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Bottom Ballpark, Redux

The obstacles -- and politics -- behind the latest stadium push.

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No excuses here. We too were caught off guard by the reemergence of the Shockoe Bottom ballpark plan. Michael Martz and John O’Connor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch scooped everyone in Tuesday’s paper with the news that the city is now seriously looking at building a new ballpark for the Richmond Flying Squirrels in the city’s oldest neighborhood -- again.

There’s good reason to take this most recent attempt seriously. Yes, this is the fourth iteration of the Shockoe ballpark plan, which was first proposed in 2003, and sources say the push is being led by some of the same folks involved in the earlier attempts. There are tons of unknowns and many of the old issues will reemerge -- who will actually pay for it, for example, and how? -- but a lot has changed since the last attempt was scuttled by Mayor Dwight Jones in 2009.

First, the renewed push appears to have the full support of City Hall. This is in stark contrast to versions one two and three (former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder picked Highwoods Properties to develop the Boulevard and the Bottom ballpark in the fall of 2008, but he left office three months later). How version four plays out from here will have a major impact on the legacy of Mayor Jones and the political future of his senior policy adviser, David Hicks, who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2016.

It’s a bold but risky move to suddenly revive a proposal that generated considerable public backlash and was fraught with so many obstacles. The Bottom site, which is just north of the 17th Street Farmers’ Market, isn’t nearly as accessible as the Boulevard, where The Diamond is located -- especially to suburban residents, who represent 80 percent of the Flying Squirrels’ fan base. Whether this is fair or not, the Bottom is still perceived by many suburbanites as being unsafe. The site encroaches on the African Burial Ground just under the Interstate 95 bridge, the parameters of which are still being determined, and the prospect of moving the ballpark to the Bottom didn’t enthuse residents of Church Hill in 2003, 2005 or 2009.

Politically, though, those obstacles pale in comparison to the questions surrounding financing and, well, Jones’ administrative abilities. Richmond is close to its borrowing capacity, especially with the new $134 million city jail now underway, along with new school construction and another $14 million in taxpayer money already allocated to help renovate the Landmark Theater. The reason the city needed the new $50 million-plus ballpark to be a regional project was both political and financial, after all.

Even if the money can be found, the city’s track record procuring big projects hasn’t exactly been stellar. One need only look at how long it took to select a contractor for the city jail. With the 2015 World Cycling Championships just three years away, it’s hard to see how City Hall is going to manage preparing the city’s infrastructure for 450,000 out-of-towners and build a new ballpark in the next four years.

On the other hand, there are also reasons to think the most recent attempt could stick. The business community is clearly lining up behind the Bottom ballpark, as evidenced by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s role in the project. And then there are the Flying Squirrels. The Richmond Braves were old hat by 2003, when the Bottom ballpark was first floated. The Squirrels have built an enormous amount of goodwill in the Richmond community in their first three seasons, and have one of the best marketing and management teams in minor league baseball. They’ve agreed to help kick in $12 million to help build a new stadium. That, along with selling the naming rights to, say, Dominion Resources or some other big city business for a few million could be enough to make the numbers work.

There’s plenty of pressure on City Hall not to bungle this. The city has been able to pin the blame on its regional partners for slowing prior talks for a new ballpark. There’s no one left in the dugout now.

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