Conversation around Shockoe Bottom ballpark hits fever pitch

Posted at 12:42 AM, Feb 20, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-21 21:49:42-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)--The polarity surrounding Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones’ Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium plan has become more visible as it moves closer to a vote by City Council next week.

City Council President Charles Samuels and City Council Member Jon Baliles held a joint town hall meeting Wednesday night.

It was one of the last opportunities for their voters to tell them what to do –after tonight there are two more town halls left on the topic.

If the meeting were a microcosm for the city as a whole, let it be noted that opinions remain very mixed.

“I think it is fairly evenly split at least in terms of applause,” Ellen Chapman, who lives in Shockoe Bottom and attended the meeting, said.

Traffic, Shockoe Bottom’s slave trade history, and a preference for baseball on the Boulevard continue to push some Richmond residents to oppose the plan.

“They will play ball on the very land where humans bred for sale were held in pens,” Farid Alan Schintzius, the founder of Shockoe Resistance, said.

“I think sports are very limited,” Chapman said.  You show up there during the season, and it's very hard to get people to come back.”

On the other side is plenty of support, much of it from younger people who say it is time for change.

“We can't drive without our rearview mirror, but we can't drive looking just in our rearview mirror,” Justin Ayars, who considers himself a millennial, said.

Tavarris Spinks, a young professional living in Richmond, wasn’t sure what he supported going into Wednesday night’s meeting, but he’s supporting it now after the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall answered an important question for him at the meeting.

“Tonight, having my main question that I didn't feel was answered in the plan looks good, it does look good,” Spinks said.

Despite their enthusiasm, Councilman Baliles said he still has questions he needs answered before he makes a decision.

“Everybody has an opinion, and I have not made up my mind,” Baliles said.

How much will his vote be worth when the proposal goes before council?

On Tuesday the Land Use, Housing and Transportation Standing Committee voted to forward the proposal to council with no recommendations. The plan will now need fewer votes than the original seven of nine that were needed if the plan involved sale of city land.

The revised resolution added language that instead introduces the option of leasing the city land. With such a revision, only five yes votes would be needed, councilman Jon Baliles told CBS 6.

If this revision is passed, then after 40 years the city would take control of the property or renegotiate the lease, he said.

The plan goes before City Council members on Monday for further discussion.

"This is the biggest boondoggle in the city's history,” Paul Goldman, government watchdog, said. Goldman did the research to squash the first ballpark proposal in 2004 while working as Policy Advisor to former Mayor Doug Wilder.  He says the revised resolution is a clever tactic by the mayor.

"He's trying to get as many people on record for this resolution, so it will be harder for them to say no.” Goldman said. “He's out foxing the anti-stadium people.”

Strategic planners worry that the downtown location can’t handle the planned development.

"We can't handle this infrastructure,” Rick Tatnall, with Replenish Richmond said.  He questioned the city's plan to deal with increased traffic and parking issues this $200 million dollar project will bring. A recent study commissioned to examine Shockoe traffic has come under fire after critics noted that peak traffic times weren’t included.

"They disregarded a number of details like 1,135 apartments and condominiums that have brought on line since they did their numbers.  They didn't consider the first two hotels and the main street station build out," Tatnall said.

Much of the business community, along with the Chamber of Commerce and the non-profit entity Venture Richmond favor the mayor’s plan and have helped invest thousands into pro-stadium campaigns like Revitalize RVA.

That’s the tagline for several billboards that have gone up around the city, which equate development with more jobs and money for schools. In response opponents created their own media campaign and have leased multiple billboards around the city. The signs warn council members that voters are watching.

It was one of the last opportunities for their voters to tell them what to do.

Which Baliles brought back around Wednesday night. “Can't make any decision without talking to your constituents, and that's what tonight is all about,” Baliles said.

Despite people’s enthusiasm, Baliles said he still has questions he needs answered before he makes a decision.