by Ned Oliver
While city officials rush to finalize a long-delayed deal to bring Stone Brewing Co. to town, two City Council members are keeping details under wraps about their unpublicized trip to the company’s headquarters in San Diego.
The purpose of the trip, which took place 10 days ago, is unclear. The council members, Ellen Robertson and Cynthia Newbille, declined to discuss the visit following a City Council Finance Committee meeting Thursday night and didn’t respond to subsequent requests for comment.
Newbille, in whose district the brewery and restaurant would be located, shook off questions while she left the meeting. “I would prefer to talk about that at some other time,” she said.
When asked if she wanted to schedule a time to discuss the trip, she stepped into a waiting elevator. “Yes, I think I will try to do that,” she said while the elevator doors closed.
While City Council members typically handle questions from reporters directly, Newbille apparently passed Style’s inquiry about the trip to council’s public information manager, Steve Skinner.
At 9 p.m., Skinner emailed Style to ask what questions the newspaper had for Newbille. Style responded but hadn’t received a reply as of Monday morning.
On Thursday, Robertson confirmed she went on the trip and initially agreed to discuss it. But as the Finance Committee meeting ended she said she didn’t have time. She promised to follow up with a telephone call but has been unreachable.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Grant Neely, said the mayor’s office wasn’t involved in scheduling the trip.
Likewise, the city’s top economic development official, Lee Downey, said his office had nothing to do with the trip, but he was aware of it. He said his understanding was that the council members undertook the visit as a show of support for Stone and the deal that will bring the craft brewery to Richmond.
That deal has become increasingly controversial -- particularly its second phase, which calls for the city to finance the construction of an $8 million restaurant near Rocketts Landing.
Numerous restaurant owners around the city have questioned the city’s plan to finance what they view as a competitor.
While phase two isn’t set to begin for five years, City Council is scheduled to vote Monday night on an ordinance integral to the restaurant phase: the transfer of city-owned property at Intermediate Terminal where Stone plans to open its World Bistro.
Because the measure calls for the transfer of city property, it requires the support of seven of nine council members. So far, it’s unclear whether seven members are prepared to move forward with that element.
City officials are presenting the vote as a do-or-die moment. Downey told City Council on Thursday that Stone was unwilling to move forward with any element of the proposal until council agreed to the property transfer.
City Council approved a broad outline of the deal in October. At the time, Stone said it needed construction to begin in November. But Downey says Stone has yet to sign any agreements with the city.
Downey attributes the delay in part to the amount of time City Council has taken to deliberate various elements of the plan and in part how long it’s taken the city to piece together land necessary for the project.
Stone isn’t thrilled by the delays, Downey says, “But they’re working with us.”
He says Monday’s vote will send an important signal to brewery: “It’s us demonstrating that this project is moving forward.”