, gets a bird’s-eye view during a stop at Byrd Park to feed the geese with dad Josh, mom Brionna and brother Brysen. After a high of 92 on Monday, Tuesday should be about the same but could have a severe thunderstorm in the afternoon. (See RTD Weather Desk, Page B3.)

Fair-feathered friends in Byrd Park


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GRTC to continue relying on inspectors to stop fare evasion; officials say there is no immediate plan to install fare validation system on Pulse buses

Last summer’s launch of a completely reworked bus network anchored by the new 7.6-mile bus rapid transit line along Broad and East Main streets made the GRTC Transit System the envy of cities and bus transit companies that are struggling to attract riders.

But although GRTC boasts a 14% boost in ridership over the last year, lower-than-expected fare revenues since the bus system revamp have prompted introspection about whether the transit company should rethink how it operates its signature $65 million bus line.

Unlike other system buses, the Pulse rapid line doesn’t have a ticket validation system on board, largely leaving to faith that riders paid for a pass or bought a ticket at a machine on the platform. Fare inspectors conduct spot checks. In this way, the buses function like a subway or metro train, not bogged down as patrons line up to prove they paid.

Some GRTC officials fear it’s not working but don’t know how to fix it. They say the current model — relying on fare inspectors — is an outdated and inefficient way to ensure Pulse riders pay, but worry a conventional high-tech solution could slow down the system and undermine the premise of the bus rapid transit model.

“All we can broadly say is we feel technology is going to have to solve this problem. But no one else has proven to have a great technological tool for this,” said GRTC Chairman Gary Armstrong.

The transit company has turned to a marketing campaign and doubled down on current enforcement efforts in the interim.

The average number of people removed from buses for not paying their fare each month has doubled since May, growing from about 90 people to 180 people monthly, according to data from Top Guard, a Norfolk-based firm GRTC is expecting to pay $475,000 this year for fare inspection services.

Whether that progress will be enough remains a subject of debate among the GRTC board of directors.

***

Though some officials have said they hope an advanced technological solution can arise, GRTC spokeswoman Carrie Rose Pace said the agency is not looking into acquiring a new fare validation system right now.

Instead, she said, there will be a focus on more thorough, uniform fare enforcement checks that so far have led to an “improvement” in fare enforcement in recent months.

“GRTC’s primary goal continues to be fast, efficient BRT operations,” she said. “This level of service still takes priority over fare collection.”

GRTC officials have yet to formally study how often riders don’t pay, but the company is looking for answers as fare revenues miss projections. The last available financial report, for the 11 months since July 1, 2018, show year-to-date fare revenues were $1.3 million below budget expectations.

Ideally, according to officials, fare revenues should cover about one-fifth of the system’s operating costs, which are mostly subsidized by a mix of local, state and federal funding. The share had declined to around 16% as of May 31.

Eldridge Coles, a member of the GRTC board of directors who started his career as a company bus driver in the 1970s before retiring as its CEO in 2013, said it makes little sense for ridership to be improving without an increase in fare revenue.

“It looks like, to me, that the revenue ought to be up,” he said.

In boardroom discussions in recent months, GRTC officials have questioned the “honor system” approach. Officials told inspectors to examine fare cards more closely to ensure they are valid, and the board recently approved a marketing campaign aimed at discouraging cheating the system.

GRTC’s options — to shame scofflaws and double down on what the company is already doing — are imperfect, but transit officials are grappling for better ones, describing in interviews their wishes for a simple way for riders to quickly tap or scan a card as they board.

***

While an on-board fare validation machine could help mitigate losses, transit experts say that could sometimes lead to lines of people waiting to validate their fare on a system intended to facilitate faster travel times and customer convenience.

Under a standardized ranking system for bus rapid transit systems developed by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, an on-board validation system scores fewer points than the proof-of-payment inspection system GRTC follows.

