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Mixed Signals

Oh, turns out the city will have to pay for it. Mayor Jones weighs in on the long-overdue consultants' report on Bottom baseball.

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Considering the depth of unanswered questions, Mayor Dwight Jones' enthusiastic unveiling of the much-anticipated consultants' report on the feasibility of baseball in Shockoe Bottom was cloaked in contradictions.

While the developers have been promoting the project as a free ride that would come at little cost to taxpayers, the consultants found otherwise -- the ballpark can't be financed as proposed, Jones told reporters Monday, without the city's financial support. Still, he seemed encouraged by the possibility.

“While I am not ready to give the go ahead to the Highwoods' proposal, I can say that this is a potentially transformative project,” Jones said.

Indeed, transformative if the city helps pay for it. The most significant finding by the consultants -- which included Davenport & Co., Economics Research Associates and Chmura Economics and Analytics -- is that financing the ballpark without credit support from the city is “highly unlikely.”

That in turn, led the consultants to recommend the city set aside $56 million in capital spending, or about 10.7 percent of the city's $520 million proposed capital spending budget from 2009 to 2016, to secure the bonds that would finance the ballpark.

If the city decided to offer its credit support, the consultants concluded, then the “proposal would be highly feasible.”

But that's not exactly the plan that Highwoods Properties, the project's chief developer, has been promoting over the last eight months. That plan promises they could sell bonds and build the ballpark without the city's financial support — a rewards-only scenario that makes a ballpark in Shockoe so much more appealing than rebuilding on The Boulevard.

Paul Kreckman, a senior vice president at Highwoods, and co-developer Bryan Bostic, head of the proposed baseball team's ownership group, have preached for months the virtues of their free ballpark, which they promised would catalyze economic development in the Bottom without costing the city its debt capacity.

In fact, when Style asked Kreckman in February why it wouldn't be better to rebuild the ballpark on the Boulevard, he explained that it would cost taxpayers too much. “I would much rather see the city spend its debt capacity on schools,” Kreckman said. “If the revenue stream from Shockoe Center isn't sufficient from this project to pay the debt service and to repay the bonds, [bondholders'] security is the ballpark, not the taxpayer. ... I would much rather the city be in a position to preserve every bit of its debt capacity."

Pete Boisseau, a spokesman for Highwoods, said after the press conference Monday that Kreckman and the developers had yet to see the consultants' report. He seemed to think the consultants confirmed their proposal's numbers, however.

“I think the numbers validate our position that the [tax-increment financing] could pay off the bonds,” Boisseau said, warming up to the possibility that the city offering to back the bonds would, of course, lower the interest rates and overall costs. “We cannot ask for it,” he said, acknowledging the precarious position of the Highwoods team.

What does it all mean? Where does the mayor stand? It was nearly impossible to tell from the Monday news briefing, where Jones was both enthusiastic and cautious. He seemed to proffer some workable conditions -- asking that the Highwoods team work more closely with the GRTC Transit System to ensure the project is compatible with the bus company's plans for a transportation hub, and the promise of potential federal funds for high speed rail access at Main Street Station. He also asked for a “clear plan” on how to preserve the Bottom's sensitive cultural legacy as a slave trade center.

Meanwhile, baseball moved closer to returning to The Diamond in 2010. In a week of tense negotiations that had yet to result in a deal between Bostic and the owners of the Connecticut Defenders, a Double A team in the Eastern League, Jones' top adviser, David Hicks, said both the Eastern League and Minor League Baseball contacted the administration Monday morning and promised that the Eastern League will field a team at the Diamond in 2010. Does that mean that Bostic and his investors are that much closer to buying the Defenders? Not exactly. Hicks said the commitment was for “a team,” not necessarily the Defenders.

Sources say Bostic's investors may have a case of cold feet, despite repeated reports of an “imminent sale” in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. As of Monday afternoon the sale had not been completed. That the league reached out to the city suggests the decision making on where to build a new stadium may not rest entirely with the baseball team owners.

Still, questions surrounding what team will take the field at the Diamond next spring pale in comparison to who will pay for the new ballpark. At the very least, with the city entering the discussion as the ultimate guarantor, it reopens debate of who should be making that decision.

“I don't think anything is out,” said Hicks. “Baseball is just one part of it.”

More to the Story: Click to read the consultants' executive summary and the mayor's press conference remarks.

For more on financing the ballpark, click here.

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