On Oct. 21, Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones suggested to Style Weekly he was still considering the best location for a new stadium for the Richmond Flying Squirrels.
But behind the scenes, business interests working with the city already had developed a marketing strategy to promote the Shockoe Bottom proposal Jones rolled out publicly Nov. 11.
At the big announcement, Jones spoke in front of giant renderings of the proposed stadium paid for by the new LovingRVA campaign, which came prepared with shirts, stickers and signs bearing the name and logo of the marketing effort. The group even hired a vendor to hand out free hot dogs.
Simultaneously, an accompanying website, LovingRVA.com, went live. The domain name was registered Oct. 15 and featured renderings and answers to what it deemed as frequently asked questions.
Though none of the materials the group has produced explain who's behind the push, the marketing campaign is financed by two organizations that represent the city's business community: Venture Richmond, a nonprofit run by downtown business leaders and nonprofits, and the Greater Richmond Chamber.
The Richmond public relations firm they've hired, the Alliance Group, has been working closely with the city to promote the plan, according to the mayor's spokeswoman, Tammy Hawley.
"We are in communication with the group all the time," she writes in an email. "We welcome the support in educating the public."
The executive director of Venture Richmond, Jack Berry, says his organization so far has committed $15,000 to $20,000 to the effort. He says the group, which gets most of its funding from a special downtown tax district and an annual $1.25 million city grant, will try to cover the cost of LovingRVA by soliciting private contributions from the business community.
The campaign is fairly basic, Berry says, but it could get more expensive if the backers decide to run an ad campaign in local media.
Activists on the other side of the debate say the campaign reeks of an attempt to manufacture support for a plan that has little. A poll sponsored by The Richmond Times-Dispatch and conducted by Christopher Newport University in late September found that 25 percent of Richmond residents supported moving the stadium to Shockoe Bottom.
"It shows one thing," says longtime ballpark opponent and activist Phil Wilayto. "The other side has money. They have to hire people to promote their view because no one else would support it."
Alliance, the public relations firm, is most notable for masterminding the successful push for a statewide indoor-smoking ban. Among the services advertised on its website are marketing campaigns that aim to identify "opinion leaders" and recruit them for a cause: "Whether it be organizing volunteers, helping draft letters to the editor or op-eds, or coordinating letter writing campaigns, we will activate the grassroots to get your message out."
Alliance's president, Rob Jones, won't say who's hired him — only that the group represented "a number of community and business leaders who support the project."
He says his goal is to educate people on the plan's positives. "We just want to make sure that accurate information is out there and folks have a chance to learn about what the full proposal is," Jones says.
Berry and Hawley say the effort is simply to communicate accurate information. But they also acknowledge that the campaign has a point of view. For example, the group's website and Facebook page highlight supportive editorials and articles and omit material that raises questions or is critical of the plan.
"We are very supportive of the plan to support downtown and to help this city's tax base and to create an important slave heritage site," Berry says. "It's our job to support downtown."
Hawley, who initially declined to say what business groups were behind the push, says she thinks the group "came together much in the same way that those who oppose this plan came together."
The anti-ballpark activists aren't buying it and say they welcome the debate. "It's a classic struggle against the community by rich developers who want to make a buck," Wilayto says. "Let's duke it out."