With yard signs, billboards, paid door-to-door canvassers and one-on-one meetings with City Council members, Mayor Dwight Jones and his supporters are making an aggressive final push for his ballpark development in Shockoe Bottom.
Council members say the mayor is asking them to vote on his proposal by the end of February, even while Jones acknowledges there may not be enough support for it to pass.
Jones has been requesting individual meetings with council members during the past two weeks, they say. Council members that have met with him say the mayor and his staff are making a “hard sell,” opening the door to concessions designed to make the controversial proposal more palatable to them and their constituents.
“He talked about the need to approve the plan -- put it that way,” 1st District Councilman Jon Baliles says.
Jones has publicly floated the possibility that some of the projected revenue generated by the ballpark development could be dedicated to public schools or other priorities as council members see fit. He has says the project will generate $187 million in new revenue during the next 20 years.
But council members interviewed by Style say the offer is unlikely to sway them. Five Council members interviewed for this story say they haven’t committed to voting for the project. Two others -- 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto and 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell -- have says they intend to vote against it.
Because the redevelopment project involves the sale of city property, the mayor needs seven of the nine council votes, instead of the usual five-vote majority.
Baliles, City Council President Charles Samuels and 3rd District Councilman Chris Hilbert say they’re less interested in how money generated by the plan would be spent than they are in ensuring financial expectations will be met.
“Dedicated funding isn’t a deal breaker or a deal maker,” says Hilbert, who was a key toss-up vote last year as the mayor’s staff narrowly won approval to bring the Redskins training camp to Richmond. “I think we need to be more comfortable with the economic assumptions that are made. I think the administration made a stumble out of the gate with the way this was rolled out that was not well received in my district.”
Samuels, meanwhile, says mandating certain revenue to various departments isn’t a good idea because it could negatively affect the city’s bond rating.
“The bottom line on the stadium is if the finances work, if it appropriately honors the history in the Bottom,” Samuels says, “then they’ll be able to sell it to my constituents.”
Baliles and 4th District Councilwoman Kathy Graziano say they have questions about the project’s financing waiting to be answered by the mayor’s staff.
Ellen Robertson, who represents the 6th District and has been leading the mayor’s campaign to reduce poverty in the city, says she wants to see a more explicit connection between that effort and the Shockoe Bottom economic development plan.
Robertson says she wants to see: a goal, “not a mandate,” of 40 percent of the jobs created during and after construction set aside for residents; an employment partnership between private developers and the city’s Workforce Innovation Center; the inclusion of affordable housing in any new housing development; and possible developer impact fees dedicated to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund or workforce development or education. She also says the Main Street Station Train Shed, which lies between the proposed Slave Heritage site and ballpark, should be used as a small business incubator.
“I can go to the [Slave Heritage] archeological site and I can remember the pain, but when I look over the horizon and hear the roar of celebration at the baseball game, there is no connection,” she says. “That bridge is not built. So I see the Train Shed as being the economic incubator that addresses the ills that came of generating wealth at the price of enslavement. I see is as the connector to economic equality in the city of Richmond.”
As the stadium debate appears to be coming to a head for City Council, lobbying efforts directed at city residents are also intensifying.
LovingRVA, the pro-ballpark marketing campaign backed by Venture Richmond, has placed a billboard ad along Interstate 95. And yard signs in favor of the project have been popping up in neighborhoods across the city.
On Thursday, LovingRVA confirmed that it’s hired a team of canvassers to collect signatures for a pro-stadium petition directed at City Council members. The acknowledgement came in response to a press release issued by City Council saying it was aware of the effort and that some residents may have been told erroneously that City Council had endorsed the petition drive.
Eight to 10 paid canvassers have been working alongside volunteers since late January to collect signatures, says a spokesman for the marketing firm behind LovingRVA.
David Hicks, the mayor’s chief policy adviser, acknowledges that the lobbying effort has picked up. The change isn’t unexpected, he says.
“The mayor made it clear he was going to be reaching out to council people, and he’s been doing that,” Hicks says. “The objective is: We have to decide if this is something we’re going to do or not, and if we’re not going to do it then that needs to be decided, and if we’re going to do it, we need to decide that soon, too.”
News Editor Tina Griego contributed to this story.