OPINION: An ‘open process’? Stadium opponents say no.

Posted at 8:26 AM, Feb 06, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-06 08:28:51-05

RICHMOND, Va. – In his Jan. 22 opinion piece, attorney John W. Bates III argues that the process followed by Mayor Dwight Jones in developing a redevelopment proposal for Shockoe Bottom and the Boulevard was “open and fair,” criticizing those who might suggest otherwise.

It may have been open for Mr. Bates, who, as General Counsel for the proposal-promoting, pro-business organization Venture Richmond, would have had a front-row seat to the process. And it was open to the small group of business leaders with whom the mayor shared his plan before making it public.

But outside those elite circles, the rest of us were presented with a “take-it-or-leave-it” package that includes putting a baseball stadium smack in the middle of what once was the country’s largest slave-trading district north of New Orleans.

In fact, Mr. Bates later contradicts his own argument when he states that “much of the analysis” for the proposal “needed to be done out of the public eye, as in all economic development projects.”

Really? When the previous city administration pursued developing the same Shockoe Bottom land parcels, it issued a Request for Proposals to developers.

It’s true that the mayor’s proposal may now well be “the most vetted plan in the history of the Commonwealth,” as Mr. Bates puts it, but that’s because, as he also states, “no project in the City’s recent history has generated as much interest as this plan.”

One could fairly substitute the word “opposition” for “interest.” By now there have been enough criticisms to fill a book. Here are just a few:

The Revitalize RVA plan calls for the City to take on a 20-year, $100 million public debt to support massive new, private, for-profit development. The argument is that, over time, that debt would be paid off by new tax revenue from other development in the Bottom. As the mayor’s Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall explained at a recent council district meeting, the City would not realize any new revenue from the Bottom’s development. It would be new development on the Boulevard that would bring in “up to” $187.8 million, allowing Richmond to address its 26 percent poverty rate – a local version of Ronald Reagan’s discredited “trickle-down” school of economics.

Mayor Jones admits the proposal is a “risk,” but says we must be bold in our thinking to move Richmond forward.

We’re told the stadium would be completed in 2016 – just before the mayor leaves office. But the new Boulevard development, where the real tax potential is, wouldn’t be finished until 2018. And the anticipated windfall of new tax revenue depends on the economy continuing on a steady upward trend.

It’s a good thing we don’t have recessions anymore in this country, isn’t it?

Besides finances, the other big issue with the development proposal is the history of Shockoe Bottom and its deep meaning for this country’s Black community.

Back in August 2012, when Venture Richmond’s Jack Berry and the Greater Richmond Chamber’s Kim Scheeler floated the idea of a Shockoe stadium in the city’s daily newspaper, they never once mentioned history. Others quickly countered that such a stadium would amount to a desecration of land made sacred by the suffering and resistance associated with the buying and selling of tens if not hundreds of thousands of human beings.

A year and a half later, no supporter of the mayor’s plan can mention Shockoe Bottom without at least paying lip service to its history. In fact, memorializing that history has now become a major selling point for the plan.

“Do we want to make a substantial investment in telling the story of our slave history?” Mr. Bates asks.

Well, apparently not.

Revitalize RVA calls for devoting $5 million in yet-to-be-raised City money to memorializing the African Burial Ground and the site of the notorious slave jail once run by slave trader Robert Lumpkin. By way of comparison, the City is providing $14 million for a downtown parking deck that would primarily benefit the employees of a high-power law firm.

And the $5 million is contingent on City Council agreeing to a Shockoe Bottom stadium.

Mayor Jones and his top aides argue that the stadium would not desecrate any slavery-related sites, which they insist lie to the west, on the other side of the CSX railroad tracks.

They have publicly and repeatedly based that assertion on a 14-year-old map created by Richmond historian Elizabeth Cann Kambourian and since used extensively by City Council’s Slave Trail Commission.

The problem is that Ms. Kambourian has repeatedly denounced the use of her map, saying it was only a preliminary list of sites with possible links to the slave trade and was never meant for publication. Further, she says her more recent research shows four slave-trade sites within the footprint of the proposed stadium and seven more within the whole development area.

Richmond does need development to generate the tax revenue necessary to address its many problems. But that development can take place without a baseball stadium in the Bottom. And properly memorializing the city’s real history could make Shockoe Bottom a revenue-generating destination site for heritage tourism, as has been successfully done in Charleston, New Orleans, Liverpool, Senegal’s Goree Island and other places. Lightly memorializing a few small sites in the Bottom would not come anywhere near realizing the Bottom’s tourism potential.

Every good thing about Revitalize RVA – new job and tax revenue, future investment in the city’s schools and infrastructure, proper memorialization of the sites associated with the slave trade – are all just promises.

The only real commitment is to build a private ballpark with public money in historic Shockoe Bottom.

But the plan will do one thing: It will make a pile of money for a small group of already wealthy developers, almost none of whom have ever shown the slightest interest in addressing Richmond’s shameful poverty rate or properly memorializing its history.

Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards are in no way affiliated with WTVR. Their comments are their own, and do not reflect the views of WTVR or any related entity. Neither WTVR nor any of its employees or agents participated in any way with the preparation of these comments.