More than 14,000 people want Richmond voters to decide whether the city charter should include language that could stymie the $1.4 billion plans to replace the Richmond Coliseum.
Paul Goldman, a former head of the Democratic Party of Virginia, led a signature drive seeking a referendum on the proposed charter change on the November ballot. The change Goldman is seeking would require 51% of the money captured through a special tax zone that is integral to the arena deal’s financing to instead go toward modernizing city schools.
“This is aimed at ensuring that the financing going into these kinds of projects ... can never happen again, ever, unless approved by voters and the City Council,” said Goldman, adding that it is “not aimed at any specific project.”
The general registrar is in the process of verifying that the signatures Goldman submitted belong to registered city voters and must inform the Richmond Circuit Court of its findings by mid-August. If the proposal clears those hurdles and voters endorse it in November, it would still require approval from the Virginia General Assembly and the governor to take effect.
Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration has spent the past 13 months negotiating a deal to replace the arena with a private group led by Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell II. Stoney publicly pledged support for its plans last November but has yet to submit them to the City Council for review, citing ongoing negotiations with Farrell’s group, NH District Corp.
A Stoney spokesman said the mayor opposed the proposed charter change.
“It doesn’t accomplish anything new, and would only impede the city’s ability to work directly with our communities to make this a deal that works for all Richmonders,” said Jim Nolan, the spokesman.
Nolan added that Stoney last year pledged $600 million in projected new tax revenue from the project for Richmond Public Schools over 30 years. The new development would generate $1.2 billion in new taxes over the period beyond what it would cost the city to pay for its portion of the project, according to projections by a Stoney-hired consultant.
Jeff Kelley, a spokesman for NH District Corp., declined to comment on the matter.
NH District Corp. was formed to pitch the city a $1.4 billion plan combining private investment and tax dollars to redevelop roughly 21 acres of publicly owned downtown real estate around a new arena.
Its plans call for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum; a 527-room high-rise hotel; more than 3,000 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 public portion of the project would be largely underwritten by the creation of the city’s first tax-increment financing district. Establishing the zone would divert new tax revenue from growing real estate assessments within its bounds to pay down bonds for construction of the arena, renovation of the Blues Armory and infrastructure improvements in a roughly 10-block area north of Broad Street where the project would rise.
The Stoney administration wants to expand the zone to encompass an area eight times larger to capture more tax revenue, including taxes from a new office tower Dominion built downtown, as well as a second tower for which it has submitted plans to the city. The City Council has final say on the boundaries of the zone.
NH District would 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. 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. A Stoney-hired consultant found the city could make enough new tax revenue on the project to pay back what it owes in as little as 18 years, city officials have said. That would bring the total tab down below $500 million.
Goldman, a self-identified skeptic of the project, said at a news conference Thursday that he began gathering signatures seeking the charter change last year. He said he worked with a team of roughly 50 people to gather about 14,400 signatures — well over the roughly 10,340 it would need to appear on the ballot.
Joining Goldman at the news conference was Elizabeth Charity, who said she helped gather signatures because she was appalled at the state of the city’s school buildings. Goldman declined to answer questions about whether the people who helped him canvass were paid for their efforts, and, if they were, whether he paid them personally.
The proposed change would also prohibit the city from raising the meals tax rate for at least five years. After that, city leaders could increase the rate only if a majority of voters supported doing so. Stoney proposed, and the council approved, increasing the meals tax rate from 6% to 7.5% in 2018 to fund $150 million in borrowing to build three new schools. Construction on all three buildings is underway.
This isn’t Goldman’s first bid to amend the charter by way of petition drive. In 2017, he canvassed with the Richmond Crusade for Voters for a referendum requiring Stoney to present the council with a plan to fully fund the modernization of city schools or admit it couldn’t be done. Voters supported it overwhelmingly. Stoney complied last December, and the council signed off on the nonbinding plan earlier this year.