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OPINION: An ‘open process’? Stadium opponents say no.

Phil Wilayto is Editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper.

Ana Edwards is Chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

Phil Wilayto is Editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper. Ana Edwards is Chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

RICHMOND, Va. – In his Jan. 22 opinion piece, attorney John W. Bates III argues that the process followed by Mayor Dwight Jones in developing a redevelopment proposal for Shockoe Bottom and the Boulevard was “open and fair,” criticizing those who might suggest otherwise.

It may have been open for Mr. Bates, who, as General Counsel for the proposal-promoting, pro-business organization Venture Richmond, would have had a front-row seat to the process. And it was open to the small group of business leaders with whom the mayor shared his plan before making it public.

But outside those elite circles, the rest of us were presented with a “take-it-or-leave-it” package that includes putting a baseball stadium smack in the middle of what once was the country’s largest slave-trading district north of New Orleans.

In fact, Mr. Bates later contradicts his own argument when he states that “much of the analysis” for the proposal “needed to be done out of the public eye, as in all economic development projects.”

Really? When the previous city administration pursued developing the same Shockoe Bottom land parcels, it issued a Request for Proposals to developers.

It’s true that the mayor’s proposal may now well be “the most vetted plan in the history of the Commonwealth,” as Mr. Bates puts it, but that’s because, as he also states, “no project in the City’s recent history has generated as much interest as this plan.”

One could fairly substitute the word “opposition” for “interest.” By now there have been enough criticisms to fill a book. Here are just a few:

The Revitalize RVA plan calls for the City to take on a 20-year, $100 million public debt to support massive new, private, for-profit development. The argument is that, over time, that debt would be paid off by new tax revenue from other development in the Bottom. As the mayor’s Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall explained at a recent council district meeting, the City would not realize any new revenue from the Bottom’s development. It would be new development on the Boulevard that would bring in “up to” $187.8 million, allowing Richmond to address its 26 percent poverty rate – a local version of Ronald Reagan’s discredited “trickle-down” school of economics.

Mayor Jones admits the proposal is a “risk,” but says we must be bold in our thinking to move Richmond forward.

We’re told the stadium would be completed in 2016 – just before the mayor leaves office. But the new Boulevard development, where the real tax potential is, wouldn’t be finished until 2018. And the anticipated windfall of new tax revenue depends on the economy continuing on a steady upward trend.

It’s a good thing we don’t have recessions anymore in this country, isn’t it?

Besides finances, the other big issue with the development proposal is the history of Shockoe Bottom and its deep meaning for this country’s Black community.

Back in August 2012, when Venture Richmond’s Jack Berry and the Greater Richmond Chamber’s Kim Scheeler floated the idea of a Shockoe stadium in the city’s daily newspaper, they never once mentioned history. Others quickly countered that such a stadium would amount to a desecration of land made sacred by the suffering and resistance associated with the buying and selling of tens if not hundreds of thousands of human beings.

A year and a half later, no supporter of the mayor’s plan can mention Shockoe Bottom without at least paying lip service to its history. In fact, memorializing that history has now become a major selling point for the plan.

“Do we want to make a substantial investment in telling the story of our slave history?” Mr. Bates asks.

Well, apparently not.

Revitalize RVA calls for devoting $5 million in yet-to-be-raised City money to memorializing the African Burial Ground and the site of the notorious slave jail once run by slave trader Robert Lumpkin. By way of comparison, the City is providing $14 million for a downtown parking deck that would primarily benefit the employees of a high-power law firm.

And the $5 million is contingent on City Council agreeing to a Shockoe Bottom stadium.

Mayor Jones and his top aides argue that the stadium would not desecrate any slavery-related sites, which they insist lie to the west, on the other side of the CSX railroad tracks.

They have publicly and repeatedly based that assertion on a 14-year-old map created by Richmond historian Elizabeth Cann Kambourian and since used extensively by City Council’s Slave Trail Commission.

The problem is that Ms. Kambourian has repeatedly denounced the use of her map, saying it was only a preliminary list of sites with possible links to the slave trade and was never meant for publication. Further, she says her more recent research shows four slave-trade sites within the footprint of the proposed stadium and seven more within the whole development area.

Richmond does need development to generate the tax revenue necessary to address its many problems. But that development can take place without a baseball stadium in the Bottom. And properly memorializing the city’s real history could make Shockoe Bottom a revenue-generating destination site for heritage tourism, as has been successfully done in Charleston, New Orleans, Liverpool, Senegal’s Goree Island and other places. Lightly memorializing a few small sites in the Bottom would not come anywhere near realizing the Bottom’s tourism potential.

Every good thing about Revitalize RVA – new job and tax revenue, future investment in the city’s schools and infrastructure, proper memorialization of the sites associated with the slave trade – are all just promises.

The only real commitment is to build a private ballpark with public money in historic Shockoe Bottom.

