This post is part of a series on the NOB/Navy Hill downtown development plan.
I’ve been arguing for the past few weeks that the proposed NOB/Navy Hill/downtown development is a bad idea. Of course, cities implement bad ideas all the time.
The good news is that while the Mayor is wholeheartedly supporting the project, the project needs City Council approval to go forward. I’ve been heartened by the skepticism of many Council members, and hope the Commission they have created will provide enough context for them to see how bad a deal this really is.
Still, a commission is no guarantee against Council members being lured in by the same features of the deal that probably attracted the Mayor. (In fact, there’s evidence that at least some members already are.) A way to fund city priorities like schools, at no risk? Thousands of jobs, hundreds of affordable housing units, millions for minority contractors? How could anyone turn that down?
Well, it might help if Council members – and the rest of us – stop and project what would actually happen in the future. I mentioned at the outset of this blog series that my skepticism about this project comes more from the history of urban politics than any familiarity with Richmond boondoggles of the past. But it turns out that a previous RVA development project IS instructive, particularly as a model of how events will likely go in the event that the Navy Hill deal is approved.
That’s right: it’s time to rehash the Redskins training camp!
In case you are sports-averse or just live under a rock, the Washington NFL team has held their training camps in the middle of town, just behind the Science Museum of Virginia, for the past few years. (The team plays in Maryland, but was looking to help build their fan base further down in Virginia.) And as you might have heard, the deal has not gone well for the city.
If it’s so bad, how did the Redskins deal happen? The same way these kinds of big development deals always go down.
First, there was a big announcement by political leaders: a sportsball team is coming to town! Typically it takes time for opposition to these kinds of projects to develop, so initial media reports breathlessly restated city talking points. And these points involved BIG promises. As then-Mayor Dwight Jones told reporters in 2012, the training camp was “going to bring people in from all over the region to see the team play and that reverberates an economic impact for Carytown, hotels and restaurants.” The city eventually claimed that the camp would bring in $8.5 million and 100,000 fans each year.
Next, there was an urgent need to get the deal done NOW, or else it would fall apart. With the Redskins, the city administration placed tremendous pressure on City Council to make sure they approved the deal, giving them barely weeks to ask questions. As the Richmond Times Dispatch reported in 2012:
“It is going to take everything we can do to get this project built in seven months,” Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall told the committee Thursday. “We are asking if at all possible to get this approved… Every day is precious.”
The Council approved the Redskins training camp deal in a unanimous vote. But it happened so quickly that there was very little public input; as we found out later, the Council barely understood what they were voting for.
3. Rapid Decline
The camp opened in 2013, and everything was great! Well, for a year or two. By the fourth year of the training camp, attendance was down enough that the team wouldn’t even release attendance figures. Even the “record” totals of the first two years were reported by the team – and fans who attend morning and afternoon sessions were counted twice! (I love how this fact, which suggests that attendance is overstated by a factor of almost 2, is just an aside in a news report on declining attendance. Umm... isn’t this basically fraud?)
4. Ugly Details
After a while the ugly details of the deal were revealed. For example, the camp was supposed to be a boon to local restaurants, but most attendees purchased food from vendors inside the camp, with money going directly to the Redskins. A nearby food court the team set up with the city failed to generate much traffic for local food trucks.
But that’s not all: the Redskins reduced the number of days the camp was open from 15-16 to 13! When the Patriots came to town for joint practices, they stayed in a hotel outside the city, giving tax revenue to Henrico instead of Richmond! Police officers provided necessary camp security for an estimated annual cost of $40,000, not accounted for in negotiations!
And that’s before we even get to the role of the named sponsor in the deal, Bon Secours. The healthcare system ponied up money for naming rights and committed to expanding healthcare services for low income residents in the East End of Richmond. To their credit, the system followed through by opening a “healthy living center” on Nine Mile Road in 2017.
But Bon Secours also committed to renovating two historic Westhampton School buildings in the West End for a nursing school. When it turned out to be too expensive, the system planned to raze both buildings for a mixed use development. The City Council eventually approved a plan to keep one of the buildings, with the project expecting to break ground in March 2019 – six years (!) after originally projected.
5. Taxpayers Make up the Difference
In 2018, the City Council was forced to refinance the loan used to pay for the training facility, as projected revenues from Bon Secours fell far short of projections. How much the training camp costs the city each year depends on how you count, but it’s clearly hundreds of thousands of dollars. A just-released report from VCU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis suggests that the city MIGHT break even in a few years. But that report admittedly relies on assumptions that Bon Secours will renew its agreements as well as some possibly problematic assumptions about economic impact.
By now you should be able to guess what I’ll say next: we can expect the Navy Hill development to follow the same pattern! We’ve already seen the first two steps, with the big announcement followed by the calls for urgency. If the City Council approves the deal, we’ll be sure to see the rest, including decades of recrimination and regrets.
Looking back on the Redskins deal, you can feel free to blame the City Council members who voted for it. I’m relatively sympathetic, though, as these deals are complicated and hard to figure out. But that’s kind of the point here: Council needs to be extra careful with the Coliseum project, as the level of difficulty involved makes it easy for boosters to gloss over important details.
This diligence is especially important because the deal will take years, even decades to develop. Only four City Council members remain who voted for the original Redskins deal. The Mayor, and many City Council members, may not be around when the bill for Navy Hill really comes due.
Next: I will (finally) conclude this series by pointing out it is not all or nothing: there ARE other options.