The Battle of the Ballpark

Can Richmond’s mayor succeed in reconciling complicated political, economic and historic preservation interests to build a new baseball stadium?

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On the morning of Monday, November 11, 2013, when Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones stood in a gravel parking lot in front of a throng of people at the corner of 17th and Grace streets to unveil his plan for a new minor league baseball stadium in Richmond’s historic Shockoe Bottom, he said all the right things: The ballpark would not only be the best in minor league baseball, it would fulfill the city’s promise to the Richmond Flying Squirrels to build the team a new stadium. It would raise much-needed tax revenue for city schools and transportation, and add new jobs to uplift an economically depressed area. The plan would also commemorate the locale’s history in the slave trade with a slavery museum and heritage site, and improvements to the Richmond Slave Trail.

Standing where he envisioned home plate would eventually lie in the proposed 7,200-seat stadium, 66-year-old Jones, in his second term as mayor following 14 years representing the 70th district in the Virginia House of Delegates, seemed to have all the pieces in place. Flying Squirrels vice president and COO Todd “Parney” Parnell, joined by more than two dozen of the club’s full-time employees, joked with the crowd, thanking fans for leading the Eastern League in attendance for the four years the team had been in Richmond. The charismatic University of Richmond President Ed Ayers, an influential American historian, clenched his fist and praised the plan, speaking to the 300 or so spectators—roughly a third of whom had shown up to protest—about the need to preserve the area’s history. State Delegate Delores McQuinn, for a decade chairwoman of the Slave Trail Commission, enthusiastically endorsed the plan.

The package would exceed $200 million, including $125 million in private development and nearly $80 million in funding from the city. The development would include an office complex, a 200-room Hyatt hotel, a 60,000-square-foot Kroger grocery store and 750 new apartments in the Bottom, 200 of which would flank the stadium. It could generate an estimated $187 million in new net tax revenue over the next 20 years and as many as 400 permanent full-time jobs, transforming the area and more than reimbursing the city for its outlay.

It was his Field of Dreams moment.

Nearly a year later, the mayor’s plan to transform Richmond—a plan supported by the business community and civic leaders—has been picked apart and protested by detractors, beset by alternative plans and derailed by the City Council. Both sides are entrenched, but the mayor and his backers have not given up and promise to fight on. Questions remain: Is this the right decision to move Richmond forward for the next quarter-century? Will the mayor, a soft-spoken Philadelphia native and senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond, prevail?

Professional baseball has mostly thrived in Richmond since 1884. It was once played on Mayo Island in the middle of the James River, where legend holds that Babe Ruth hit the longest home run in baseball history: His shot over the back wall landed in an open coal car of a northbound train and ended up in Baltimore. But over the past decade, Richmond has been through multiple gyrations trying to decide whether or not to build a new baseball stadium, not to mention how to fund it and where to put it.

The city, newly branded “RVA,” is riding an unprecedented wave of success: a new downtown performing arts complex; a burgeoning culinary scene; Virginia Commonwealth University’s “Havoc” hoopsters and its soon-to-be-built Institute for Contemporary Art; crowds flocking to its popular folk festival and Washington Redskins summer training camp; all capped off by a sprucing up of its roads and gateways and the burnishing of its bike-friendly reputation as host of the 2015 UCI Road WorldCycling Championships.

But with its conservative backbone and its emotionally charged and often dysfunctional politics, Richmond has long been a place that resists change. Debate over renovating the Diamond, an over-the-hill venue (almost 30 years old) on a charmless stretch of North Boulevard (where Richmonders have watched baseball since 1954), or building a new stadium there or in historic Shockoe Bottom had already been simmering for a decade. (Then-mayor L. Douglas Wilder floated a plan for developing a new ballpark on Boulevard in 2007 that failed largely because funding dried up in the recession.)

The one thing that almost everyone agrees on is that something needs to be done. In 2008, the city lost its professional team of four decades, the Richmond Braves, the Triple-A affiliate of the major league Atlanta Braves. Dissatisfied with the Diamond, which now calls a “cramped,” “dingy,” concrete “monstrosity,” and with the city’s inability to successfully renovate it or build a new stadium, the team pulled up stakes and moved to a brand new stadium in Gwinett County, Georgia. With its robust fan base, Richmond lured the San Francisco Giants’ Double-A franchise to town in time for the 2010 season. The owners of the Flying Squirrels, as the team became known, believed it was just a matter of time before they would be playing in a new stadium. Almost five years later, the Squirrels are still slugging away in the Diamond.

