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 The idea had little political support, though, and eventually was withdrawn.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.

Take me out to the.... children's hospital?

The Mayor is apparently ready to try again with his stadium project! Style Weekly's Ned Oliver reports that Mayor Dwight Jones might fish for additional Richmond City Council votes for his Shockoe Stadium plan by looking to another big project - a new children's hospital.

The Mayor won't try to cram the hospital into Shockoe Bottom. But according to Oliver, Jones' hope is that if the Boulevard redevelopment proposal includes a children's hospital, this might win over a vote or two on the Council. So a children's hospital at the old stadium site, this thinking goes, would pave the way for a new stadium in Shockoe.

But this is no magic bullet, for a number of reasons:

  • As Oliver notes, the Mayor still needs more votes: "at least six and possibly seven" thanks to the need for rezoning. Maybe the children's hospital is the last piece that makes skeptics like Parker Agelasto get on board. But with other council members like Jon Baliles and Charles Samuels using the stadium battle for political positioning, this remains a hard road for the mayor.
  • It is possible for political proposals to gain enough momentum and steamroll over opponents; a proposal, no matter how strongly opposed, can begin to take on the air of inevitability. (Witness what's going on at the national level with military action against ISIS.) But the mayor and his team have done the exact opposite - never releasing enough details, pushing the plan without building support in City Council, waiting until after the Mayor's election to float the plan, etc. Certainly there are powerful forces in the city who want this proposal to happen, but there's been no wave of support - and no sense that this WILL happen no matter what opponents say.
  • The children's hospital is itself an entirely new can of worms, with plenty of issues still to resolve. (Style Weekly ran a great explainer in 2013; all of these issues remain.) The mayor may hope to add allies to his pro-stadium coalition by bringing the hospital in. But it's such a big project, it also brings new enemies, or at least complications. (HCA and VCU may be willing to talk about a hospital, but they're a long way from actually supporting it.) It may make BOTH projects even harder to implement.

This new wrinkle, then, doesn't really increase the chances of a Shockoe Stadium actually happening. It's hard to see how the solution to a major redevelopment battle is to combine it with another major redevelopment battle. Put another way: I don't think anyone ever read Moby Dick and thought, "You know what would have helped Ahab? ANOTHER whale."

Things Fall Apart

Can it get any worse for Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones? He's been outmaneuvered on his pet stadium project, sparring with the school board over budget priorities, and was even dinged in his role as state party chair.

Now the city's head administrative official, Byron Marshall, has been pushed out. Marshall, whose job was Chief Administrative Officer, was supposed to be the power behind the throne for the Mayor. (Style Weekly once called him the Mayor's consigliere.)

 Marshall had been criticized for mishandling the Mayor's stadium proposal, particularly by the City Council, for not releasing enough information. If the Mayor was counting on Marshall to come up with a complete plan for him, that did not work out well.

Why is Marshall gone? Style Weekly's Ned Oliver suggests the Mayor might be shifting blame to Marshall over the stadium debacle. Marshall also was investigated, although legally cleared, of monkeying with a colleague's pension plan. (No one is saying anything clear about Marshall's relationship to former city finance official Sharon Ludkins. But when Marshall was forced by the mayor to fire Ludkins, he tried to improperly add a sick leave payout to her compensation.)

Marshall's departure is the Mayor's tenure in microcosm. The city's administration is in disarray, with a complete lack of information and transparency. (So complete a lack, in fact, that City Council members were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before being briefed on Marshall's departure.)

The mess even has some, like RTD columnist Michael Paul Williams, calling for reforms:

Under Jones, a perfectly good police chief (Bryan Norwood) was shown the door, and a popular community development director (Rachel O. Flynn) was effectively demoted before her departure. Such power plays are the prerogative of a strong mayor.

But when that power is used to place a cone of silence over elected officials, and to keep the public in the dark, it’s time to question the system we’ve embraced.

But let's not be too hasty. Before changing our governmental structure, I'd like to wait until we have a mayor who actually seems to know what they're doing. The problem here isn't the strong mayor system, but our not-so-strong Mayor Jones.

Another blow to Mayor Jones

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones is having a rough go of it lately. His downtown stadium proposal is in limbo, as members of the City Council outmaneuver him at seemingly every turn.

This past weekend provided another blow: Petersburg Delegate Rosalyn Dance won the Democratic primary for a special election to replace retired state Senator Henry Marsh. Dance will face an independent in the general election, but the heavily Democratic district should stick with her by a comfortably margin.

Why is this bad for Jones? The Mayor, who is also the state's Democratic party chair, endorsed Dance's opponent, Delegate Delores McQuinn. Dance's win had a lot to do with the Senate district, which includes both Petersburg and parts of Richmond. The Richmond contingent in the district, including the Mayor, backed McQuinn, so this election can be seen as a reassertion of the district's Petersburg roots.

But as Bearing Drift's Norm Leahy notes, you could also describe this election as Dance beating back the Democratic establishment, including Jones, Marsh, and even Joe Morrissey, who backed a primary challenge to Dance last year. (The machine is pushing back, as a state Democratic committee is floating the idea of voter fraud to see if they can delay certifying the election results. Stay tuned.)

This is especially damaging for Jones. Not only did his candidate lose, damaging his credibility as a Richmond power broker. But his endorsement of McQuinn came in the form of late-race robo-calls, in violation of general practice that state chairs should not publicly endorse in primary battles. Plus McQuinn was a stadium backer; it's not clear if anyone voted against her because of it, but it's yet more evidence that the Mayor's stadium proposal is at least not a obvious vote winner. It all adds up to another political defeat for the Mayor.

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.