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Into the Outfield

Forget building a baseball stadium in the city's backyard. Sending the Flying Squirrels to the suburbs might be Richmond's best play.

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The Flying Squirrels take the field for a public practice April 3, a week before opening day at The Diamond.
  • The Flying Squirrels take the field for a public practice April 3, a week before opening day at The Diamond.

The debate started in earnest 11 years ago, when former City Manager Calvin Jamison first proposed building a new baseball stadium next to the Federal Reserve building downtown, the James River trickling just beyond the outfield. The Diamond desperately needed repair and its owner, the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, was contemplating a multimillion dollar renovation.

The thinking went something like this: Why spend millions on an old facility in an aging industrial corridor of the city? Why not build a new ballpark downtown?

Deemed overly ambitious and cost-prohibitive, Jamison's plan fizzled, but not before launching a decade-long debate about where — and if — the city should build a gleaming new ballpark. Suggestions for alternative sites included Fulton, Manchester, Mayo Island and the most-discussed of all, Shockoe Bottom.

But none garnered the local or regional support deemed necessary to finance a new stadium. Chesterfield and Henrico counties, which helped pay for the construction of The Diamond in 1984, balked at the downtown locations. If the city wanted to build a new ballpark someplace other than the Boulevard, regionally situated with easy access from interstates 95 and 64, it would be on its own.

So the city finally decided to go back to the Boulevard. It's started to clear the fleet maintenance facility adjacent to The Diamond, and Mayor Dwight Jones has carved out a place in his proposed budget to finance the city's $12.5 million portion of the newly proposed $50 million stadium. The Flying Squirrels have agreed to pay a quarter of the costs, another $12.5 million. And that leaves Chesterfield and Henrico, which have agreed in principle to pick up the rest — $25 million — but have yet to cough up the money.

In other words, there's time to rethink the current proposal. And we should. The Boulevard is one of the last areas of the city where significant land can be cobbled together for big-box retail — say a Target or a Home Depot or a Wal-Mart — which the city desperately needs. It's also a prime location for residential apartments or condos, situated at the apex of the Museum District, the Fan, North Side and a growing Scott's Addition. Ballparks are loss leaders, and they always have been. The city cannot afford to forgo one of the last remaining tracks of prime, developable land to a ballpark that generates no real economic impact.

Perhaps more significantly, Richmond doesn't need the stadium. Some view the ballpark, and the team, as amenities that boost the city's civic morale. That's a valid argument, but why can't that happen outside the city limits? The Richmond Flying Squirrels should have no trouble continuing to boost the region's civic morale in a location that the region settles on. The Washington Redskins play in Maryland. The New York Giants and the New York Jets play in New Jersey. Who's splitting hairs?

And who's to say the Richmond region won't root for the Squirrels just because they play in Short Pump — or Midlothian? This may not be the answer, in the end, to the seemingly never-ending stadium debate. But it should at least be considered. Here's why:

Moving the ballpark would open the Boulevard, one of the city's key gateways, for major big box retail development.
  • Moving the ballpark would open the Boulevard, one of the city's key gateways, for major big box retail development.

To make more money

Relocate the ballpark and watch the Boulevard grow into a tax-generating dream. This was the conclusion of the city's own consultants, hired in 2008 to study the highest and best use of the Diamond location on North Boulevard, which sits on about 27 acres.

"In addition to unrealized real property and sales tax revenues, retention of the stadium at the current Boulevard site would result in a clear opportunity cost for the city of Richmond," determined the consultants, Davenport & Co., Chmura Economics & Analytics and Washington-based Economics Research Associates.

At the time, the Richmond Braves had moved to Gwinnett County, Ga. Then-Mayor Doug Wilder supported plans to build a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, and the consultants were brought in to study the economic feasibility of the two options — keeping the ballpark where it was or relocating it just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market.

