Baseball all but dead in Richmond

I've written a number of times about the stadium battle in Richmond. But some new developments in the past week or two have quietly put what is likely the final nail in the coffin for baseball in Richmond.

Quick recap: the Richmond Flying Squirrels (one of the most minor leaguish names ever) are the double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, and play in an aging stadium on prime real estate in the center of Richmond. Back in November of 2013, the Mayor Dwight Jones revealed a plan for moving the stadium to another part of the city. The idea had little political support, though, and eventually was withdrawn.

Lately, city officials seemed to be leaning more towards a private plan that would redevelop the current site and build a new ballpark there. But developments in recent months suggest that even that plan is unlikely to end up on the city's agenda.

City Council member Kathy Graziano sent a newsletter to her 4th district residents in January that quietly reflects this shift. Graziano's particular political genius is constituent service, and her newsletter is usually full of the minor details of city living - meetings, recycling information, and tax rebate reminders. But this month's issue included an unusual page-long explanation of her position on the stadium issue.

The key problem for Graziano: revenue for the city. Of the current stadium site, she wrote, "Presently used for 71 baseball games a year, this over 60-acre site produces less revenue than one block in the fan." So how best to develop the site in order to fund services for a growing city?

Graziano is absolutely right here, by the way. Urban politics are all about development - economic development in the broad sense, certainly, but land use above all else. Cities have it particularly hard in the sense that they serve as economic and cultural centers of their regions, but the surrounding localities (I'm looking at you, Henrico and Chesterfield County) don't want to contribute to any of the costs of those central activities. And so it should be no surprise that Graziano calls out these counties: "Is it the responsibility of the city to use its most valuable revenue-producing tract of land to provide a non-revenue producing amenity for the region?"

Back in November, the Mayor's Press Secretary conveyed a similar sentiment when she wrote this in an e-mail: “Let’s be clear that our starting point of the Boulevard conversation is what is the best use of that property for the citizens of Richmond, not whether it is the best site for baseball." This suggests that the Mayor, often the loudest proponent of keeping baseball in Richmond, may not be paying attention anymore.

The Squirrels clearly do have local support; even with all the rumblings about the stadium, they led the league in attendance in 2015 (for the third time in six years). But if the Mayor has all but abandoned his stadium plans, and even strong supporters of the Mayor like Kathy Graziano are moving on, the best bet is that the Flying Squirrels will soon do the same.

Business on board with RVA's bus rapid transit

Richmond's GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company) earned a big win this week, as the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce came out in support of its biggest project.

A quick recap: The GRTC won a grant from the feds last year to build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line down Broad Street from Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing. In general, a BRT system tries to create a space for buses to travel quickly down major travel corridors - like light rail, only way cheaper. The project should cost around $50 million, with half that coming from the feds and the other half shared by the city and Henrico - and, of course, bus riders. (Ross Catrow at RVANews has put together a nice history/FAQ for the project.)

Once details of the plan starting coming out, though, residents and business owners began grumbling. It started especially in April when businesses learned they'd be losing over 200 parking spaces along Broad. In June, the Fan District Association released a letter opposing the project, and then joined a coalition of other district groups asking the GRTC to put a hold on the project to collect more community input.

But while the coalition includes the Fan Area Business Alliance, the bigger voice in RVA business belongs to the Greater Richmond Chamber. The fact that the Chamber is now on board with the BRT means that GRTC has the political cover they need to say this project is not anti-business.

They're probably right: many urban planners say that investment in transit is important for urban development, and that BRT is an effective, cost-efficient way to do this. Still, you can understand if particular businesses worry about losing RVA's shoppers and restaurant goers; unless they're young people living in the Fan, mostly everyone drives. BRT might make it easy to take a bus to a downtown business, but that doesn't mean that West End suburbanites will do so. Culture changes take time, and things could get worse before they get better.

This week's news, however, likely puts to bed any ideas about delaying the project. BRT is coming to Richmond, and soon.

Now we can continue to complain about the real problem here: the BRT's name, "The Pulse," is still pretty lame. (Although it could have been much, much worse. Blynx?)