“I woke up over 1,700 days in Richmond waiting for this day,” Parnell said at the mayor’s announcement, only half-joking. “The mayor has made his decision. Squirrel Nation needs to bond together, and we need to start at ‘yes’ and work backwards and figure out how to make this work for everybody.”Work backwards? Not a problem. It’s the “yes” part that’s the challenge.

Not that the mayor’s plan is that radical. In fact, the idea of moving the baseball stadium into historic Shockoe Bottom, which was part of the city’s original 1737 street grid, has been around for many years. The proposed eight-acre site of the development is bounded by North 18th Street, East Franklin Street, the Main Street Station train shed and East Broad Street, as well as land on the west side of Oliver Hill Way up to Venable Street that will house the proposed slave heritage site. Moving the stadium with attached commercial development to the Bottom, which is in a flood plane, will provide for expensive flood remediation, which the city cannot otherwise afford, and could inject new blood into the underdeveloped downtown neighborhood. At the same time, a 60-acre commercially desirable tract of land on Boulevard will be freed up for mixed-use development, including, according to Jones’s plan, more than 1,000 apartments, nearly one million square feet of office space and more than 750,000 square feet of retail space.

“It’s an old urban city, and we need money,” Jones says from his office in City Hall. “Everybody’s hand is in the pocket, but nobody is looking at ways to increase resources. We don’t want to raise taxes, but in order to deal with all of the needs that we have, it might come to that, and so I am trying to find ways through expanding the tax base to be able to get the resources necessary to do all of the things that need to be done.

”The surrounding counties, namely Henrico and Chesterfield which, along with Hanover County, provide the bulk of the fans who attend Squirrels games, prefer the current location and refuse to participate. But then, citing budget shortfalls, they balked at participating even at their preferred location. So Jones moved ahead without them.

“I don’t think it is productive to throw up our hands and say, ‘We have already talked to them, and they won’t do it,’” says state Delegate Manoli Loupassi, a former Richmond City Council president and vice-mayor who has been a promoter of regional cooperation. “Put that pressure on them. Their citizens are the ones who attend. I don’t see the upside for the city to go it alone. What is the upside to that risk?”  

The Richmond business community, however, is squarely on board with the mayor’s plan. Specifically, it holds the backing of Venture Richmond, an organization that has done much to promote the city, including supporting blockbuster civic events like the Richmond Folk Festival. Its board includes prominent corporate and community leaders, the heads of local universities, and, ex officio, Jones himself, as well as City Council President Charles Samuels and Vice-President Ellen Robertson.

“For this project, I trust the process,” says Jim Ukrop, a long-time Richmond businessman and community builder. “I trust all the people that are involved in it. I think it’s a very wise decision. I predict that in my lifetime or maybe yours or your kids’ that that will become the city center.”

City Councilman Jon Baliles, the 43-year-old son of former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, fired the first shot across the bow in a six-page open letter on his website to the mayor in December, questioning everything from rental payments, financing and construction cost overruns to general maintenance costs and the overall transparency of the plans and deals. The devil was in the details, he wrote, namely “the lack of supporting information and the absence of financial safeguards in the proposal.”

In early January, Jones responded with a 10-page letter, with answers to each specific point and a rallying cry for the city: “Our strength no longer depends on the surrounding counties,” he declared. “We’re growing strong on our own.” But, he warned, the city must push boldly forward and develop commercially, “because right now, most of the Richmond area’s major shopping areas are in the counties. So when our citizens go shopping, they pay a sales tax that benefits Henrico and Chesterfield.” They have “BOTH beautiful new schools AND lower real estate tax rates,” he wrote, “because city residents pay their bills.”

“We have to find a way to trap those dollars and use them to make our city the best city that it can be. We believe in regional cooperation,” says Jones, adding, “We don’t to have to sit there with our hands out. We want to be able to sit there as full-fledged partners.”

By opening up Boulevard’s 60 acres, well-situated at the intersection of two major interstates, to large-scale development, Richmond could at last beat the counties at their own game and capitalize on what the mayor calls “one of the prime locations in the mid-Atlantic region.”

Baliles remains dubious. “There are options,” he insists. “What if somebody could build a ballpark and all the mixed-use development and the money is up front? In the mayor’s plan, we don’t see any money until the fourth year. Why not look at an option where the city doesn’t spend any money up front?”

Revenue from the Boulevard development is key in the mayor’s plan to fund the move to the Bottom, but his plan is scant on details, and financial analysis by the old-line Richmond investment firm Davenport & Company notes that the plan’s assumptions for “market reasonableness” have not been checked.