Jacob Mason, director of research for the international institute, said on-board validation could lead to delays if too many people have to validate their fare before boarding.

He said the only thing better than a proof-of-purchase inspection system would be barrier controls like turnstiles or gates.

“Generally, it’s much easier to spot someone jumping a turnstile than someone on board a bus or train who didn’t validate a ticket,” Mason said. “There also tends to be more social pressure not to jump turnstiles, as it is an obvious form of rule-breaking compared to not validating a ticket.”

Rose Pace said the company has a five-strike policy where fare evaders are given at least two warnings — and asked to pay their fare — before officials will begin issuing a $75 citation each time they are caught afterward.

If someone is caught without a valid fare more than five times, they may be subject to a ban, but Rose Pace said strikes are not counted against people who agree to immediately pay up.

Instead of citing fare evaders over the past year, however, GRTC has focused on enforcing payment as transit company and city officials are still working on “the logistics of the fine process,” she said.

Several GRTC officials have acknowledged that many of those riders who are removed can simply board the next bus without paying, knowing that there are not inspectors on every bus and platform. Armstrong said some inspectors may not be closely examining fare cards to see whether they’re expired.

“We’ve recognized that there’s been a lot of those issues. We just continue to try and get better at it,” Armstrong said. “That’s certainly a concern, but we have to give it a little more time or else we’re going to have to go to a more costly option than that.”

Barrier controls like turnstiles could also help, but Rose Pace said some of the Pulse’s platforms have limited sidewalk space, so it could only be feasible at some locations.

Before the launch of the Pulse, GRTC had planned to install off-board fare validation machines at Pulse stations for $290,000, but it would not have reduced the need for fare inspectors because most bus pass holders would still be required to tap their card and obtain a fare card that could be checked by inspectors.

The board decided to cancel the order after officials determined that it would not have been compatible with all of its passes anyway. (GRTC still had to pay approximately $100,000 for the project because design work had already been completed.)

***

Earlier this summer, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy awarded GRTC a bronze ranking for the Pulse, putting it on par with transit systems in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Mexico City and Beijing.

If GRTC did install on-board fare validation systems at its platforms, it would result in a lower score from the institute. And while a new barrier system could give GRTC a slightly higher score on its evaluation by the institute, it would remain subject to fare evasion, said Michael Kodransky, the institute’s U.S. director.

“You need to figure out where to make intervention, how to improve enforcement and encourage people to pay fares,” he said.

GRTC is not alone in this regard.

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority also launched a similar anti-fare evasion campaign after learning that about 16% of its bus riders were not paying, which contributed to the county’s largest public transit system losing approximately $215 million last year, according to The New York Times.

And while GRTC may not have made as much money as it anticipated last year, Kodransky said its increase in ridership is a significant and rare accomplishment at this time, and that it should have a positive impact on the regional economy.

“The public doesn’t believe that’s feasible in most places,” Kodransky said. “That is a pretty amazing feat that shows the investment is actually worthwhile.”

***

Aside from fare validation practices, Armstrong said GRTC’s staff is evaluating the fare and pass schedule to see if there are any inefficiencies that could be resulting in a loss of potential revenue.

When asked whether that could lead to a proposal to increase the current fare costs — which are generally $1.50 for a single ride — Armstrong demurred.

“I can’t say at this point. We have got to look at the whole system,” he said.

Fares were last increased 15 years ago, Rose Pace said.

Coles, GRTC’s former CEO, said he would be opposed to that idea as a way to make up for lost revenue that may be caused by fare evasion.

“I don’t want to put that burden on the riders who are doing the proper thing,” he said. “A quarter or 10 cents [more per ride] might make a big difference to a lot of people.”


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jerald a. ‘jerry’ finch | 1927-2019
'The right leader for that golden era': Jerry Finch, former News Leader managing editor, dies

As one of Richmond’s leading newspaper editors, Jerald Allen “Jerry” Finch believed two factors were key to producing a good paper: Local coverage is paramount. Hire good people and let them do their jobs.

