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.