It looked like the start of a beautiful relationship. But the mayor has some supporters wondering if he’s turned fickle on them.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones had earned kudos from James River advocates for his apparent dedication to the Richmond Riverfront Plan, particularly the construction of a walkway from Brown’s Island to Manchester.
But Jones’ proposed capital budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes no new money to supplement $4 million on hand for the Brown’s Island dam walk. The city is seeking a state grant of $2.5 million, but that’s no sure thing.
River advocates who thought Jones was committed felt jilted at the possibility that the dam walk might not be finished in time for the UCI Road World Championships in 2015.
Last year, when Jones released his capital budget, he was smitten with the riverfront. This year, there was no mention of the Riverfront Plan. The mayor showed more love for the Boulevard and Shockoe Bottom, both vital to an economic development plan that includes a new ballpark.
“I’m feeling uncomfortable,” said Greg Velzy, chair of the Falls of the James Scenic River Advisory Committee. “There really had been such a strong push for the whole riverfront project … and now, judging from the budget picture, it feels like it is not predominantly placed. So is it yet another riverfront plan that has fallen by the wayside?”
On Thursday, the mayor sent out a statement to reassure river advocates, saying he “sent the wrong signal” concerning riverfront development and the dam walk. He added that the city is “well on track” to complete the walk before the UCI cycling championships.
Jones said early conceptual plans for the dam walk estimated its cost as $2 million, which he said “would indicate we have ample funds on hand to move the project forward.”
This looks like more than a mere oversight.
For one thing, no one seems entirely sure how much the dam walk will cost. The indication of ample funds is no substitute for a line item.
Velzy said much work needs to happen on the Manchester side to give folks somewhere to go once they’ve crossed the dam walk. For the entire project, “I don’t see how $2 million would even come close. … I think $6.5 million is shortchanging it.”
Indeed, when asked if the $6.5 million would be enough to get the dam walk done by next year, the mayor’s spokeswoman was noncommittal on Monday. “We haven’t been told it is or isn’t enough,” Tammy Hawley said.
As for Jones’ assessment that the city is “well on track” to complete the project before the September 2015 bicycle race, Velzy said “that’s an incredibly short timeline,” given the need to obtain permits before construction starts.
Oversight or not, the riverfront plan is not being treated like the game-changer it will be.
Imagine cyclists, joggers and walkers traversing the James on the dam walk; Brown’s Island concertgoers descending waterfront terraces beneath the CSX viaduct to absorb the majesty of the river’s rapids; children playing in water features along terraces on the Haxall side of the island as kayakers and paddle boarders travel the canal.
How about a public park on Mayo Island, a “missing link” pedestrian and cycling trail connecting the Manchester floodwall to Belle Isle, and a pedestrian and bicycle path along the shore of Chapel Island that would ultimately be augmented by areas for soccer, skateboarding, volleyball and basketball.
Envision, years down the road, tourists enjoying views of the downtown skyline from a Manchester riverside park and riverside terraces on the south bank of the James, or an open green space and unfettered views at the current site of the Lehigh cement plant and silos.
“I think for so many years, Richmond turned its back to the James River for so many reasons, pollution being one,” said Justin Doyle, outreach manager for the James River Association. “But now, we’re named ‘Best River Town’ (by Outdoor magazine) and people are finding themselves falling in love with the James River.”
“We feel like it’s extremely important for the city to commit funding, not only for the Brown’s Island dam walk but other Riverfront Plan sites,” he said.
“I feel very strongly on this issue,” said Ralph White, former manager of the James River Park system. “I like the mayor. I’m not in favor at all on this ballpark. I’m willing to swallow that bitter, bitter pill as long as there’s an absolute guarantee that things will be done along the river, and done right … and define us as different from other cities.”
But make no mistake, he said: “Our commitment to him was predicated on this commitment to protecting, preserving and enhancing the river experience in Richmond.”
Tapping the potential of the James would enhance our community’s quality of life, attract tourists and help promote economic development along the river.
“The river, again, is the constant,” said Velzy, president of the James River Outdoor Coalition, which has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in riverside amenities to the city. “That’s our thriving economic engine. It has been since the birth of our city.”
“We’re making something new, on a personal, people-related level,” White said. “The riverfront plan is all about getting out, walking, experiencing Richmond’s human history and Richmond’s natural history.”
“Nobody is going to remember the mayor who put in the ballpark or the hotel,” White said. “But everyone is going to remember the man who had the vision for the river.”
The Riverfront Plan represents a unique and dynamic vision for a city poised to put its staid reputation in the rearview mirror. No one, at this point, needs to be wooed on enhancing the setting of our civic jewel — a gem that Doyle calls “our greatest natural asset, possibly our greatest asset.”
All we need is a mayor who is all-in. Now is no time for cold feet.
Williams: Has Richmond’s mayor spurned the Riverfront Plan?
Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ commitment to the Richmond Riverfront Plan is called into question after he doesn’t add more funds