The history of baseball in Richmond is full of curveballs

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Posted at 6:41 PM, May 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-09 18:41:40-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- With Richmond City Council passing a funding plan to build a new baseball stadium to replaced the aging Diamond, longtime CBS 6 sports reporter Lane Casadonte said he cannot remember a moment where a new ballpark project got this close to home plate.

With more than 30 years covering sports in the Richmond market, the debate over a new ballpark has been nearly a constant, and he's covered games at the Diamond long enough that he has stories that are older than his own son.

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“I have a copy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch from the day our son was born, and the day before a giant chunk of the overhang at the Diamond crashed down into, thankfully, some empty seats. My son will turn 21 in August," Casadonte said. "It’s not shovels in the ground yet, but everybody agreeing on the money part of it, we haven’t been this far before."

The City of Richmond will issue/back $170 million in general obligation bonds to fund the ballpark and the immediate infrastructure around it.

Richmond will issue the bonds to pay for the new $110 million stadium, and a newly formed Community Development Authority (CDA) will issue $40 million in bonds with the city's backing for infrastructure costs.

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Critics of the plan said the public did not have enough input on a project that would leave city taxpayers on the hook to repay the bonds if the stadium project does not meet revenue expectations.

City officials said the Squirrels track record of attendance success and development of Scott's Addition limit the risk of failure.

To understand why the Diamond has maxed out its lifespan (some observers say years ago), you need to go back to 1934.

That was the year Parker Field was built for various uses, and eventually minor league baseball was played there for decades.

The footprint of Parker Field was almost exactly where the Diamond sits, and it was torn down in 1984 for construction of the Diamond, which was completed a few months later in 1985.

That has been the home of professional baseball in Richmond since the Reagan administration, but there have been efforts over the past twenty years to change that.

Famously, in late 2013, then Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones rolled out a new stadium plan in Shockoe Bottom.

By May 2014, Jones had pulled that plan after community push back and a clear signal from city council that it would fail.

Around that same time frame, the idea was floated of building a new ballpark south of the James River in Manchester, but similarly, those plans never materialized. There have been conversations about moving the ballpark outside the city limits too.

Casadonte said after the Shockoe Plan fell through, there were talks of building a new stadium at Richmond Raceway in Henrico as part of a larger sports complex, and he heard the idea floated of building a stadium near Route 288 and Broad Street in Goochland.

Although the new funding structure is agreed upon by city officials, the bonds to pay for the project have not yet been issued.

On Thursday, local attorney Paul Goldman filed a lawsuit challenging the funding plan in circuit court, as first reported by VPM.

The lawsuit alleges that Mayor Stoney and City Council violated Goldman's First Amendment rights, the Virginia Constitution, and the city charter by voting to issue the bonds to build a stadium for private use and not entertaining a bond referendum put to city voters.

In response, Richmond CAO Lincoln Saunders called the lawsuit "frivolous" and "meritless."

"Needless to say, the City will continue the work and move this game-changing project forward," Saunders said.

At Richmond City Council's Wednesday hearing approving the project, about a dozen people spoke in favor of building the new stadium, and one person spoke out publicly against it. You can read more about that exchange here.

For his part, Casadonte said a new stadium would be huge for baseball fans and the Flying Squirrels.

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"You don’t know what you don’t have," he said. “Your never really have a new stadium your sitting there watching a game, so there’s still a long way to go. But this is a hurdle that has not been cleared in my time here.”

City leaders said they plan to issue the bonds in June and construction would begin shortly thereafter.

If the stadium project begins this summer, officials said the ballpark would be ready for the 2026 baseball season, meeting the extended deadline set by MLB for the Flying Squirrels' facilities to meet standards set by the league.

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