Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney invited members of Richmond City Council to “kick the tires” of the $1.4 billion project that he endorsed earlier this month centering on a new Richmond Coliseum.
But the mayor’s administration has not pledged support for an idea put forward by a Richmond councilwoman who says she is seeking to do exactly that.
“We need to tap our community resources so we can be provided with the best information moving forward,” said Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District representative. Earlier this month, she pitched a nine-member citizen advisory commission to help vet a proposal with wide-ranging financial implications for the city and its future.
The commission would supplement a forthcoming council review of the redevelopment proposal, which Stoney has said could be the “biggest economic development project in the city’s history.”
Gray’s plan calls for the council to hold four public hearings across the city on the proposal, which the mayor has said he intends to submit for a vote.
The Stoney administration stopped short of endorsing Gray’s ordinance in a statement, saying it had not concluded reviewing what the councilwoman has proposed.
“The administration applauds council’s commitment to heightened public process and fully supports council members engaging and seeking input and advice from their respective constituents, as well as from all Richmond citizens,” said Matt Welch, a senior policy adviser in the city’s Department of Economic Development.
“It is ultimately within the discretion of council to determine whether to add the additional layer of tasking a select nine of those citizens to serve on a new commission and advise council whether it should support the project.”
Stoney’s administration has spent nine months reviewing and negotiating the only proposal it received in response to a call for development plans the mayor issued late last year, from a group of corporate leaders helmed by Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell II.
The group had publicly indicated interest in redeveloping the area around the Coliseum months in advance of Stoney’s solicitation.
The $1.4 billion plans from the group’s nonprofit, NH District Corp., call for a new, 17,500-seat arena; a 527-room hotel; more than 3,000 new apartments, with 680 reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income; 790,000 square feet of office space; 275,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; a $10 million renovation of the Blues Armory; and space for a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders.
The plans also call for infrastructure improvements in the roughly 10-block area north of Broad Street where the development would rise.
In endorsing the development, Stoney has said it has the potential to create 21,000 jobs, including 9,000 after construction is completed, and provide more than $300 million in business for minority-owned contractors.
He also cited a report by a consultant his administration hired that estimates the project could generate $1.2 billion in tax revenue beyond what is necessary to pay for it over 30 years. If the excess revenue materializes, half of that money would go to Richmond Public Schools, Stoney announced last week.
Although it has carved up pieces of the hypothetical pie, the Stoney administration has not yet submitted to the council a package of ordinances laying out details of the complex deal.
Unless the council schedules a special meeting, the last chance for Stoney to formally submit the plans before year’s end is the meeting scheduled on Dec. 10. He intends to do so “in the near future,” said Welch, the senior policy adviser.
Gray, a frequent critic of the mayor, has expressed skepticism about the project dating back to the mayor’s call for proposals.
Under her plan, the council would appoint a chairperson and vice chairperson to head the commission. They would then nominate seven additional people for council approval who have expertise in development, finance, sports and entertainment venues, and law.
Meetings would be public and the group would deliver its findings to council within 90 days. The report would “seek to validate the assumptions, projections, costs and benefits of the development … and the likely impact of that development on the city,” the ordinance states.
At a special meeting Monday, the council amended the paper to include a clause stating the commission would have access to any information it deems necessary to complete its duties. Gray expects the review to take 40 hours of city staff time and $5,000, according to the ordinance.
The Stoney administration paid financial advisers, lawyers and consultants almost $500,000 to review the plans between March and the end of August, a figure that does not include any hours billed to the city for the months of September, October or November, as negotiations have continued.
Council members have weighed hiring their own financial consultant to review the plans, but say they have little money to do so. Gray said her commission could be a more cost-effective alternative.
Cynthia Newbille, the council’s vice president, said she hadn’t reviewed Gray’s proposal, but she “wants to ensure that citizens across the city have an opportunity to really weigh in, to have a substantive look at the proposal and understand what the implications will be over the next 30 years.”
Michael Jones, the 9th District councilman, said he was focused on making sure the council thoroughly vetted the plans.
“I don’t think we can study the project enough,” Jones said. “You can’t have enough eyes on it.”
An NH District spokesman said he felt the group’s plan reflected input from 3,000 residents who attended public presentations the entity has held or responded to surveys it has conducted.
“I think it’s important that the council members take the time to review the due diligence by the city, its advisers and by many city residents who have already given their voice to this plan,” Jeff Kelley said.
The project relies on a complex financial setup involving earmarked sales, admissions, meals taxes and other revenues from the project. It also depends on the creation of a special tax zone encompassing a vast swath of downtown that would divert all new real estate tax revenue in the zone to pay down the debt on the development.
NH District will privately source $1.1 billion to pay for its plans. The city would be responsible for paying $220 million for the new arena, $10 million for the armory renovation and the cost of infrastructure improvements in the project area, such as raising Leigh Street to grade between Fourth and Eighth streets and reconnecting the street grid on Clay Street.
City officials have said they would cover the costs with a $350 million bond offering, potentially through the Richmond Economic Development Authority.
Over 30 years, the city would owe $620 million in principal and interest payments to investors who buy the bonds. Financial projections from a Stoney-hired consultant indicate the city could make enough new tax revenue on the project to pay back what it owes in as few as 18 years, city officials have said. That would save about $125 million.
The mayor has said the city bears “no risk” if the council signs off on the plans.
The council’s Organizational Development Standing Committee is set to weigh Gray’s proposal next Monday.