Should a public figure who has advocated for the $1.5 billion Richmond Coliseum redevelopment proposal be a sitting member of the citizen commission tasked with vetting the plans?
A majority of members of the Richmond City Council are willing to consider the possibility.
Councilman Michael Jones on Monday nominated Virginia Union University President Hakim J. Lucas to sit on the commission the council is appointing to pore over the massive development proposal unveiled last month. Jones said he was concerned about the diversity of the commission, citing phone calls he received from African American ministers about the makeup of the panel.
“There’s a group of local community leaders who share the concern about representation from Virginia Union University, because honestly Virginia Union is overlooked in so much of what goes on in Richmond,” Jones said. Also nominating Lucas was Councilwoman Ellen Robertson.
Supporting Lucas' consideration among other nominees to the commission were five council members: Councilman Andreas Addison, Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, Robertson, Council President Cynthia Newbille and Jones.
Lucas' nomination drew a rebuke from Councilwoman Kim Gray, who proposed the citizen commission last year. She questioned her colleagues’ motivations in putting forward Lucas, saying three of the seven nominees to fill out the nine-member commission are black.
Instead, Gray said she believed Jones and Robertson had an ulterior motive in nominating the president of the historically black college.
“This is an attempt to diminish the credibility of this commission," Gray said.
She questioned Lucas’ impartiality, pointing to an opinion column endorsing the project published under his name in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in December.
“For our community, there are real risks in doing nothing,” the opinion column stated. “The status quo is not good: a broken-down Coliseum, an unattractive downtown area, and vacant land that contributes no tax revenue to the city. And if Richmond does not get this done, it’s hard to see how there will be a next project.”
It has since been disclosed that NH District Corp., the group that proposed the plans, developed the column bearing Lucas’ name, as well as that of Makola M. Abdullah, president of Virginia State University. The op-ed said the authors could be reached at an NH District email address.
Jones said he believed Lucas could assess the project objectively despite his public support of it.
“If individuals have an issue with what he did, I still believe he is professional enough to do the job,” Jones said.
A Virginia Union University spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email sent Monday evening seeking comment on Lucas’ nomination.
The council discussion came as Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao's public praise of the project drew scrutiny and raised ethics questions. An NH District consultant, Jeff Kelley, ghostwrote a column bearing Rao’s name that The Times-Dispatch published in January, according to emails the newspaper obtained between Rao's office and Kelley.
A spokeswoman for VCU has defended the decision to affix Rao’s name to the op-ed, citing a brief interview between Kelley and Rao upon which she said the op-ed was based. (Kelley worked for The Times-Dispatch from 2003 to 2007.)
NH District Corp.'s plans call for a 17,500-seat arena, 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; 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.
Its complex financing structure relies on the creation of a "tax-increment financing" district. All new real estate tax revenue from the district, either from new construction or rising property assessments, would cover debt payments to holders on a $350 million bond offering for the arena. Without the project, those dollars would otherwise flow to the city's general fund, which pays for core services like schools and roads.
Over 30 years, the city would owe about $570 million for the arena that would replace the Coliseum. The city's financial adviser, Davenport & Co., has 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.
If appointed by the council, Lucas would replace one person nominated as part of a seven-person slate put forward by the commission’s chairman, Pierce Homer, and vice chairman, John Gerner, earlier this month.
They are: Richard E. Crom, an IRS analyst; Mark M. Gordon, a former Bon Secours Mercy Health executive; Grindly R. Johnson, Virginia's deputy secretary of administration; Suzanne S. Long, a partner at Meyer, Baldwin, Long & Moore; Mary Harding "Mimi" Sadler, a historical architect with Sadler & Whitehead Architects; Michael J. Schewel, a former secretary of commerce and trade for the state; and Corey D.B. Walker, a professor at the University of Richmond.
Once a majority of the commission is seated, it will have 90 days to review the project and report its findings to the council. It must hold public meetings and keep minutes of its discussions.
The council is slated to finalize its appointments to the commission at its next meeting on Sept. 23.