But the plan will do one thing: It will make a pile of money for a small group of already wealthy developers, almost none of whom have ever shown the slightest interest in addressing Richmond’s shameful poverty rate or properly memorializing its history.

Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards are in no way affiliated with WTVR. Their comments are their own, and do not reflect the views of WTVR or any related entity. Neither WTVR nor any of its employees or agents participated in any way with the preparation of these comments.

13 comments

    • jackburton77

      Well sai Kathryn. What is that area now..a parking lot?

      Seemingly they didn’t care until they realized they could push their card carrying agenda. Has Mrs. Edwards been rallying for a memorial there? Oh yeah this stadium has plans for one.

      Proponents of this move truly have no idea what they are talking about. Read some of the ensuing comments and you’ll realize that quickly.

      • Ellen

        She, along with other Richmond historians and activists, has been essential to getting the Richmond African Burial Ground recognized and saved from being under a parking lot. That has all happened in the last couple years – there is a temporary memorial and some signage, and they are working towards more permanent memorials. They don’t just want a memorial tacked on to legitimate an ill-conceived development project, they want to create a space that will be respectful and appropriate to community vigils and other events. These sorts of events have already been held on the site for several years, and holding those sorts of events backed up onto a blazing baseball stadium would undercut the nature of the site.

    • athynz

      Then the city needs to put this to a vote – no shady backroom deals, no so-called open processes that are kept from the public’s eye. A vote with all of the information both for and against presented. Of course that will never happen.

  • Bill

    I have to agree. I heard of no serious efforts to do anything with this vacant land until the idea of building a ballpark was brought up. If this plan is killed, ten years from now the same vacant parking lots will be sitting, unused in the bottom.

    • Phil Wilayto

      Completely and totally untrue. Ana and I and many others have been working to reclaim sacred sites in Shockoe Bottom for more than a decade. We were among those who successfully forced the state to give up the land now known as the African Burial Ground. We have been promoting a proper memorializing of this area while many others claimed there was nothing there to memorialize. The only possible explanation for the glib support expressed here for desecrating this historic ground with a private, for-profit sports stadium is a total indifference – or in some cases hostility – to Black History, and by extension, to the Black community itself.

      • Bill

        The parking lot that vcu was using is now just a field. Those lots have been vacant for a long time and I’m confident that if this plan is passed over they will remain vacant for decades to come. A slavery museum sounds like a nice plan but ask gov. Wilder about the difficulties of making one a reality

    • diggingellen

      That’s due in no small part to the flood risk of the area. The baseball stadium plan includes flood mitigation, but if that work was performed without the stadium, organic development would most likely follow. The mayor is dangling the floor mitigation as a great benefit of the plan – but shouldn’t the city be making infrastructure improvements that all businesses can benefit from, not just his business associates?

  • FactsJack

    Oddly coincidental, is the fact this Lawyer’s credentials list him as a retired partner of McQuire Woods, LLP.
    McQuire Woods, LLP, is listed on Venture Richmond’s web site as an Annual Contributor to Venture Richmond.
    Would that appear to be a Conflict of Interest, “Special Interests”?
    These Special Interests Consortiums are Tax Exempt/Non Profits.
    This Tax Status allows them to hide under protections while they
    Perform as LOBBYISTS, without rules, regulations, laws or
    restraints and constraints.
    They Pay NO Taxes, but Extort Taxes, through their collusion
    with elected Public Officials. Tax Payers PAY, without SAY.
    Referendum, Resident/Tax Payer VOTE, denied by Government
    elected officials..

  • FactsJack

    Mayor Dwight Jones “Serves” as President of Venture Richmond.
    Charles Samuels, President of City Council, “Serves” Venture Richmond as Board Member.
    Ellen Robertson, Vice president, Richmond City Council, “Serves”
    Venture Richmond as a Board Member.
    Assistant Secretary Jacquelyn E. Stone Partner, McGuire Woods LLP,
    “Serves” Venture Richmond as Secretary of the Board.
    THEY are Privy to Our Government that Shuts US OUT.

  • FactsJack

    Others on the Board are The Positively Richmond Who’s Who:
    Bankers, Developers, Lawyers, Big Corp as known Contributors/DONORS of Jones; Election Campaigns, Big Business, Real Estate Firms, etc.
    See the DONORS names plastered all over Positively Richmond:
    Altria, Dominion, Bon Secours, 2015 Bike Championships with 35 Major
    Corporations and Tax Obligated Funds (No Tax Payer’s Voice).
    ….Inyoface, blatant, advertised, heralded, exploited for 10 years,
    orchestrated, manipulated, maneuvered behind close doors in ,
    back room of Our Government, in their down and dirty “Deal”/ SCAMS/
    of Corruption, Collusion, Extortion, and Friends with Benefits, BUY
    Ins for PAY offs and Donor’s reaping “Special Favors”
    ….The Richmond City Inspector General should INVESTIGATE
    all out GRAFT, Waste, Fraud, Use & Abuse of Political Office and
    Powers. and EXTORTION.

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