The broad outlines of the proposal for a Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium came into clearer focus Monday, but details on the project’s financing and the level of political support for the plan on City Council remained cloudy as the baseball debate progressed to a new phase.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones said the Revitalize RVA Plan encourages private-sector development and honors the area’s historic role in the slave trade while building a new ballpark where the Richmond Flying Squirrels can take the field in April 2016, freeing the area around The Diamond on the Boulevard for redevelopment.
Several city officials characterized Monday morning’s announcement by Jones — a noisy affair marked by repeated heckling — as the beginning of a citywide discussion of the plan’s merits that won’t reach a final conclusion for some time.
At Monday’s council meeting, the administration introduced a resolution that seeks the council’s support for the major redevelopment plan that involves a stadium, a slavery memorial, a Hyatt hotel, a Kroger grocery store, 750 apartments and a parking deck, but the council did not get into a public discussion of the mayor’s proposal.
The road to a Shockoe stadium may not be smooth. Protesters also made themselves visible at the council meeting, but many left after being told there would be no baseball discussion until next week.
Despite the inclusion of a slavery memorial as part of the project, several dozen protesters hoisted signs and shouted criticism during the mayor’s unveiling event, characterizing the plan as a misallocation of resources, a giveaway to a sports team and disrespectful of the area’s historical ties to the slave trade.
But Jones called Shockoe the “right location,” saying that the new heritage site would preserve an important piece of the city’s history and that the development would generate more tax revenue that could be used for schools, transportation and other city priorities.
“This will be the best ballpark in minor league baseball,” Jones said to a large crowd at the corner of 17th and East Grace streets, where the mayor said home plate would lie.
As presented, the plan would involve more than $200 million in overall investment, with an estimated $79.6 million in costs to the city and more than $125 million coming from private development. Capital One executive Steve Gannon has been tasked with raising $30 million for the slavery heritage site.
As of Monday night, there was no private investment in the stadium itself, according to city officials.
The ballpark would be the new home for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the city’s minor league team that has been seeking a replacement for The Diamond. Moving baseball to the Bottom would also bring major changes to the Boulevard, where about 60 acres would open up for development.
The mayor directly addressed the protesters as he spoke about the memorial project at the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, part of what was one of the largest slave-trading centers before the Civil War.
“I need for you to know, that even though there are those who don’t want to listen, that this is deeply personal to me,” Jones said. “I would not be here today if it wasn’t for a man named Robert Lumpkin.”
Jones said that Lumpkin’s widow, an African woman named Mary whom Lumpkin had once enslaved, leased some of the family’s land to a minister who wanted to start a seminary for freed blacks. That institution later became Virginia Union University, which Jones attended more than 40 years ago and credited for his rise from being a “poor boy from Philadelphia” to becoming Richmond’s mayor.
“This is a story that must be told,” Jones said. “We must celebrate the fact of where we have come from, and celebrate the fact that even though there were disastrous things that have happened in the past, the outcome is that many have been able to succeed.”
City officials declined to discuss specific financing details, but they have made assurances that the roughly $187 million in tax revenue the development is projected to generate over 20 years would cover the costs incurred by the city.
“This plan has no impact on our debt limits. This plan will not affect our upgraded bond ratings. And this plan is essentially self-supporting,” Jones said. “Clearly, this is the best plan for taxpayers.”
No county funds
The project doesn’t include any financial contribution from Henrico or Chesterfield counties, according to city officials.
“The Diamond is crumbling. Our neighbors in the counties have said they can’t help replace it,” Jones said. “We already have lost one team because of it. But I’m here to say we’re not going to lose another team.”
A website outlining the plan, www.lovingrva.com, was launched Monday, but the section containing frequently asked questions includes no information about the project’s financing.
More details are expected to emerge when the administration submits a series of detailed ordinances to the council that would dictate the logistics of the how the development plan will work.
Council President Charles R. Samuels, 2nd District, said he expects the ordinances to be introduced by the end of the year, adding that he and his colleagues will take time to vet the plan and hear from constituents.
“I don’t think it’s asking too much to say we’re going to need a significant amount of time to review it, to weigh our opportunities, to see what the public has to say about it before we make a final decision,” Samuels said after the mayor’s speech.
Council Vice President Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, extolled the proposal to memorialize the history of the slave trade, but she said the economics have to work for the city.
“The deal has to pencil right,” said Robertson.
With major public investment necessary for flood protection and other utility infrastructure, the projected revenues will have to be on target, she said. “There’s no room for slippage in the finances for this.”
Letters of intent
Jones said the current proposal differs from those that have come before it because all of the development projects have been secured with letters of intent.
“These are not speculations. This is not wishful thinking,” Jones said. “This is not a case of build it and they will come.”
The mayor also said the project would create 400 permanent jobs and 1,000 construction jobs.
At the presentation, Jones had a key ally in Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond, who spoke in support of the plan as chairwoman of the Slave Trail Commission.
“I believe that this is the one chance we have to honor our history in a big way,” McQuinn said. “And I’m excited about it.”
University of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers spoke about the mayor’s promise to honor the history of the area, which he said was “infected with the business of buying and selling people.”
“I’m here today to help him make sure that he fulfills that pledge,” Ayers said.
‘Thinking big’ praised
The mayor also touted supportive statements from U.S. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va.
In a city news release, Kaine, a former Richmond mayor, praised Jones and everyone involved for “thinking big.”
“As a longtime North Sider, I’ll miss being able to walk to baseball games at The Diamond,” Kaine said. “But I have no doubt that my neighbors will work with the city to find great new uses for the Diamond site, uses that will complement the vibrant activity under way in the Boulevard/Scott’s Addition area. Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.”
At various points in the presentation, the crowd of protesters chanted “Shame!” and “No stadium on sacred ground!”
Protester Paul Dolci said the stadium would be “a huge disrespect” to African-Americans. “I think that’s too little, too late,” Dolci said of the memorial concept in the plans.
Call for consensus
Protester Kendall Perkinson, who held a sign that asked “Where’s the referendum?,” said he wasn’t a “sacred ground person,” but he thinks its important for city residents and officials to decide on the ballpark together.
He pointed to the Richmond-Times Dispatch poll that found that 67 percent of respondents favored baseball on the Boulevard compared with 22 percent support for the Bottom.
“If they ask Richmond whether they want a baseball stadium in the Bottom and Richmond says yes, I’ll step down,” Perkinson said. “But until then, no way.”
David Napier, president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association and a local caterer who supports the project, said the protesters were “a little unruly,” but said the proposal shows how far the issue of preservation of the Bottom’s slave trade history has come in the decade since a ballpark was first suggested for the area.
“They have valid concerns, but I think the project addresses them,” he said.
Napier said the proposed ballpark also addresses concerns about how to redevelop property that lies within the 100-year-floodplain. He said the street-level concourse would provide the emergency vehicle access necessary to enable residential development on parts of the property within the floodplain.
“That is the key component,” he said.
Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, a group opposing the Shockoe ballpark, released a statement Monday afternoon saying that “enormity” of the slave trade can’t be told by “shoe-horning a museum into this project.”
“In the end, it doesn’t matter what bribes or incentives the mayor offers – a museum, supermarket, more condos, more retail shops — it’s just morally wrong to play games on the site of mass human suffering,” the group said in its release.
The resolution seeking council support for the plan is scheduled to go the Land Use, Housing and Transportation committee on Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. and the Finance and Economic Development Committee in Nov. 21 at 3 p.m.
Those two meetings will provide the first opportunity for public hearings with the council on the Shockoe proposal. City officials have said a full schedule of community meetings will be released in the coming days.