Crystal Gaston, a former reporter for The Richmond News Leader, learned more about local coverage when she landed a new job at a weekly rural paper. After congratulating her, Mr. Finch “then proceeded to tell me the kind of stories I could expect to cover: someone’s garden potato that resembled Richard Nixon and someone’s runaway pig event.”

Despite several award-winning stories on more serious topics, “I have to admit, the most popular story I ever wrote during that time was a two-part piece on someone’s runaway peacock,” she recalled in an email. “The peacock was named Aladdin, and Jasmine had flown the coop. Each night Aladdin mournfully called for her. We got calls and letters at the office for months on that story.

“At the time, I laughed. I thought to myself, Mr. Finch was right all along.”

Mr. Finch — whose nearly 50 years at Richmond newspapers included serving as managing editor of The Richmond News Leader from 1973 until the afternoon paper’s merger with the morning Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1992 — died in hospice Monday morning in Richmond after suffering a brain hemorrhage resulting from a fall. He was 92.

A celebration of his life will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Willow Oaks Country Club, 6228 Forest Hill Ave. in Richmond, followed by a reception. Burial will follow at 3 p.m. in Hollywood Cemetery, 412 S. Cherry St. in Richmond.

After the 1992 merger, Mr. Finch became The Times-Dispatch’s ombudsman, a position he held until his retirement on Dec. 31, 2004. As the “Ombuzzard,” as he called himself, he served as a go-between for readers and the news staff.

In his final column — “Call this the final flight of the Ombuzzard,” he began — Mr. Finch said that after about a year as ombudsman, “I became aware that my visits to the newsroom were looked upon with apprehension. I could be conveying reader complaints or voicing my own how-did-that-happen criticism. I have quoted before the old story about how newspeople take criticism the way cats take baths — reluctantly and with lots of biting and scratching.”

Born June 17, 1927, in Huntington, W.Va., he was the son of Plynn Jerald Finch, a railroad man, and Annabelle Virginia Allen Finch, a stenographer and secretary.

His penchant for newspapering bloomed early, according to his wife, Nancy Tynes St. Clair Finch.

“He always credited Elsa Jane Carroll, his high school English teacher, with her encouragement,” as well as author A.B. Guthrie, from whom Mr. Finch took classes in college, she said.

His family moved in 1937 to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where Mr. Finch and his brother, the late James Phillips Finch, grew up, and where Jerry Finch and a friend “published” a “newspaper” while they were in their teens, Nancy Finch said.

Mr. Finch served in the Army Air Forces in World War II as sergeant in charge of a weather station on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. He served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve from 1946 to 1955.

In 1950, he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky and ever after was a diehard UK basketball fan. He subsequently worked as a reporter, sports writer and assistant sports editor for The Lexington Leader in Lexington, Ky.

He joined The News Leader in 1955 as a copy editor and later served as makeup editor, assistant city editor, associate city editor and executive city editor before becoming managing editor on Jan. 1, 1973.

As managing editor, Mr. Finch was known for his competitiveness with The Times-Dispatch, for his emphasis on good reporting and good writing, and for his caring attitude toward each of his staff members.

He taught, encouraged and offered criticism in his vintage gentle and friendly voice, followed by a wry smile. He was strong on journalism ethics and fundamentals: “Watch the adjectives. Make every word pay its way. Show me, don’t tell me.” And, perhaps, most fervent of all: “Don’t try to commit literature.”

“He could strike fear in the heart of a struggling cub reporter with sharp queries about stories laced with unanswered questions,” wrote Dave Burton, a former News Leader city editor who retired as a deputy manager editor of The Times-Dispatch, at the time of Mr. Finch’s retirement. “He could be terse and demanding, but all he wanted was your best. And he usually got it.”

