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Lane’s World

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July 9, 2013

Monday’s “grand opening” of the Redskins Training Facility was a chance for the city and Commonwealth to pat themselves on the back for a job well and speedily done. And they should be proud of themselves. One year ago, that site behind the Science Museum was nothing more than a vacant lot with trees and maybe a couple of bike paths. In two weeks, it will be the center of the Redskins universe.

But the expected questions are still out there: how can the city build something for the Redskins so quickly while the Flying Squirrels are still playing in their dump of a ballpark at the Diamond?

The two situations may seem similar, but they are quite different. Both are sports facilities, and in the eyes of many, take precious tax dollars away from some of the real problems facing Richmond. Schools are closing, roads are deteriorating, crime and poverty remain at levels too high for comfort.

But the Redskins facility had a price tag just above $10 million. Nothing to sneeze at, but it still falls far short of the $50 million that a new baseball stadium would cost at minimum. Bon Secours put up at least $6 million for the Redskins facility, with the rest of the money coming from the state and city.

The Flying Squirrels can’t rely on state money for their stadium, simply because if the state helped them out, there are at least six other minor league teams throughout the state that would have their hands out for stadium upgrades. The Squirrels have looked into getting a corporate partner for help in building a new ballpark in exchange for naming rights. That still may happen, but the fact remains that if they want a new home, they are going to have to put up a lot of their own money (which they are willing to do) and rely on civic help. Here’s where the problem comes in.

Baseball has been played on the Boulevard since the Great Depression, and generations of fans have only known to take that exit off I-95 and make a couple of quick turns to see Richmond’s stars of tomorrow. The Diamond may be outdated but it’s in a great location that appeals to thousands of fans throughout the Greater Richmond area.

Enter Richmond mayor Dwight Jones. Jones has issues not unfamiliar to many civic leaders in his position, most of which I mentioned above. Jones, like the Squirrels, sees a new stadium as an anchor for economic development wherever it is built. Unlike the Squirrels and their fans, Jones sees Shockoe Bottom as the best place for that new development.

“I’m the mayor of a city with 25% poverty” Jones told me Monday. “I look at things through the lens of economic development as well as opportunities for sports involvement. We have to find a way to do deals that are going to increase our tax base and help us change the culture in the city of Richmond.”

No argument there. He and I talked at the Redskins new facility which is one such deal everyone hopes will bring millions of tax dollars into the city. Will the city and the Commonwealth get a good return on their investment with the Redskins? As of today, no one can answer that question, it will take a couple of years before we learn if the money spent was spent well.

The saying around City Hall is “You can’t buy a pair of jeans in the city of Richmond”. And technically, it’s true. There are no big name retailers within the city limits. Target, WalMart, Macy’s, JC Penny’s you name a store that you see advertising on TV, and you have to go beyond Richmond’s borders to shop there. While it may not be a huge inconvenience for shoppers, it’s a big deal to bean counters in Richmond who watch that tax money float off into Henrico, Chesterfield, or Hanover every day. Jones sees the 60+ acres of land that are city owned and currently surround the Diamond as a prime location for retail development, and a return of those tax dollars into the city.

Many of you who attend Squirrels games have told us: if there’s a new stadium built in the Bottom, you are less likely to attend Squirrels games in the future. As the crow flies, it’s less than 4 miles between The Diamond and the Richmond Farmer’s Market, behind which is the proposed site for a new ballpark. But it might as well be 400 miles to fans with families in Short Pump, Atlee, or Brandermill.

The Squirrels front office has done an amazing job of marketing and getting people excited about baseball again. Sure, many of those suburban families wouldn’t know Ryan Lollis if he was sitting in their living room, but they are coming to the Diamond for a night out, and that’s truly the bottom line for the Squirrels. Privately, some members of the Squirrels staff have confided that they will have to work twice as hard in their marketing efforts to even come close to drawing the crowds they do now if they are forced to move to the Bottom. It won’t be an easy sell.

I posed that issue to Jones, and while he said he understands the emotion some people have surrounding baseball on the Boulevard, he doesn’t necessarily agree that if he builds it, they won’t come.

“I’m not sure people won’t come, particularly if it’s a great venue” Jones said. “Particularly if it is a venue that has transformed a neighborhood. I’m not sure that people won’t come, and I’m not sure that it won’t attract many new people who are not going to the Boulevard.”

Wade through all the double negatives, and you can see Jones’ point. He is trying to revitalize two areas of his city, and hopefully discover millions in “found” tax revenue. He did not seem particularly concerned that so many of you have expressed concern and doubt about a new stadium in the Bottom. Without saying as much, he seemed to exude an “I know better” attitude.

Should Jones care about what the fans think? He may not care about the fans, but he should consider the suggestions and feelings of three of the area’s biggest contributors. Moving the Squirrels from the Boulevard not only affects the Squirrels, but also VCU and potentially the Richmond Sportsbackers. All three of those entities have thousands of fans and hold events that raise millions for the city and surrounding counties.

Jones’ plan for a new ballpark hasn’t been unveiled yet. “It’s still cooking” he said. And it’s not a guarantee that his plan will put the Squirrels in the Bottom and a WalMart on the Boulevard. But that’s the way it’s looking.

The bigger question is: If it’s built, will you come?