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End Game

Ballpark opponents claim victory in the Shockoe stadium debate. Has the plan gone out with a whimper or is it lying in wait?



Opponents of a proposal to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom declared victory last week, citing the Richmond Flying Squirrels' decision to sign a lease that keeps them at The Diamond for two years, with options to renew in subsequent years.

Phil Wilayto, an organizer in the fight against Mayor Dwight Jones' development plan, issued a news release saying that the city had bowed "to years of growing local, national and international pressure." Celebratory Facebook posts followed.

The claimed triumph garnered no coverage from local news media. Officially, no one's ready to say the debate is over. And the lease would have been signed regardless of the success or failure of Jones' stadium proposal, city administrators and council members note.

But opponents' attempts to put a final stake in the project's heart raise the question: When will the city know the stadium proposal is really dead?

It's been months since the Shockoe Bottom plan showed signs of life. When the mayor withdrew his plan in May, he promised to reintroduce it. He said he needed time to share more information with council members who indicated they'd vote against it.

Since then, no council members have reported receiving more communication about the plan from Jones' administration.

"I haven't and no one I've talked to has heard anything further about it," says Councilman Jon Baliles, who represents the West End.

He and City Council President Charles Samuels, who represents the Fan, were the last two council members to come out in opposition to the plan.

"No one's saying anything about it anymore," Samuels says.

The mayor's press secretary, Tammy Hawley, had little to offer when asked whether the mayor still intends to reintroduce the plan. "I don't have any new information or dates to share on Shockoe Bottom at this time," she writes in an email.

In September, Style first reported that Jones was working to land a planned regional children's hospital on the Boulevard where The Diamond is. The mayor has pitched his Shockoe Bottom proposal as a revenue generator, which would come from freeing up city-owned land on the Boulevard for redevelopment.

Some people described it as a final Hail Mary — that by lining up the hospital as a marquee tenant, Jones hoped to shore up support for the new stadium and his simultaneous proposal to redevelop the Boulevard property.

But after Style reported the plan, Bill Goodwin, a major donor for the children's hospital, voiced intense displeasure that the project had been drawn into the political jostling. Jones issued a statement that the children's hospital location would be decided independent of the ballpark.

Some City Hall sources say the public airing of a link between the developments hurt chances that the Boulevard ultimately would be selected for the hospital.

Still, they say that landing the hospital is Jones' best shot at reviving the baseball plan.

Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall, who left city employ in September, was managing the project. In his absence, Jack Berry, executive director of Venture Richmond, has stepped up his involvement. Venture Richmond was running a promotional campaign in support of the baseball development in Shockoe.

The extent of Berry's increased involvement isn't immediately clear. Berry referred questions to the mayor's office. Hawley, the mayor's press secretary, didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

Berry's involvement could indicate that the mayor's office is holding out enough hope that the stadium will come back that it wants to have someone ready to manage the details.

City Council isn't waiting around to find out. Various council members have introduced legislation indicating an interest in moving on to other projects and leaving the ballpark debate in the dust.

Councilmen Baliles and Samuels have written a resolution supporting a Shockoe Bottom revitalization strategy that was developed through a series of community meetings in 2011. It doesn't include a stadium. They also put forward a proposal requesting the city's chief administrative officer issue a request for proposals from development companies interested in redeveloping the city's Boulevard property. At least one company is likely interested. Rebkee has made public its proposal to build a new stadium on the Boulevard.

Baliles also issued a proposal directing city economic development officials to buy land in Shockoe Bottom to spur redevelopment independent of a stadium. And Samuels joined Councilwoman Ellen Robertson on a resolution to direct city officials to go back to Henrico and Chesterfield county officials to re-gauge interest in a regionally supported stadium.

City Council is scheduled to vote on the bulk of those proposals Dec. 8.

"We don't want this property to stay vacant forever," Samuels says. "If that includes a baseball stadium, great. If there's another use that enjoys widespread public support, that's great." S

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