Tom Farrell

Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell spoke during a press conference in front of the now-closed Coliseum on Jan. 27. He discussed the possible return of a hockey team if Navy Hill went forward.

Charlie Johnson, president and CEO of C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc., walked into a recent Richmond City Council committee meeting to deliver an assessment of the Navy Hill project. His firm was paid $215,000 by the council to conduct a third-party analysis, and on paper, he liked what he saw.

“I think this can be, and would be, a world-class type of project,” said Johnson, whose firm was hired in early December. “A lot of work has gone into this [project] by a lot of competent, professional people.”

Days after the C.H. Johnson announcement, some council members protested the hiring, questioning the firm’s ability to provide an impartial perspective. The group previously employed the founder of Hunden Strategic Partners, a separate consultant hired by Mayor Levar Stoney to vet the deal.

Forget the tangled web of Navy Hill connections. No six-figure consulting fee will deliver what the project lacks most: public confidence. Trust issues prove Richmond needs a fresh proposal.

When five council members unveiled a resolution in late January, urging Stoney to pull the proposal, emotions ran high. Stoney called the request “laughable” and “selfish,” accusing the council of making no effort to improve the project.

When those same members made a recommendation to strike the Navy Hill proposal, NH District Corp. (NHDC) mirrored the mayor, claiming the council upended the two-year public request-for-proposal (RFP) process. The developer charged they lacked consideration for the analysis they paid for and that “proactive attempts to sit down with each of these five members have been met with silence,” spokesperson Jeff Kelley said in a statement.

The consultant’s report was expensive. But in one respect, it was worth every penny. The maneuvers that have diminished Navy Hill’s prospects are crystal clear.

“While we are still carefully studying this report, today’s presentation further demonstrates that the proposal is based on good principles and consistent with best practices, addresses significant deficiencies in the Richmond market today, and that the financing structure has been thoroughly vetted and is standard for a project of this nature,” Kelley told the RTD’s Mark Robinson last week.

We hope NHDC carefully studies all sides of the analysis in C.H. Johnson’s work. Some notable weaknesses include: no appraisal of land prior to the RFP solicitation or to date; the city’s lack of capacity to oversee larger scale projects; the 80 block tax-increment financing (TIF) district; the percentage of affordable housing units within the development; and the absence of an organizational plan by the NHDC Foundation.

Worst of all, these issues are not new. Review the Navy Hill meetings over the past year.

“I’m sorry, I’m about to do a land transaction and I don’t have an appraisal?” asked former Council member Parker Agelasto in August, according to Richmond BizSense. “This is a city asset. We should have an appraisal.”

And then, the notable threats in the analysis: the removal of House Bill 1345, a reallocation of state sales tax to support the project; “Without HB 1345, greater density will be needed in the development area.”

“This is not a decision that was reached lightly,” Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who carried the bill, told the RTD after the measure was tabled late last month. “It is a tool that, if other localities in Virginia are going to have it, I feel Richmond should have it, but at the right time.”

Is this the right time? Stoney and NHDC are bullish in their shared vision for a better city. His message, along with NHDC, has been: What’s the alternative?

We want a better Richmond too, but there’s a fine line between bullish and bullying. This particular proposal is long in the tooth.

The main asks in the resolution by Council members Chris Hilbert, Reva Trammell, Kristen Larson, Stephanie Lynch and Kim Gray are as follows: complete a small area plan, incorporate “robust, citywide public input,” carry out appraisals of “all City-owned parcels in the affected area,” and do a “comprehensive assessment of existing and required public infrastructure.”

After completion of those items, the council members want a reset — a fresh RFP. That’s where the real problem with the Navy Hill process comes to light.

The council contends the original 92-day period for RFP submissions “may have been too short.” We agree. How did NHDC emerge as the sole bidder? The timeline, from an August 2019 RTD piece, suggests that private interests came before the public process:

“June 2017 — Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell and a group of corporate leaders publicly indicated interest in building a new coliseum and redeveloping the area around the existing facility.”

“November 2017 — Stoney announced a request for proposals seeking development plans for a roughly 10-block area north of Broad Street around the [Richmond] Coliseum. He called the arena, 46 years old at the time, a ‘decaying public asset.’”

We are as enthusiastic as anyone about a new Navy Hill and a better Richmond. But in business, we choose healthy competition over an unfettered monopoly. We’re ready for fresh ideas — and faces — at the table.

Chris Gentilviso

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