DAR welcomes visitors with... U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Everyone who lives in Richmond knows the city will be hosting the UCI Road World Championships in September. Yes, I had never heard of it either. But the rest of the world -- and cycling enthusiasts at home -- have. Richmond2015 organizers expect almost half a million visitors to pour into Richmond for the nine-day event, and have been touring the city to spread the word. (My local civic association has had TWO visits from the local organizing group over the past year or so, and the race isn't even coming through our neighborhood.)

So local institutions are joining the effort, The city is of course a major backer, as are other local governments; businesses are signing up to sponsor. And now non-profit groups are getting involved, or at least getting into the spirit.

Which brings us to the Bermuda Hundred chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. (The chapter is named for a historic town in Chester, VA, just south of Richmond.) They want to welcome the visitors to our city with a "Flags over Richmond" campaign. So this probably means they want us to showcase our different nationalities and ethnicities by flying different -- oh, wait, nope: just American flags. From their flyer:

We encourage individuals, families, schools, community groups, businesses, and localities to roll out the "Red, White and Blue," and fly their American flags to welcome over 1000 of the world's best cyclists to our patriotic nation and to the historic greater Richmond area.

In an e-mail that accompanies the flyer, one of the group's volunteers notes that the DAR is "promoting the flying of American flags as a way to foster patriotism."

This seems a little tone-deaf, if not outwardly antagonistic. Is this really the best time and means for "fostering patriotism"? We live in a world where anti-Americanism is still growing in countries from Egypt to Germany to Russia. (And even Canada!) And the DAR wants us to welcome visitors from other lands by... throwing our flag in their face?

Granted, it's not like they're asking Virginians to fly Confederate flags (we've had that problem before) or, like this Texas lawmaker, asking us to greet Muslims with Israeli flags (?!?). And I get that patriotism is what the DAR does: since we support our troops with American flags, and celebrate holidays with American flags, let's greet the UCI event with.... American flags! To the hammer, everything is a nail.

And to be fair, the flyer notes that, "We also encourage individuals from all nations to fly their flags as well." But even that seems a little backhanded: does it mean that people who are celebrating their heritage or family homeland are not Americans?

Like many Southern cities, Richmond is in the midst of a transformation from a traditional past to a more uncertain future. So you can drive past Confederate flags at the VMFA before heading to Carytown or the Fan and seeing why the city lands on random most-tattooed lists. This DAR initiative may be an example of how older institutions try to adapt to new circumstances, and how their efforts sometimes fail.

Flying your country's flag is a nice way to support your country. But flying your country's flag in response to an influx of foreign visitors suggests you are afraid of what those visitors represent. The DAR may want to re-think this particular initiative; I don't think it sends the "welcome" message that the UCI's Richmond2015 organizers want.

Court intrigue at RVA City Council?

Richmond City Council President Charles Samuels has made his political bones by opposing the Mayor, particularly on the Shockoe Stadium project. Is it coming back to bite him?

The Richmond Free Press reported on Tuesday that first-term Councilmember Michelle Mosby was organizing what amounts to a coup against Samuels. She apparently has enough votes to become the Council's first African American female President when council members elect new officers in January. Reporter Jeremy Lazarus quotes a source as saying that "the votes are firm."

In a follow-up article on Wednesday, Style Weekly's Ned Oliver couldn't confirm the report. But if true, this could dramatically change the nature of the Council's relationship with the administration. Just a few of the dynamics going on here:

  • Mosby is a bit of an unknown. She's inexperienced -- fellow RVA politics watcher Silver Persinger calls her "easily flustered" -- and it's not clear what her goals might be as President. She's focused somewhat on social justice issues, and had a big victory this summer when the Council approved her "ban the box" legislation, eliminating the requirement that felons report their convictions on many city job applications.
  • Longtime Council Veep Ellen Robertson probably wanted the job, Lazarus reports, but couldn't find the votes. She's apparently willing to step down in favor of Chris Hilbert and support Mosby if she can gain a leadership position on a Council committee, where she might have more influence over policy matters.
  • Interestingly, Mosby fired Robertson's former liaison, John Westbrook, earlier this year. (She replaced him with Uzziah Harris, who she described as her pastor and life-long friend, but is also her roommate, which raised eyebrows at the time.) Whatever was going on there, there's apparently not enough bad blood to prevent Robertson from getting behind Mosby.
  • Samuels seemed to be positioning himself as a contrasting voice in city leadership to Jones -- and possibly a mayoral candidate. He can certainly continue to speak out against the Mayor, but losing the President's chair means he heads into the next election cycle in a much weaker position.
  • Parker Agelesto was another of those opposition voices during the stadium battle who seemed to have his eye on the Mayor's office. But he's named by the Free Press article as one of Mosby's supporters. It's possible to see this as a move to weaken Samuels, but it's hard to know; he, like other council members, may just be tired of feeling "short-changed" by Samuels, who Lazarus' sources say seems to favor some members over others.
  • Finally, there's the role of Mayor Jones. His M.O. in the past has been to help place favorable allies in powerful city positions. Whether he has anything to do with Council intrigue is unknown, but he certainly would favor a Council run by Mosby, who has been much more conciliatory towards the administration than Samuels. A change in leadership could lead to another push by Jones to revive his dormant stadium plan. (Urban politics are, above all, the politics of development.)

Redskins and Rebels

The Redskins are in town this month. Yay?

The team moved their training facilities to Richmond last year amid major fanfare. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has even created a separate section of their website with pictures and daily updates from training camp.

I get this - it's a big deal for a major sports team to conduct some pre-season warm-ups in Richmond. The town doesn't get enough credit for being a good sports city - there are plenty of Squirrels fans, for example, and there's a very active soccer contingent that supports a local pro team. (They formed the core of the big crowds that turned out for the World Cup last month.)

But it's getting harder and harder to get excited about an NFL team landing in town every summer when that team's name is so toxic many journalists and newspapers won't even print it. (When your team name is being compared to the "n-word," you have a problem.)

Yesterday, the Washington Post's editorial board chimed in with another call for change, noting that even the granddaughter of the guy who came up with "Redskins" is on board with a new name. Redskins owner Lord Voldemo--- I mean, Dan Snyder -- is digging in, and so far seems to have no interest in being a decent human being.

This "controversy" was very much on my mind when a Facebook friend posted an article about her Richmond high school debating the merits of their own mascot. Douglas S. Freeman High, located just outside the city limits in Henrico County, still uses the "Rebel" name for its sports teams and other events. (A note on the current home page welcomes new students to a preparatory program called "Rebel Camp.")

But apparently some students, alums, and parents want to resurrect "Rebel Man," a Confederate soldier, as an official mascot who will appear at games. While Rebel Man hasn't been seen at games for at least a few years, the imagery remains in certain corners of the school. For example, the home page of the basketball team (which, while it has a separate URL, appears to be the official page of the team) strangely includes a cartoonish image of an old confederate soldier under its "News" links.

A petition started by a 16-year-old student, Alecsys Brown, apparently gathered 1200 signatures in a few days. Brown's comments in the WaPo article about her efforts could be read as an indictment of Freeman's history teachers:

Brown, the Freeman student, said she started the petition to show that many of her classmates want to reinstate the school’s original mascot as a point of pride.

“They are really upset because the Rebel Man is not offensive in any way,” Brown said. “This Rebel Man does not represent racism or slavery.”

I'll go out on a limb here and point out that this is nonsense. The student here is echoing the Heritage Not Hate argument, one that's popular throughout the south, and one that ignores just how brutal a regime the Southern slavocracy actually was.

As I've hinted before, I have absolutely no tolerance for the Southern penchant to romanticize the Confederacy. To my students, I often point out that the entire early history of the United States could be described as a series of attempts to mollify a belligerent Southern region that fought tooth-and-nail to maintain their savage socioeconomic structure at all costs. But hey, it's all water under the bridge, right?

