Ballpark plans mean big makeover

A 2008 plan for Shockoe Center, a $360 million project included a $60 million ballpark, was eventually withdrawn amid questions about its feasibility.

After years of focus on the Boulevard, Shockoe Bottom is back in play as a potential location for a new ballpark.

Officials with the Richmond Flying Squirrels and the Greater Richmond Chamber confirmed Monday that their conversation about a new baseball stadium has shifted to the Bottom.

"We are the Richmond Flying Squirrels. We're going to go the route that Richmond wants to go," said Lou DiBella, the president and managing general partner of the Flying Squirrels. "If the city and the chamber prefer Shockoe Bottom, if that's the route that they believe is best for developing the city, then we're fine with that."

Kim Scheeler, president of the Greater Richmond Chamber, confirmed Monday that discussion of a new baseball stadium has moved from being a regional project on the Boulevard to an economic development project downtown.

Under the new approach, the city would make a ballpark part of a larger development downtown "as a way to raise the money to pay for the stadium rather than have the counties put money into it," Scheeler said.

Scheeler said Henrico and Chesterfield counties have made it increasingly clear that they are not prepared to participate in financing a new stadium on the Boulevard next to The Diamond, of which they are co-owners through the Richmond Metropolitan Authority.

Instead of a ballpark, Richmond plans to look at ways to develop the property it owns along North Boulevard and Hermitage Road for commercial and retail uses that would generate tax revenue for the city, he said.

The Boulevard property, including Sports Backers Stadium, also is among the potential sites for the Washington Redskins' summer training camp, which is set to move to Richmond next year.

With the counties unwilling to participate in a new stadium, the city is taking a fresh look at the possibilities from an economic development perspective, said David M. Hicks, senior policy adviser to Mayor Dwight C. Jones and a member of a task force formed by the Greater Richmond Chamber early this year to study the issue.

"It's quality of life and it's also economic development," Hicks said. "There are real money implications."

DiBella classified the ongoing discussions between the Squirrels and the city as "fruitful, and moving forward, and I believe there will be some kind of timetable established relatively soon."

DiBella declined to comment on how a Shockoe Bottom ballpark would be financed. The city and the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield came together to fund half of the $8 million construction cost of The Diamond, which opened in 1985. The remaining $4 million was raised through the public sector and private sector.

The price of a new ballpark is estimated to be in the $50 million range, with a construction time of approximately 18 months.

Richmond's professional baseball club has played at The Diamond's site since 1954, when the Richmond Virginians began their season at Parker Field with an exhibition against their parent club, the New York Yankees. The Richmond Flying Squirrels' inaugural season was in 2010.

* * * * *

In recent years, Shockoe Bottom stadium plans faded with concerns about financing, historic sites in or near the construction zone, traffic, parking, and building in a flood plain.

In October 2003, a group of local businessmen, the Richmond Ballpark Initiative, proposed a $58 million stadium in Shockoe Bottom. That plan fizzled, and focus returned to the Boulevard as the Atlanta Braves relocated their Triple-A franchise from Richmond to Gwinnett County, Ga., after the 2008 season. The owners cited dissatisfaction with The Diamond.

In October 2008, local businessman Bryan Bostic led a group interested in buying a Double-A baseball franchise and moving it to Richmond and, eventually to Shockoe Center, a $318 million proposed project that included a $60 million ballpark. That plan was withdrawn amid questions about its feasibility.

This year, in a March 25 op-ed piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, DiBella wrote: "Over the past several weeks there have been encouraging signs that real movement is taking place that could put a new regional ballpark on the Boulevard within the next few years."

Around the same time, the club released conceptual renderings of a proposed ballpark on the Boulevard. As illustrated, the ballpark was located adjacent to The Diamond, "just a lazy fly ball down the Boulevard from where The Diamond now stands," DiBella wrote.

In an op-ed that also ran in The Times-Dispatch on March 25, Jones wrote: "We believe the plan to provide a new stadium on the Boulevard site can be a home run for our city, our regional partners and the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Building at the existing location provides the opportunity to maximize the economic development potential of the site and to rejuvenate North Boulevard."

Since then, however, the prospects for a regional partnership have dimmed.

"We learned from the counties that putting money into a ballpark right now is going to be difficult," said the Greater Richmond Chamber's Scheeler. "The last couple of weeks, it's become more challenging."

The Richmond Metropolitan Authority owns The Diamond, as well as the land beneath it, though it leases the majority of the parking areas that serve the stadium from the city on a long-term basis. Both David Caudill, RMA's director of operations, and Robert "Mike" Berry, the authority's general manager, said Monday that they were unaware of discussions related to a Shockoe Bottom ballpark for the Squirrels.

