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A Ringing Endorsement

The mayor comes out swinging for a $1.4 billion neighborhood development plan, which includes a new coliseum.

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Mayor Levar Stoney made his case today for a $1.4 billion plan to rebuild a mostly desolate area of downtown, saying it would be the largest economic development — and economic empowerment — project in the city’s history.

The plan, put forth by NH District Corp., would build a new coliseum and create more than 20,000 jobs, Stoney says, with $300 million in contracts for minority businesses.

It also would include nearly 700 units of affordable housing, a downtown transit center, and a renovation of the historic Blues Armory as a centerpiece of the new mixed-use neighborhood called Navy Hill.

Stoney made the announcement this afternoon in a quickly put-together ceremony at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. It followed eight months of behind-the-scenes negoations and analysis, though no financial details have been disclosed.

The next step in the process will come “no earlier” than Nov. 13, the mayor’s press secretary, Jim Nolan, said after the event. Stoney, who campaigned as the “education mayor,” said Richmond would get a state-of-the-art arena with 17,500 seats — the largest in Virginia.

He also played down the coliseum element, framing the Navy Hill development project as an all-or-nothing debate.

“This is not about a coliseum,” he said. “This is about what the project allows us to do. ... If we do nothing, we will not generate $1 billion in revenue that can be used to make critical investments in our neighborhoods, our schools, our streets and our services.”

Stoney also reinforced the developers’ message that the city would face no raised taxes or financial risk. “The developers and bondholders will shoulder 100 percent of the risk for this project and not the city,” he said.

But that is misleading, as reporting from Style Weekly has shown, and according to long-held and widely accepted principles of tax-increment financing from academics, financial professionals and such groups as the Government Finance Officers Association.

The financial model put forth for this project is called tax increment financing, or TIF. Bonds for the public portion of the project are paid down with new, or incremental, tax revenue collected from the area within the TIF boundary.

In this case, that’s another element of this project that has changed. It now includes an area of 80-some blocks of downtown beyond the 10 blocks being redeveloped.

Stoney said that revenue from the proposed TIF district would go toward paying the debt on the development of the Blues Armory and the arena, and bringing Leigh Street up to grade.

“I encourage City Council to take the time it needs to review the agreement once it is submitted,” Stoney said, “and I encourage the public to ask questions of the developer and of this administration.”

City Council members were briefed on the latest information about the project earlier this week, and have said that they will work on an independent analysis of the situation. But already, they are facing pressure from people lobbying on behalf of the developers and mayor.

Seven of the nine City Council members must approve the project for it to advance.

“Everyone will have the chance to kick the tires, as we have,” Stoney said, “and I’m excited about embarking on this process together.”

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