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Mayor tilts toward Shockoe Bottom site for stadium

Mayor tilts toward Shockoe Bottom site for stadium

Richmond mayor’s pitch for private development of stadium is well-received

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Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones is preparing to propose private development of a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom, according to sources who witnessed a presentation by the mayor and city officials to a small group of business leaders last week.

Jones was accompanied at the private meeting in downtown Richmond on Wednesday by Chief Administrative Officer Byron C. Marshall, the city’s financial consultant and an architectural firm that provided renderings of what the stadium would look like as part of a mixed-use development in the Bottom.

The presentation included financial comparisons by Davenport & Co. of a stadium as part of a larger economic development project in either the Bottom or on North Boulevard, next to The Diamond, where the Richmond Flying Squirrels currently play in the Double-A Eastern League.

The mayor said he has not made a final decision on the Shockoe Bottom proposal, but sources said the business leaders applauded the plan, which would finance the stadium with revenues generated by a mixed-use development that would occur at the same time as construction of the ballpark.

Revenue-generating development would proceed more slowly on the Boulevard, where Richmond first would have to clear public uses from public property it owns there to make room for a new stadium and then tear down The Diamond.

“The kicker is what pays for it,” said 4th District Councilwoman Kathy C. Graziano, who has been briefed by Marshall on the city’s financial analysis of the two sites.

Sources at the meeting with business leaders said the city portrayed the nearly 60 acres it owns along the Boulevard as a prime location for private economic development rather than public uses.

The city has not yet begun a competitive bidding process for potential developers of the Boulevard property, while private developers already appear to be purchasing property for a site in the Bottom.

The family that ran Weiman’s Bakery in Shockoe Bottom for three generations said recently that it sold more than a half-acre of property on North 17th Street to David S. White and H. Louis Salomonsky, partners in an architectural and real estate development company in the Bottom. The property lies in the footprint of two previous proposals to build a baseball stadium there.

Marshall, in an interview Thursday, gave no timetable for a final decision by Jones, who has asked for additional information about the alternative stadium sites.

“I’ve given him a preliminary recommendation,” Marshall said. “He has not decided what he’s going to do at this point.”

Marshall did not disclose his recommendation but said the mayor has asked his staff which site:

• could be ready for minor league baseball to begin by April 2016;

• would be able to generate money to pay for a stadium; and

• presents the “greatest long-term economic benefit to the city.”

He said Jones also wants his staff to address how a stadium and accompanying development would affect cultural and historical assets in Shockoe Bottom, the site of major slave trading markets until after the Civil War.

Opponents of a stadium in the Bottom have cited its potential to desecrate a place of great suffering by African slaves, while advocates have said the project could provide ways to better memorialize the history of the slave trade there.

City Councilwoman Cynthia I. Newbille, who represents the Bottom as part of the 7th District, said any major development project there would have to protect what she called “the extraordinary history” of the area.

Marshall confirmed that he has briefed Newbille and other council members on the city’s preliminary analysis of building a ballpark at both sites but had not given them any definitive answer on which the mayor would support.

As a result, council members said they are not ready to say what they would support.

“You can’t give an answer to a question that hasn’t been asked,” said 3rd District Councilman Chris A. Hilbert.

Hilbert said constituents of his North Side district like the stadium where it is — on the Boulevard, which connects their neighborhoods with the Museum and Fan districts.

However, he acknowledged that the large swath of city-owned property between the Boulevard and Hermitage Road “is underutilized.”

Richmond has begun moving city operations off part of the property, which the city is preparing to clear and remedy of any environmental hazards — from asbestos in buildings to contaminated soil.

The city issued a request for proposals late last month for a company to prepare a work plan to use in a future competitive bidding for a contractor to address hazards in buildings on the site, demolish the structure and remove contaminated soil.

One of the larger operations, maintenance of the city’s vehicle fleet, already has moved to property the city bought in the 1700 block of Commerce Road in South Richmond, according to Christopher L. Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer for operations.

“I have been tasked with getting city-owned facilities off the property,” Beschler said.

Separately, Richmond has not yet finalized a contract with First Vehicle Services, a company that was awarded a $1.4 million bid in February to help manage and maintain city vehicles and equipment.

Richmond Public Schools also has moved about half of the functions the system had housed in the so-called “white house” on the southwestern portion of the Boulevard property. Those functions have moved to a leased facility on Hermitage Road, and the remaining services will shift to property the city acquired this year in the 1500 block of Commerce Road, Beschler said.

Some smaller operations also will move by the beginning of the year from buildings under Phase 1 of clearing the property.

Phase 2, not covered by the request for proposals issued Aug. 27, will include the salt dome, radio and signal shops, and ground maintenance housed on a portion of the property along Hermitage Road.

“This work is consistent with the city’s plans to clear the site for highest and best use,” said Tammy D. Hawley, the mayor’s press secretary.

The question remains whether the highest and best use could include a new stadium for the Flying Squirrels, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.

The Diamond sits on land owned by Richmond, but the stadium itself is the property of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, a regional compact of the city and Chesterfield and Henrico counties. RMA officials said last week that they have not been briefed by the city on its plans for a new stadium.

Jones turned back to the Bottom as a potential stadium site more than a year ago after concluding that the counties would not help pay for a new ballpark on the Boulevard. Two previous proposals to build a stadium as part of a mixed-use development in the Bottom failed because of financing problems.

Hilbert said he remains concerned about the higher public cost of building a stadium in the flood-prone Bottom.

“My charge is to make sure this is a good financial decision for the city of Richmond,” he said.

Other council members also have expressed concern about the higher public costs of a site in the Bottom, but Marshall said last week that “there’s no great difference between the two (sites) in cost.”

Council Vice President Ellen F. Robertson cautioned against a rush to judgment about the merits of whatever site the mayor recommends.

“I think there is a lot more information that should be and will be forthcoming,” she said.

Hilbert said his briefing was mostly “generalities” about the sites, so he looks forward to a detailed proposal.

“I’d like for us to be somewhere soon,” he said.

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