Reeling from losing the Braves, Wilder hoped to make a big splash in his last few months in office. So he blessed plans to build a $363 million, ballpark-anchored retail and residential development in the Bottom by Highwoods Properties, a suburban real estate developer. Highwoods was working with a group of investors led by Bryan Bostic, who planned to bring a new baseball team to Richmond.

Public debate centered on the Bottom. It was the second time in four years that plans to build a ballpark in the neighborhood were floated, and the second time plans failed. Shortly after Wilder left office, incoming Mayor Dwight Jones was thrust into the discussion again in early 2009.

While Richmond debated the history of Shockoe, the possible obtrusion of baseball and the financial infeasibility of building a ballpark in the city's most historic neighborhood, developers licked their chops over the prospect of a stadiumless Boulevard.

"If it was just raw land it would be a tremendous asset to the city from a retail perspective," says Larry Agnew, a vice president at Divaris Real Estate who specializes in retail. "If planned properly, it would be a great centralized node for retail."

In January 2008, the city sent a request for proposals to develop about 67 acres on the Boulevard. The plan was to relocate the ballpark, as well as the Department of Public Works operations center and facilities depot directly south of The Diamond. The city also would move the Arthur Ashe Center. This would have created a large swath of raw land fronting the Boulevard just off the interstate, at one of the city's key gateways. Agnew says Target, Home Depot and major grocers would be more than interested in locating here. The closest Target is in Henrico, off West Broad Street. Residents in North Side, the Museum District, the Fan and elsewhere likely would make the Boulevard a key shopping destination.

The city's consultants were resolute about this. "Relocation of both the stadium and the City-owned industrial uses at the Boulevard will not only allow for better integration of the site into the surrounding residential neighborhoods, but will also encourage a more desirable quantity, mix, and format of retail," Davenport and Chmura concluded. "Because retailers desire both control over their immediate environment and a critical mass of similar retailers, the site's configuration is critical to maximizing the benefit to the city of Richmond."

One of the biggest issues with the ballpark is parking. Unlike the suburbs, which have plenty of room for surface parking, land in the city is a premium. Devoting acres to surface parking is a major opportunity cost for a park on the Boulevard.
  • One of the biggest issues with the ballpark is parking. Unlike the suburbs, which have plenty of room for surface parking, land in the city is a premium. Devoting acres to surface parking is a major opportunity cost for a park on the Boulevard.

To reap retail rewards

A new stadium, regardless of its location, won't generate much by way of economic impact. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, taxpayers will be financing the $50 million ballpark, while such places as Target and Home Depot would build their own stores. Second, the Squirrels play only 71 home games this year. While the VCU baseball team uses The Diamond for its home games as well, the ballpark is empty most of the year. The ballpark produces absolutely no tax revenue — through concessions and ticket sales — when it's empty.

But retailers are open year-round. They'd also hire more employees than the Squirrels, and lead to the city's collecting sales taxes on purchases that usually take place in Henrico County. Where can a resident of North Side buy a pair of Levis? Or, say, a flat-screen TV? Right now, the only real options are in the surrounding counties. (Carytown's brand of shopping is meant to be a different kind of experience; Willow Lawn is in Henrico.)

You might even argue that the ballpark, at its current location, costs the city more than it would in, say, Chesterfield. The city is just 62 square miles, and has very little undeveloped land left to accommodate a regional shopping center. That's not true in Henrico, which is 245 square miles, and much less so in Chesterfield, which has 437 square miles.

"There is an opportunity cost with this," says John Gerner, a leisure-development consultant who's followed the ballpark debate for years. "Even though the city might get some benefit from being the host, something more profitable like a shopping center — that would generate so much more tax benefit than a stadium. If that is the case, then you can make the case the city is much worse off."

Gerner, who hasn't studied the Boulevard location formally, says the city would do itself some good to take a hard look there, or any location, and ask: "Is the city hurting itself by assuming that the stadium has to be in the city?"