“Let’s get the developer community to the table,” says rookie City Councilman Parker Agelasto, who has joined the skeptics of the mayor’s plan, including, in addition to Baliles, five-term Councilwoman Reva Trammell, four-term Councilman Chris Hilbert, and Council President Charles Samuels. “Let’s have them tell us what is developable at that location. And until we have that, we’re just speculating.”

But Agelasto thinks the mayor’s process was fundamentally flawed from the start. “The proposal to put baseball down there, it does not conform with the city’s master plan, the city’s downtown master plan, the riverfront plan and the Shockoe revitalization strategy,” he says. “All of those discussions were held with a lot of public comment, with a lot of investment from the city and planning.”

Agelasto cites as a model Virginia Beach’s economic development, using Town Center as its anchor. “Town Center was put into their master plan back in the ’70s, and they are still executing on that master plan,” he says. “So if you have a good plan that has the public buy-in, then it’s just a matter of completing the projects versus trying to force something where there may not be the support for it.”

At a packed five-hour meeting Feb. 24, the nine-member City Council expanded the time for public commentary, allowing an hour for speakers on each side to voice their opinions. Three City Council members presented amendments to the plan. Two passed: Baliles’ (making developers secure their commitment with performance bonds or other guarantees to lower the taxpayers’ exposure if things go wrong) and two-term councilwoman Cynthia Newbille’s (requiring that funding for the slavery heritage site and museum be fully committed before the development package moves ahead). The council voted 6-3 to allow development negotiations to proceed. Agelasto, Samuels (whose amendment requiring full archaeological and new traffic studies of the development site and a clear Boulevard redevelopment proposal did not pass) and Trammel, maintaining that the decision should be put to a popular vote, voted no. Baliles reluctantly joined the majority, giving the mayor more time to fine-tune the plan before a definitive vote scheduled for the March city council meeting.

The most vocal and adamant opposition to the mayor’s plan has nothing to do with economics, however. Much of it stems from the increasing self-awareness over the past decade of Richmond’s, and especially Shockoe Bottom’s, role in the slave trade. Before the end of the Civil War, the flood-prone and disease-ridden Bottom was known as the Devil’s Half Acre. Most auction houses, jails and other sites associated with the trade operated along what was then known as Wall Street, now North 15th Street, west of where the Main Street Station train shed stands today. Perhaps most notorious was Lumpkin’s Jail, although it has an uplifting corollary. Following Robert Lumpkin’s death after the war, his wife Mary, a former slave, sold the land to a Baptist minister, enabling him to open a school for freed blacks. It would become the precursor of Virginia Union University, one of Richmond’s oldest institutions of higher education, whose notable alumni include Delores McQuinn; Henry Marsh, the first black mayor of Richmond; and former Virginia Gov. Wilder, the first black governor in the U.S.

Mayor Jones, a 1967 graduate of Virginia Union, is passionate about preserving that area for posterity. “For African-Americans,” he says, “we really don’t have the kind of great knowledge base that we need to have about our history like most other cultures do. This is extremely important, and the city has been negligent in addressing that need for, well, forever.”

Almost everyone likes the idea of the heritage site, but a loose coalition of scholars and grassroots activists opposes the stadium.

“Some of us fear that a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom would desecrate a place of profound suffering and obliterate the street grid of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods,” wrote Michael Paul Williams in his May 8, 2014, Richmond Times-Dispatch column. “We don’t buy the notion that Richmond must destroy its history to preserve it.”

Jones does not see the gulf. “I think that we are not at cross purposes,” he says. “But we want to do more than preserve. We want to lift up this history and make it live so that people will be interested in learning about it. As to the juxtaposition of a stadium and this heritage site, first of all, it’s two blocks away. They’re not next to each other, and they are separated by train tracks, and so it’s not like they are on top of each other.”

Williams sides with Wait Rawls III, co-CEO of the American Civil War Center and former head of the Museum of the Confederacy, and others who call for an outdoor park with statues and interpretive signs, modeled after Birmingham’s Civil Rights District. The footprint of their proposed park would not only include the Wall Street sites and the burial ground, but it would reach east and include several more blocks that in Jones’s plan are slated for the stadium.

Others worry about the level of commitment the city will show to its proposed archaeological survey of the ground that will give way to the stadium (a sunken bowl 10 feet below ground level) and associated commercial sites.Just how large is the dissent? No one really knows. The Community Committee Against a Shockoe Bottom Stadium—which represents many groups opposed to the mayor’s plan, including the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality; African Ancestral Chamber; Flying Brick Library; Wingnut House; RePHRAME (Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions); the Church Hill Stadium Working Group; and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL)—has circulated a petition that, as of August, had been signed by 4,200 people.

