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Stadium Seeding

City Hall pushes for not one, but two multimillion dollar sports venues. So which one has the upper hand?


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It didn't take long for the Richmond Squirrels to begin asking for a new nest. As soon as the final out was recorded at The Diamond, on Labor Day, the team's owner let it be known that old Parker Field won't do much longer.

Three days later the consulting group that's studying whether to renovate or build a new Richmond Coliseum unveiled its initial findings. Not surprisingly, a survey found 89 percent of Richmonders support renovating or building a new Coliseum. And, more importantly, a majority of respondents “strongly opposed doing nothing,” or maintaining the “status quo.”

Within a week, the possibilities began swirling: a $40 million-plus ballpark and a new $150 million to $170 million arena. Which, of course, begs the question: Can Richmond really afford both? Or, for that matter, either?

Tammy Hawley, the mayor's press secretary, says there is no need to choose between the two. And it was mere coincidence that Thursday's Coliseum briefing came within days of the Squirrels' last game and team owner Lou DiBella's call for a new stadium.

“Both projects are high priority for the mayor,” she says, adding that “next week, we'll have some information about The Diamond.”

The city's ability to develop even one of these projects is an open question. Neither is really necessary, says Rob Baade, a sports economist at Lake Forest College in Illinois. The riskier project, however, is the new indoor arena. At a cost of $150 million, it would be at least twice as expensive as a baseball stadium, and the competition for big-ticket events is much stiffer. Last week, Dan Barrett, principal of Barrett Sports Group, the consulting company doing the Coliseum study, told reporters that several minor-league hockey teams have expressed interest in coming to Richmond. (The Coliseum, of course, has never played host to a successful hockey team for long.)

But even with an anchor tenant, Baade says, the costs of building new are extremely high.

“Unfortunately, I think this sort of thing in general is a high-risk and low-return kind of venture,” Baade says. “What makes them think that an incremental increasing in seating … is somehow going to magically bring in events that they couldn't get before?”

SMG, the management company that operates the Coliseum, says Richmond is consistently losing big-ticket concerts and events to places such as Charlottesville, which has the much larger, 16,000-seat John Paul Jones arena at the University of Virginia. In interim findings, Barrett says a new or expanded facility that increases the current 12,500-seat Coliseum to 14,000 or 15,000 seats would make Richmond competitive.

The final report is expected in early to mid-November, Barrett says. At that time more details will emerge, including the group's survey, which deserves additional scrutiny. At last week's meeting, Barrett insisted its “Web-based survey” of 1,670 people was representative of the broader community's support for a new Coliseum, but couldn't provide a geographic breakdown of the respondents. Barrett, however, did let on that the survey was distributed using a “database of former users” at the Coliseum, which is kind of like asking McDonald's customers if they'd like to see a newer, nicer McDonald's.

Baade says Richmonders should be wary of the promise that their city is different, that there's a magical component that will make a new Coliseum inherently more desirable than, say, John Paul Jones Arena or the 20,000-seat Verizon Center in Washington.

“The world out there is replete with all kinds of cities that thought exactly the same thing and are suffering as a consequence,” Baade says of Richmond's plans. “What is it that you can offer that other venues can't offer?”


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