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Wilder Criticizes Downtown Deal

On April 22, Wilder sent a letter to Gary Beller and Michael Laing of Chicago-based ECI Investment Advisors Inc., the CDA's master developer, requesting a meeting to "determine the renegotiation of these obligations."

Wilder says he wants to know why ECI hasn't fulfilled its promise to build a hotel in the former Miller & Rhoads department store. "Where's the Hilton?" Wilder asks.

In February, Laing told the Richmond City Council that the project was behind schedule because of a lack of financing, and that plans to build a 329-room Hilton had been downscaled to a 200-room hotel, with apartments and condos on the top floors. Work on the hotel was originally slated to begin last fall.

"They've told us every nice thing, every optimistic thing," Wilder says of ECI. "I'm an old-schooler. My thing is let me see what you are talking about."

Laing, who manages ECI's operation in Richmond, says he has kept City Council and the CDA abreast of developments, and that he is more than happy to meet with Wilder. "We have nothing to hide," he says. "Our door is always open."

Laing says talks are under way with a development partner with considerable financial backing to build the hotel. Financing has been difficult because of poor economic conditions, he says.

Wilder wants to know why the hotel wasn't tied to the contract that ECI received to complete the construction work, which includes the demolition of 6th Street Marketplace along with streetscape and utility improvements. To issue the bonds and complete the work, ECI received $2.18 million in fees and $879,458 to cover expenses.

Richmond Renaissance recruited ECI to Richmond five years ago, and city officials awarded ECI the construction contract largely because of Beller's promise to build a hotel, without public subsidy, across the street from the Greater Richmond Convention Center. The hotel was deemed critical to landing larger conventions that would draw out-of-town visitors.

"Without hesitation it was a mistake," Wilder says of not including the hotel in the CDA's contract with ECI. "There's no commitment. … What I'm saying is come on in to the table, we're going to renegotiate."

In addition, the mayor says the CDA should be responsible for paying the $1 million the city allocates annually to use the Richmond Marriott's parking lot on Broad Street. In a complex parking agreement with the Marriott, the $1 million subsidy is supposed to be phased out over four years once the streetscape work is finished. That work is scheduled to be completed later this month.

"Why should we pay it?" Wilder posits. — Scott Bass

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