On April 3, on the 149th anniversary of what many recognize as “Liberation Day” (the fall of Richmond in the Civil War), 200 grassroots foes of a stadium in Shockoe Bottom assembled there. Phil Wilayto, a strident activist and co-founder of Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, attached a sign on the former Weiman’s Bakery building, at the same corner where Mayor Jones had announced the development five months before. “This is Sacred Ground,” it read. “Do Not Disturb. NO STADIUM ALLOWED!”

“We oppose a Shockoe Bottom Stadium,” Wilayto says, because “number one, playing baseball here is extremely offensive and inappropriate; number two, it misses an opportunity to develop Shockoe Bottom as a memorial and heritage tourism area.”

But as John W. Martin, president of the Richmond-based Southeastern Institute of Research, which conducted a study of factors that contribute to the success of slavery- and civil rights-related cultural sites for the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a commentary in the Times-Dispatch 10 days later, “memorials and museums simply do not succeed in a vacuum.”

From his examination of slavery- or civil rights-related sites in Memphis, Cincinnati and Liverpool, England, he concludes that the best way to attract a critical mass of visitors is “to create a ‘village space’ that is attractive, safe, diverse and rich in amenities.” The mayor’s Revitalize RVA plan does this, he says.

John Bates, Venture Richmond’s general counsel, emphasizes that the corporate community views the slave heritage site as part of a larger project to revive an important part of the city. “I am convinced from conversations with corporate leadership in town that they will not contribute significantly to the slave heritage project unless the ballpark is built with it,” he told the Times-Dispatch in May.

As I sit with the mayor, his press secretary Tammy Hawley and Chief of Staff Grant Neely in a City Hall conference room in mid-August, Jones projects a calmness, despite the storm. At the end of May, on the day of what would have been the decisive meeting of the City Council, Jones, knowing that he would not win a majority of votes (after Baliles and Samuels had announced that they had not been swayed), withdrew his resolution, vowing to bring it back later. The unanswered financial questions, disagreements over how to preserve the history of Shockoe Bottom and an intriguing proposal by the Midlothian-based Rebkee Co., a builder of shopping centers, to build a new privately financed stadium on the Boulevard, had muddied the waters. The meeting was packed with protesters. Councilwoman Michelle Mosby chastised them for their unrelenting negativity on the stadium. She was shouted down so vehemently that a recess had to be called to restore order.

But the mayor is not giving up. Jack Berry, Venture Richmond’s executive director, told the Retail Merchants Association in June that “very soon, the City Council is going to be briefed on the entire project. Every last detail.”

Since then, however, the biggest news has come not from the mayor but from the National Trust for Historic Preservation when, in June, it named Shockoe Bottom one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the nation. Wilder complicated matters by suggesting again that his pet project, the U.S. National Slavery Museum, establish itself in Richmond and stake a claim to the state funding that would otherwise be used for the development in Shockoe Bottom.

And then the Diamond’s structural engineer, Tom Hanson, emerged to remind us that he built the stadium, which won architectural kudos nationally and even internationally in its early days, to last a century. He says that it could be renovated and retrofitted for concerts and other events while maintaining its 12,500 seats, as opposed to the 7,500 of the proposednew stadium.

“The question is always presented, ‘Could you do this? Could you do that? Could you do this hypothetical thing?’’’ says Neely, arguing for the mayor’s plan. “The answer to those questions is always probably ‘yes.’ But those are just lofty concepts.”

Jones, who is biding his time and waiting for an edge before re-engaging with the City Council, believes he is setting the stage for success. “I met with [City Councilman] Chris Hilbert last week,” he says. “There are talks going on. We are fine-tuning the plan. We’ve been meeting with community residents throughout the summer. We have done 40 meetings in the community. And so there is a lot of communication that has gone on and that is going on.”

“We’ve moved into a new stage where the mayor is appealing directly to the grassroots black community,” Wilayto tells me. It will be a fight, he says, for the “ear and attention” of that community, “and we’ll see what happens.”But simply refining the vision and winning public opinion might not be enough to get Jones’ project back on track with a hardnosed City Council.

“If the design and proposal is going to come back and have any chance of further consideration,” Agelasto tells me, “it’s almost going to require zero public investment. When I say zero public investment, I also mean not cannibalizing other revenue streams.”    

“We’re at a crossroads,” says McQuinn. “The state gave us $11 million. The city has given us five. The business community is willing to raise some substantial dollars. But it’s also a part of a bigger development. Do we leave that area as asphalt, or do we look at continuing to preserve the history through some form of development?”

The good—and possibly bad—thing is that everyone seems to be having their say.

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