Maybe. Only the use of school mascots actually matters. Going back to the Redskins, the Center for American Progress released a report this month that suggests that racist school nicknames that rely on Native American imagery "perpetuate derogatory stereotypes," lead to a hostile environment for students of color, and "undermine the educational experience of all students."

It's true that resurrecting a Confederate mascot is not the same thing as using a racist name for the team. But papering over the terrible atrocities committed in the name of the Confederacy suggests that we're at least looking in the wrong place for heroes to emulate.

Thank goodness for savvier students like recent Freeman grad Charlie Bonner, who tried to change the mascot while he was a student. As he said in the WaPo:

“For many current Freeman students and teachers, seeing a Confederate soldier brings up images of violent inequality and their struggle to rebuild a decimated culture,” Bonner said. “We cannot lose sight of the real issue at hand: creating a school environment that is inclusive of all the students that walk its halls."

Words for the Freeman community -- as well as Dan Snyder -- to live by.

RVA stadium battle is also about legislative power

The big issue in Richmond politics these days: squirrels. Flying ones.

A short recap: late last year, Mayor Dwight Jones introduced a plan to create a publicly-funded minor league ballpark in the historic Shockoe Bottom district in downtown Richmond. The Flying Squirrels, a double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, plays in a somewhat-decrepit stadium elsewhere in the city. He tied the plan to the development of both the Shockoe area around the stadium, and the Boulevard site where the current stadium stands. Ostensibly to gather further support for the plan, he threw in a museum commemorating historic slave sites in Shockoe.

The big problem: to get the plan passed, the mayor needed at least a majority of the City Council to support it. And he didn't have the votes. So he had to withdraw the plan, supposedly for re-tooling. It was a huge political defeat for the Mayor. He staked his entire second term on this proposal, and he doesn't seem to have a Plan B (although according to Paul Goldman, he's crafting a plan to get the 5th City Council vote he needs).

Now a private developer has introduced a new plan to build a stadium at the original Boulevard site, using private funding. (Although also including lots of tax dollars through incentives and paybacks. Nothing in stadium financing is ever entirely private.) This makes it even harder for the mayor's plan to go forward.

As I told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month, the stadium battle presents a political opportunity for City Council members looking to distinguish themselves. Both the First District's Jon Baliles and Council President Charles Samuels seem to be using their opposition to the mayor's proposal to build a bigger profile in the city. (To be fair, they may also think it's a bad idea. Not everyone in politics is a Frank Underwood.) Today, Baliles continued to outflank Jones by suggesting that, in a separate deal, the city buy some Shockoe land for future development.

Richmond's government is relatively new; the city only went to a "strong-mayor" model, with a separately elected Council and mayor, in 2005. The rules for power-sharing among branches are not well-developed, especially because Doug Wilder's rocky term as Mayor did not really establish any precedents. This means that entrepreneurial legislators like Baliles can seize the initiative from the supposedly more powerful Administration, particularly if the head of that Administration doesn't line up either Council votes or public support for their chief policies.

So while we're walking the usual terrain for urban politics - development and more development -- we're also watching two branches of government fighting for the upper hand. It might be fun to watch if you're not on the hook for the resulting tax bill.

Richmond's Website a Mess?

Local activist Rick Tatnall has a piece in this week's Style Weekly about the sad state of the City of Richmond's website. This is a follow-up to a March SW article that reported on how outdated some of the city's online information was.

It's not quite as bad as Tatnall makes it out to be. If you go to the city's homepage, there is actually a ton of new and updated information. For every example that Tatnall gives of a Human Services site stuck in 2010, you can find a complete list of 2014 events at the 17th Street Farmer's Market.

The City's continual response is that individual departments handle updating their own info. As a relatively overworked college professor who is responsible for my own department's webpages, I can tell you how hard it can be to find time to add updates. (My college is currently going through a major web overhaul, partially because we had so much outdated information.)

Still, Tatnall's overall point is true: the city has a responsibility to do better. More importantly, the website updates give a clue to administration priorities. How important to the Mayor is his anti-poverty commission if the website for it was last updated in 2012?