Janis Johnson, a former News Leader reporter, recalled that at a time when women in journalism were suspect, Mr. Finch “helped shape drive, ambition and flashes of talent in a young woman initially frankly uncertain about her own long-term commitment to the newsroom.

“His constant pursuit of the heart of the story — using all the senses — continued to hone my sense as a storyteller, informed by facts, intuition and truth — and, most importantly, the voices of the people,” she wrote. “He was my first mentor and my most enduring one, and I also will always remember ... the way he truly cared about his people.”

Staffers considered a tearsheet or just a piece of paper with kudos in Mr. Finch’s hand — dubbed “JAF-o-grams” — a real prize.

Brice Anderson, a former News Leader assistant city editor who retired as managing editor of The Times-Dispatch, concluded: “I don’t believe Mr. Finch had an ego. Or at least he didn’t show it. We’ve all known bosses whose egos defined their leadership qualities. They DEMANDED our respect.

“Mr. Finch took another way. He COMMANDED our respect. That’s more long-lasting.”

Mary Anne Pikrone, a former state editor of The News Leader and former associate state editor of The Times-Dispatch, noted that “Jerry was a most human leader and treated his newsroom as his family. ... He also had a great sense of humor. I can still see that little smile working its way up on the corners of his mouth when he was probably thinking of a half-dozen quips, but only allowed himself to say one.

“He was the right leader for that golden era when we all bonded to meet deadlines and celebrated when we beat the dastardly Times-Dispatch. We had chemistry.”

No staff member was ever ill, or ever went through a rough time, without Mr. Finch’s support.

Once, he wrote a check to cover a staff member’s mortgage payment; another time, when a relatively new staffer showed up unannounced at his home one night in the middle of a family tragedy, Mr. Finch’s first words were: “Take all the time off you need.”

Mr. Finch hired sports writer Arthur Utley. He also wrote an obituary for Utley’s wife, Nancy, after her untimely death and “grieved with me when I joined the too-large group of [newspaper] brethren who lost spouses, and was there for every step my life took during my News Leader days and beyond,” wrote Utley, who called Mr. Finch “the best managing editor in my 50 years in the business.”

Vic Dorr Jr., who was a sports writer for The News Leader and Times-Dispatch, recalled: “I tend not to think of Jerry from a newspaper point of view. I tend to think of him, instead, from a ‘that’s a damn fine man’ point of view.

“Jerry knew my parents well. He worked with my father — the editor of the Green Section — for many years. Jerry and my mother exchanged birthday cards for many years. (The arrival of Jerry’s card was always an event; invariably, they were wickedly clever.)

“When my parents slid into physical decline a decade or so ago, Jerry and Nancy showed themselves to be good — no, wonderful — friends. They were always there. Their capacity for compassion, concern and genuine interest was nothing less than touching.”

During his tenure as managing editor, Mr. Finch led The News Leader to several Virginia Press Association sweepstakes awards and bestowals of the organization’s highest honor, now called the Virginia Press Association Award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service.

When the Richmond chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists presented the George Mason Award to Mr. Finch in 1995 for outstanding contributions to Virginia journalism, the selection committee cited the grace with which Mr. Finch led The News Leader through its final months, as well as the positive influence he had on journalism.

At that time, veteran columnist Guy Friddell summed up the experience of many who worked with Mr. Finch. “He always treated us like family,” Friddell said. “He never treated us like children.”

In January 1962, while Mr. Finch was serving as makeup editor at The News Leader, his wife of 13 years, Jeanne Marie Kelly Finch, died of a heart condition, along with their unborn child. They had two other children – Jerald Kelly Finch, who died in infancy in 1955, and Jerald Kelly Finch, named for his brother and who was five years old at his mother’s death, who died in 1994.

On Nov. 30, 1963, Mr. Finch married Nancy Tynes St. Clair, a reporter who had joined The Times-Dispatch’s Women’s Department staff that year.

