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Shockoe Ballpark Debate Fails to Reach Tipping Point

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The last two weeks have seen concerted lobbying efforts aimed at winning over City Council members in the debate over Mayor Dwight Jones' proposal to locate a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom.

On one side, detractors collaborated to produce an alternative growth plan they hope will make it easier for council members to say no to the stadium.

On the other, Venture Richmond filled a bus with city officials bound for Durham, N.C., to see an ostensibly successful downtown ballpark development.

But neither effort seems to have tilted opinions in either direction.

In Durham, officials toured commercial development around the minor league park and heard from locals who said the project helped bring life to an area that was once so abandoned the police SWAT team used it for training sessions.

After the trip, Jones told Style Weekly that Durham's experience illustrates how important it is for politicians — cough, City Council, cough — to muster the political courage to support controversial projects.

"I think that it was interesting to hear about the dissent that they had there, and we're kind of feeling some of that now," Jones said. "But they were able to overcome it, because the biggest thing I heard them talking about is taking a risk."

The five City Council members who made the trip weren't so sure.

Councilwoman Ellen Robertson said she liked what she saw, but that Durham's experience didn't necessarily speak to Richmond's. "We've already done a lot of the things they've done," she said.

Instead, Robertson said the trip might have raised more questions than it answered. Specifically, she said she was concerned to learn about provisions the developers made to dedicate 20 percent of new revenue from the development to pay for city services — something that she said hasn't been accounted for in Richmond's projections.

"Our situation, I think, is quite different from Durham," Councilman Parker Agelasto said. "They were looking to convince companies to move to increase the tax base. We're already attracting people who want to live in Richmond — we're just having trouble providing the housing."

If the trip failed to provide the boost of support for which the ballpark's backers hoped, at least they can rest easy knowing the opposition isn't having much more luck.

In late December a group of activists released an alternative plan for the Bottom that includes development proposed by Jones, but substitutes the stadium for a memorial park.

Asked about the plan, council members Robertson, Jon Baliles and Michelle Mosby said an alternate proposal wouldn't affect their decision. They said only the mayor is in a position to vet and move forward an alternate plan.

But as with the Durham trip, the council members said the ideas the alternate plan contains will help them as they continue to weigh the mayor's proposal.

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