A divided Richmond City Council on Tuesday put off a decision on whether to poll city voters on using tax dollars to build a new downtown arena.
However, the council will hold a second special meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m., where its members are expected to vote on whether to hold an advisory referendum in November on the proposed public financing for the centerpiece of the $1.5 billion Coliseum redevelopment project.
“It would give the citizens the opportunity to let us know what they want,” said Reva Trammell, who proposed the idea along with 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray.
Others on the council said a referendum could confuse voters, who they said may not read the 900-plus-page plan laying out the specifics, and potential benefits, of the massive mixed-used development that could rise around the new arena.
They said the formation of a commission, as well as a plan to hire a consultant to comb through the project, represented a sufficient review of the project without a referendum.
“We are confusing the daylights out of the public,” said Michael Jones, the 9th District representative.
Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration released the proposal last week, ending 17 months of negotiations with NH District Corp., the private group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II that pitched the city the plans.
The plans call for: a 17,500-seat arena that would be the largest in the state; 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.
Farrell’s group has said it will front $900 million for the mixed-use development, which would rise on publicly owned land it would pay the city $15.8 million for.
Public funds would pay for the arena. The money 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.
For example, real estate taxes owed on a new tower Dominion Energy constructed within the proposed zone would normally flow into the city’s general fund, which pays for core services like police and schools. If the project is approved, those dollars would instead go to pay back the bond holders.
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. 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.
Stoney has said the project could net $1 billion in new tax revenue over the course of 30 years. Even if it founders, he has said, taxpayers would not be left holding the bag because of the deal’s financing structure, which he has said poses “no risk” to taxpayers.
Trammell originally said she wanted voters to answer the 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?”
The language she and Gray proposed Tuesday at a special meeting of the council was more technical. The question read:
“Should the City Council of the City of Richmond adopt Ordinance No. 2019-212 to create a Navy Hill Fund for the purpose of setting aside, to the extent permitted by law, and accounting separately for certain city tax revenues and other city revenues to pay for debt service on bonds issued by the Economic Development Authority to finance the construction of a new arena in downtown Richmond?”
Because the pair wanted the nine-member body to expedite a vote on the resolution, six council members had to support its consideration. Only five did, effectively tabling it.
Opposing its consideration were: 1st District Councilman Andreas Addison, 6th District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, Council President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th District, and Jones, the 9th District councilman.
Addison said he took issue with the language the pair proposed. Gray responded that they had borrowed it from one of the ordinances advancing the project that Stoney’s administration introduced last week.
Once the resolution was tabled, Gray requested a second special meeting on Wednesday, where a public hearing will be held and a vote is expected. The council is up against an end-of-week deadline if the advisory referendum is to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The results of an advisory referendum would not be binding, meaning the council could still approve or reject the proposal regardless of the outcome.
Jeff Kelley, a spokesperson for NH District, said the group had conducted public outreach as it assembled its plans and did not support the proposed referendum.
“It’s disappointing that the council is trying to circumvent the very process that they, themselves created because a few Richmond outsiders are telling them what to do,” he said. “We’ll keep listening to the people of Richmond as this project moves forward and urge the council to do their job and their own due diligence.”
Wednesday’s special meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at the Richmond Police Training Academy, 1202 W. Graham Road, because of renovations to the Council Chambers at City Hall.