The Cons

To be fair, some see the Boulevard site has having the potential to do both. There are at least 67 acres that the city could piece together, and another 20 acres if Richmond could convince the state to relocate the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control distribution center off Hermitage Road (it sits behind The Diamond) and the Richmond Sports Backers stadium.

"I think you can have your cake and eat it, too," says Andrew Basham, a principal at Spy Rock Real Estate Group in Richmond, which specializes in retail and residential development. Basham was with Colonial Properties in August 2008 when the company worked with Regency Centers to propose a new shopping center on the Boulevard. "There's absolutely enough real estate there to accommodate a stadium," he says. "I think there is an opportunity for a wholesale planning effort to redesign the area all the way down from Scott's Addition to Hermitage."

And the case can be made that sports stadiums are important in terms of galvanizing communities and connecting neighborhoods on a different level. Sports venues can help "recentralize" activity in urban neighborhoods that are in a state of flux, says Mark Rosentraub, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. "I am taking a look at things like Macy's volume of sales, Best Buy, and I am really beginning to wonder how much retail do we need? ... What we do tend to know is that sports and entertainment has a longer life span."

So, moving the ballpark off the Boulevard has its cons. And, to be clear, the Squirrels aren't advocating a move. Lou DiBella, managing owner of the Squirrels, says the team is "happy" with its location: "In all my discussions with both the city government and the surrounding counties, there's been a consensus that the Boulevard is the right place."

Ditto for Virgil Hazelett, county manager for Henrico, seen by many observers as the man holding the key to the stadium debate. Hazelett has reiterated support for the stadium on the Boulevard, and only the Boulevard, but says simply that the county's economic situation is still too tenuous to consider financing the project — for now.

After signing autographs, the Squirrels practice for the fans at The Diamond last week.
  • After signing autographs, the Squirrels practice for the fans at The Diamond last week.

For the fans

"While a ballpark can go anywhere, it does need to be a central location," Hazelett says, adding that if you move the ballpark to either Henrico or Chesterfield, it will create a longer trip for one jurisdiction over the other.

"I've heard conversations about different locations in the region. I think that comes out of frustration," he says. "It's at the correct location at The Diamond."

But is it? Consider this: More than 84 percent of the Squirrels' fan base lives outside of the city. According to pre-game ticket sales in 2011, which include season tickets, 38 percent of fans came from Henrico, 31 percent were from Chesterfield and 15 percent from Hanover County. Richmond fans made up only 16 percent of such sales. (The Squirrels don't have location data for fans who buy tickets on game day, at the stadium.)

At the very least, the city could win major regional political points by opening the discussion to the suburbs. It might take longer to reach a conclusion, and a site, and that could frustrate the Squirrels even more, but it also might be a better business decision for the team. If the stadium is closer to the fans, might they attend more games?

It's difficult for some to even fathom. Baseball has been the Boulevard's main attraction for 58 years. First it was Parker Field, then The Diamond in 1985. On a bright April afternoon, with temperatures in the low 70s and pollen stains on the concrete steps, the ballpark comes to life for longtime fan Jack Turner. The Richmond Flying Squirrels took the field for their first public practice early last week, while Turner stood in the concourse with his girlfriend, Katie Parker.

"I used to come to Parker Field all the time. I was here at the opening," Turner says, referring to The Diamond's opening day in April 1985. "I'm old school. I've always loved it here."

Turner lives off Forest Hill Avenue, and admittedly isn't the typical fan. The handful of spectators who came out for the Tuesday afternoon practice, which started with an autograph session with the players, consisted mostly of diehards. There's a man from King and Queen County, visiting a friend at VCU Medical Center, and a group of friends from Henrico and Chesterfield counties, David Snead and Brian St. John, who all prefer the new ballpark to remain on the Boulevard.

But if it did move, they say they wouldn't stop coming to the games. "I'd support it wherever they decided to put it," says Snead, whose 19-year-old son is a bat boy for the Squirrels.

Turner echoes the sentiment, albeit begrudgingly. "I wouldn't stop going," he says. "But I'd have to think about it." S

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