While later serving as The Times-Dispatch’s food editor, Nancy Finch tested recipes on her husband and children. Mr. Finch joked that they ate some memorable recipes only once.

Mr. Finch was a member of the Virginia Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press Managing Editors association, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He had served on the United Press International advisory board. He served as chairman-elect of Virginia Associated Press Newspapers in 1979.

He was a member of Bon Air Presbyterian Church.

“One of the best things you can say about someone is they led a good life, cared for others and faced challenges with grace and dignity,” Pikrone said. “That he did.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Laura Plynn Finch of Richmond; two sons, Allen St. Clair Finch of Richmond and Thomas Tynes Finch of Waynesboro; and six grandchildren.


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chesterfield
Chesterfield bus driver shortage persists

The Chesterfield County school system continues to wrestle with bus driver shortages just weeks before schools open, a year after a spate of driver vacancies plagued the system amid a shift in school start times.

The system has about 480 drivers and continues to try to add to those ranks, Calvin Frye, the school system’s director of transportation, told School Board members on Monday.

School Board Chairman Rob Thompson said school officials this year are not expecting the types of bus delays the school system experienced when classes began in 2018.

Thompson added that bus delays, in general, are not an unusual occurrence for the school system.

“We expect delays every single year that we open school,” Thompson said.

Frye said the system has been sending recruiters to open houses looking for new bus drivers.

“We have also been very aggressive at calling and contacting folks that have driven for us before. We had at least 14 drivers from the past that have shown interest in coming back in some way, shape or form,” Frye said.

A key question for school administrators is how many bus drivers will choose to leave the system this month just before school starts. Some drivers stay through the summer and leave as their annual contract ends in August.

School Board member Carrie Coyner wondered why the school system couldn’t simply devote staff members to helping students safely walk to school if they live nearby, rather than having to load up a bus to transport those pupils a short distance.

“There are lots of school divisions across this country, they hire crossing guards and everybody crosses the road and goes home,” Coyner said.

“I’m wondering why we’re not studying, again, our most walkable areas and putting staffing in place to make it safe to walk versus the use of a bus and a driver, which we’re always in shortage of.”

Nita Mensia-Joseph, the school system’s chief operating officer, said the district has in the past examined the costs of undertaking that kind of initiative.

“I think it just gets down to money,” Mensia-Joseph said. “I know the transportation budget has not been expanded from last year to this year.”

Later this month, the school system plans to post on its website a connection to E-Link, where parents can get information about their child’s bus route and stop.

Paper lists of the locations of the bus stops will be available at each child’s school. The school district also plans to offer parents a mobile application, MyStop, to let them track their child’s bus in real time as it drives along its route.

Legionella update

The School Board on Monday heard a presentation from John Thumma, the school system’s director of facilities and maintenance, about efforts to clean and inspect the school system’s cooling towers amid recent testing that found three Chesterfield schools had the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

Those schools are Greenfield Elementary School, Falling Creek Middle School and Midlothian Middle School.

“Everything is going to be cleaned and tested by the start of the [school] year,” Thumma said.

School officials said last week that they would clean each of the 54 cooling towers by the time school starts out of “an abundance of caution,” without being prompted by health officials to undertake that work.

The three schools were among seven Chesterfield sites, including Johnston-Willis Hospital and Defense Supply Center Richmond, that tested positive for the LP1 strain of the Legionella bacteria.

Health officials have said they cannot say at this point whether any of those sites caused the 11 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the county in recent months.

School officials said that last year they had been given $977,000 to pay contractors for preventive maintenance of HVAC systems when they actually needed $2.3 million for that work.

The system tried with little success to hire people who would maintain the systems, Thumma said, adding the public schools can’t provide a competitive salary to draw an employee to handle preventive maintenance for its HVAC systems.

Thumma said the school system is preparing to put out a request for proposals for four or five vendors to provide a wide range of work, including preventive maintenance, repair and replacement of HVAC systems.