The stadium debate appears poised to come to head in the next several weeks, and things aren’t looking great for Mayor Dwight Jones.
A plan that competes with his proposal to build a taxpayer-funded stadium in Shockoe Bottom emerged late last week, promising to keep baseball on the Boulevard by privately financing a new ballpark there to replace The Diamond.
Then, City Council voted 5-4 to remove $12.6 million in funding for the mayor’s ballpark proposal from next year’s budget.
During the weekend, Jones shot back with a promise to veto the change. But in the vote to cut the funding, councilmen with two key swing votes signaled that they’re leaning away from the Shockoe Bottom stadium plan.
Making matters worse for Jones, his administration has struggled to finalize the terms of the stadium deal in the Bottom with private developers. Jones had said the agreement would be completed more than two months ago.
Multiple council members who have received updates on the progress of negotiations said the terms are different than what were outlined in the resolution that council passed in February, which authorized the city to move forward with the plan. The council members declined to be specific, but said the deal was worse for the city, making it difficult to support.
Whether that ends up being the case should become clear next week. The mayor’s staff said it plans to finalize the development agreement and introduce relevant ordinances at council’s meeting Monday.
The plan faces a tough vote. Jones needs support from six of nine council members to make it a reality. He has four relatively safe votes in council members Kathy Graziano, Michelle Mosby, Ellen Robertson and Cynthia Newbille. Three other council members have made it clear they’re unlikely to support the plan: Parker Agelasto, Reva Trammell and Charles Samuels.
That means Jones needs to win support from previously noncommittal council members Jon Baliles and Chris Hilbert. Last week, they both pivoted away from the stadium.
Baliles, who represents the city’s West End, made the biggest move. He introduced the budget amendments to redirect the $12.6 million in the mayor’s budget away from the ballpark development and toward other city priorities, namely schools and infrastructure.
Baliles said the funds could always be restored through a midyear amendment, if City Council later decided to approve the mayor’s ballpark proposal. But removing the funds indicates a majority of council members don’t plan for the project to proceed.
The day before the budget vote, Baliles released details of a competing ballpark proposal from a private development team lead by the Rebkee Co., a Midlothian business that’s built dozens of shopping centers in Virginia.
The development team, which includes Dan Gecker, a developer and member of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, didn’t respond to an email last week seeking further details. But Baliles said the group would build a privately financed, 8,000-seat stadium on 10 acres near The Diamond. The overall 60-acre site on the Boulevard, owned by the city, would be built out in phases, the first of which would include residential, retail and restaurant development.
Baliles said he hadn’t committed to supporting the alternative plan, but that it merits a side-by-side comparison with the mayor’s proposal.
Jones won’t consider Rebkee’s plan until it provides detailed financials, he said.
Jack Berry, the director of Venture Richmond, which has been backing the Shockoe Bottom plan, questioned the development team’s motives.
“Beware when a Chesterfield politician [Mr. Gecker] and a suburban strip shopping center developer from Midlothian [Rebkee] tell you they know what is best for your city,” Berry wrote in an email obtained by Style Weekly to the Venture Richmond board. “Does the timing strike you as odd? Does Gecker’s involvement and approach strike you as a conflict of interest, and disrespectful of city leadership, even offensive?
“Once again, Richmond’s East End would get left behind. Once again, the heritage site gets ignored.”
In a letter to the mayor Monday, Rebkee officials wrote that they’d lined up financing and performed due diligence on costs of a new stadium on the Boulevard. They intended to offer it as a “face-saving place to turn in the event the difficulties that are rumored to be hampering the completion of the city’s proposed project … turn out to be insurmountable.”
They also wrote that the mayor “made it abundantly clear” he didn’t want an alternative plan if the Shockoe Bottom project didn’t work out: “While we don’t agree this is in the city’s best interest, we respect that decision.”
It was unclear whether they were backing out of their proposal or just smoothing things over politically. A company official didn’t immediately return a phone call from Style.
Before the vote to strip the ballpark funding from Jones’ budget, Councilwoman Robertson said it was important to continue work to prepare Shockoe Bottom for development -- with or without a ballpark. Newbille said she worried that taking out the funds was tantamount to abandoning plans for a slave heritage site in the Bottom.
To help allay those concerns, Councilman Hilbert proposed and council agreed to set aside $1 million for the heritage site.
The mayor’s office said in a statement that $1 million wasn’t enough to ensure the heritage site’s development, suggesting that council’s vote could lead the General Assembly to pull $11 million in state funding for the project secured by former Gov. Bob McDonnell.
“[The vote] sends a signal that City Council does not support Shockoe,” Hawley said in an email.