The Richmond City Council has approved Mayor Levar Stoney’s spending plan for $155 million that the federal government gave the city this year to aid its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spread across the next two years, the federal aid will cover $3,000 bonuses for first responders; $20 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund; $6.8 million for the redevelopment of the Creighton Court public housing community; and $5 million for a new health equity fund.
However, the lion’s share of the plan — $81 million — is slated for new community centers, parks and trails.
“This plan is our city’s blueprint for building back better and stronger through strategic, intentional and equitable investments that deliver on the promise of a quality of life our residents want, need and deserve,” Stoney said in a news release after the council’s vote.
While Stoney proposed about half of the federal aid to improve and build community centers, the City Council voted unanimously to allocate only part of the overall funding, giving a nominal amount for the capital projects at TB Smith Park in South Richmond, Lucks Field in Church Hill and the Calhoun Center in Gilpin Court.
The appropriation the council approved Monday provides only $3 million for the TB Smith, Lucks Field and Calhoun projects. Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders said that’s because the administration is aiming to complete design work before appropriating the remaining money for construction.
“From a technical standpoint, we are only appropriating the first tranche of the money,” Saunders said. “The full plan is included in the supporting documents, so we’ll refer back to it when it comes time to appropriate the second tranche.”
Specifically, the plans for parks and community centers feature:
- $20 million for improvements to the TB Smith Community Center near the Davee Gardens neighborhood in South Side;
- $20 million to build a community center at Lucks Field in Church Hill;
- $16 million to finalize improvements to the Southside Community Center;
- $8 million for the renovation of the Calhoun Center and its pool in Gilpin Court;
- $12 million for implementation of the James River Master Plan in the James River Branch Trail, Forest Hill Park and Texas Beach areas; and
- $2 million for the creation of a park system master plan and acquisition of land to build new parks.
Keisha Cummings, a local community advocate, thanked the city for putting money into the renovation of the long-shuttered Calhoun Center.
In a public hearing on the budget plan on Monday, Cummings said she brought several children from Gilpin Court to show who would benefit from a newly renovated center in their neighborhood.
“None of these kids have had direct access to it in the last 11 years. It’s just atrocious,” Cummings said. “I’m also here to advocate for all the kids in the city, to reduce gun violence and to invest in our communities.”
The special budget vote comes a month after the mayor announced his administration’s plan for the aid from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The spending plan, according to Stoney and administration officials, was based on priorities outlined in the mayor’s recently adopted equity agenda and on feedback gathered from council members and public surveys conducted by the city this summer. Most residents said the biggest priority should be families and children.
The budget also includes $2 million for public child care support; $1 million for family crisis funding; and $1.5 million for gun violence prevention.
Administration officials said the survey results guided them to prioritize the development of new community centers with the goal of providing a wider array of public services; facilitating access to financial and housing assistance, basic health care, youth programming, wellness education and workforce training.
Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert, who represents the Gilpin area in the 3rd District, said she was supportive of the plan, and especially thankful for the mayor’s and council’s commitment to renovating the Calhoun Center.
“This is a great plan for our community,” Lambert said. “I want to thank you for all your time and effort. I agree that we have a lot of work to do, but this is a time we can make a difference in the city of Richmond.”
Some City Council members, however, said they were not pleased with the process and sought to amend the plan ahead of Monday’s vote to redirect money for new community centers toward repairs and improvements for older recreational facilities and public buildings.
City Councilwoman Kristen Larson, who represents the city’s 4th District, said the council had started debating priorities for the plan in May. She said she felt the mayor’s proposal disregarded some of the items discussed then, and that the administration rushed the process after the mayor introduced his proposal last month.
“We have some good items here, but I think we missed out on some opportunities,” Larson said. “We could have done more economic development, more collaboration on outreach.”