"The last thing I was aware of was that the Boulevard was the primary site of interest," Caudill said. "I hadn't heard that downtown was back on the table again."

Richmond asserted its authority over the RMA board of directors in late June with a 6-5 vote to replace longtime Henrico lawyer James L. Jenkins as chairman with Carlos Brown, a Dominion Resources Services Inc. lawyer and a city representative.

About three weeks ago, Henrico Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard W. Glover told Jones in a private dinner meeting of regional officials that he was not interested in having Henrico help to pay for a new stadium to replace The Diamond.

Glover also rebuffed the mayor's request for regional participation in the UCI Road World Championships in 2015, which he said had been portrayed as a Richmond event with the cycling races confined within the city limits.

The life of The Diamond

April 1985:

The Diamond, which cost $8 million to build, opens and is home to the Richmond Braves, Atlanta’s Triple-A club, in town since 1966. The Richmond Metropolitan Authority owns and operates the 12,134-seat stadium on behalf of the city and the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield. Those jurisdictions paid for half of the construction cost, and private funds covered the other $4 million.

September 2000:

The Braves begin suggesting that The Diamond needs improvements.

April 2001:

Richmond City Manager Calvin Jamison discusses a potential stadium on the Ethyl-owned land near the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. The plan receives minimal support.

August 2003:

A football-sized piece of concrete falls from The Diamond’s roof into the stands during a Sunday game. No one is hurt.

September 2003:

Richmond and the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield support an $18.5 million renovation of The Diamond. Construction is scheduled to start in September 2004.

October 2003:

A group of local businessmen, the Richmond Ballpark Initiative, proposes a $58 million stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

The renovation of The Diamond is postponed as Braves and city officials ask for time to study the plan for a downtown ballpark. The RBI proposal fades with concerns over financing, parking and traffic.

August 2004:

Rain and poor field drainage at The Diamond force postponements or venue changes for 15 Braves games, nine more home dates lost than any other International League club.

May 2004:

A state aviation official with development experience, Charles S. Macfarlane, proposes a $40 million, 7,500-seat ballpark for Mayo Island.

February 2005:

The Braves and Global Development propose a $330 million live/work/play village, which would include a ballpark, in Shockoe Bottom. The Diamond, reduced in size, would be the centerpiece of a sportsplex for Virginia Commonwealth University baseball, a VCU tennis center, and other venues for high school competition. The plan never gains traction.

February 2006:

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder proposes that a ballpark be built at the old Fulton Gas Works in the city’s East End. The idea fails to gain support.

March 2006:

A Chesterfield County official confirms that the Braves have expressed interest in the site of Cloverleaf Mall, at Midlothian Turnpike and Chippenham Parkway, as a potential home for a new stadium.

January 2008:

The Atlanta Braves announce that their Triple-A franchise will move to Gwinnett County, Ga., after the 2008 season because of the organization’s dissatisfaction with The Diamond.

April 2008:

Richmond Braves General Manager Bruce Baldwin says the intersection of

Interstates 95 and 295, where Henrico County officials tried to attract the NASCAR Hall of Fame, could work as the site for a new ballpark.

October 2008:

Local businessman Bryan Bostic leads a group interested in buying a Double-A franchise and moving it to Richmond. He also supports a $318 million downtown project, Shockoe Center, which includes a $60 million ballpark. Highwoods Properties, also behind the development, ultimately withdraw the plan amid questions about its feasibility.

June 2009:

Eastern League President Joe McEacharn pledges to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones that one of the Double-A league’s 12 franchises will move to Richmond for the 2010 season. That turns out to be Connecticut, a San Francisco Giants affiliate, which maintains its ownership group.

June 2009:

Opening Day Partners wants to transform The Diamond with a $28 million renovation that would make it a venue for baseball and other community activities. The plan, which includes removal of the concrete upper deck, is not seriously considered.

July 2009:

A 17.5-acre property owned by Reynolds Packaging in Manchester, on the south bank of the James River, is proposed as a possible ballpark location. Reynolds closes shop at the site, but the proposal goes nowhere.

September 2009:

The Connecticut franchise officially relocates to Richmond. Flying Squirrels is the winner in a name-the-team contest.

February 2010:

The Diamond’s capacity is reduced from 12,134 to 9,560 with advertising banners covering upper-deck seating areas. The Flying Squirrels invest about $2 million in upgrades.

April 2010:

Richmond Flying Squirrels open play at The Diamond, which Eastern League and club officials emphasize is not a long-term solution to Richmond’s ballpark

problem.

February 2011:

Squirrels invest about $250,000 more in upgrades for The Diamond.

March 2012: Richmond’s mayor announces that the city will use interest rate savings from paying off old debts as debt service for the city’s share of a new ballpark that’s expected to cost about $50 million.

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