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Regional Castaway

The Richmond community is a disjointed puzzle that has never been able, or willing, to find where tab A should fit into slot B.

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When I was a kid, growing up in the 3900 block of Park Avenue, the phone book showed up on our front step and I looked at it quizzically. On the cover it read, “Richmond Metropolitan Region.” I wondered, as a child would, what those two words “metropolitan region,” meant. Today I know what they mean, but the concept doesn't exist.

The City of Richmond is an island surrounded by vast resources it cannot touch. With Henrico County to its east and west, Chesterfield County to the south and Hanover County to the north, Richmond is at the center of a growing, dynamic community. The community, however, is a disjointed puzzle that's never been able, or willing, to find where tab A should fit into slot B. If the residents of this community start seeing one another as neighbors and not as residents of separate, distinctive areas, we'll grant the politicians the permission they obviously need to knit us together.

Opportunities for regional cooperation abound. Recently, several corporations agreed to split a $150,000 tab to pay three consultants to study the Richmond Coliseum. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quotes Mayor Dwight Jones, who says the study “is the first step towards charting the city's and region's direction where our coliseum needs are concerned.” While the story went on to say that the counties were supportive, it didn't say in what form that support was being given. The reality is that if the counties had a say in the matter, I expect their political leaders would say what many of us who live in this community, city or county dwellers, would say: “Tear it down and start over. Oh yeah, and you can keep our $150,000. This one's on us.”

Pericles, the mayor of Athens from 461 B.C. until his death in 429 B.C. is reported to have said, “All things good of this earth flow into the city.” While we continue to pay consultants to tell us things we as residents already know, our region is broken, fractured by a the political structure that holds us back. As Mayor Jones continues on a forward track in his attempt to make Richmond a tier-one city, he is held back by the progress of Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover.

But is it progress? If Richmond continues to struggle to reach its potential, can the region be great? If the city's schools continue to fail, can the city ever realistically regain a healthy middle-class residential base? If our meals taxes remain 11.5 percent and our neighbors' remain much lower, do county dwellers have an impetus to “flow into the city”? If the Richmond Metropolitan Authority — which manages The Diamond, the Powhite Parkway and the Downtown Expressway — cannot weigh in on the discussion about where to build a new ballpark, creating a successful regional attraction, then what are we condemning ourselves to?

As John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself. …” The logic must flow that no city is an island unto itself, and therefore we must work together to create a great center for the region to succeed.

While I admire and thank such great employers and corporate partners as Altria, Dominion Resources, Genworth Financial, and MeadWestvaco for stepping up to study the future of the Richmond Coliseum, it's ultimately the government's responsibility to take charge of how the fabric of a community is woven. The leaders of each county and the mayor should agree to hold a summit to discuss the fate of the crumbling structure. Its future should not be dictated by private interests.

Given the obvious need for a new venue for sporting events, concerts and the like, and further, given the need to address the overwhelming success of the Richmond Flying Squirrels and the possible limits of The Diamond, the members of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority — a true regional entity made up of political leaders from Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover and the city — should place a priority on considering creating a true sports entertainment district along the Boulevard. Such a complex could include the land that's underutilized along Robin Hood Road. People from the counties already have proven that they're willing to come into the heart of the city to attend a baseball game.

The community should consider upgrading The Diamond, or building a new ballpark along the Boulevard, while building a new sports-entertainment venue on the same tract of land, surrounding it with businesses and residential development, and sharing the costs and benefits as a regional partnership.

The timing is right. The city can shut down its vehicle maintenance shed near the ballpark, saving millions of dollars by outsourcing work and freeing even more land for productive development.

The well-run Metropolitan Richmond Sports Backers already has a stadium next to The Diamond and the city's Arthur Ashe Center is adjacent to the ballpark, giving the area considerable heft as a sports destination. There's easy access to Interstates 95 and 64 and a new movie theater just down the road. The Boulevard is already primed; it can become a sports and entertainment destination, and there's plenty of city and state land nearby that could be freed up for a new indoor arena to replace the Coliseum. 

The discussion about the Coliseum's future needs to take place in the open, involving residents and political leaders in the counties and city. The success story that is the Squirrels' inaugural season, which wouldn't have been possible without luring residents from the counties back to The Diamond, should squash the notion that suburban families are afraid to venture back to the city. Regional cooperation has long been a myth in this town. Let's make it a reality. S

Charlie Diradour is a Richmond-based political adviser and real estate developer.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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