Sunday, July 07, 2013

Why a referendum on a new baseball stadium is probably the wrong answer


Back in June of this year, City Council President Charles Samuels proposed a referendum to decide on the location of a proposed new minor league baseball stadium for the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Samuels' proposal was widely seen as an attempt to derail a proposed deal for a new stadium in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom being negotiated with developers by Mayor Dwight C. Jones. If that was Samuels goal in proposing the referendum, he lost the first round when the city's Organizational Development Committee recommended that the referendum be rejected by a vote of 6 to 3.

The single greatest difference between the two proposals is not geography, but finance. The proposed new stadium at the current location on the Boulevard would be a "regional" effort paid for with tax money from the City of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico. The problem is that Richmond really doesn't have the money, and Chesterfield and Henrico--especially Chesterfield--don't want to pay their share. In effect, a vote for a new stadium on the Boulevard is a vote for no stadium at all, since without funding there will be no stadium.

The proposed stadium in Shockoe Bottom on the other hand, is supposed to be funded by private developers who would then get the rights to develop the area around the stadium as well. Very few details about this proposal are available, and the mayor has been criticized for this. The primary selling points for the Shockoe Bottom location are that it would be less dependent on government funding in general--and require little or no funding from the uncooperative counties--and that it would be just one part of a wider development of an area of town that is crying out for development.

There is a tiny but vocal group who believe that the area of Shockoe Bottom proposed as the location for the stadium should instead be preserved as a monument to the injustice of slavery:
Properly preserved, this area that once held such cold, commercial brutality could become a life-affirming place of study, reflection and meditation. Like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., it could become a place where people of all backgrounds gather and resolve to never again allow such inhuman cruelty. It could become a place of understanding, of healing, of reconciliation born of a country finally facing the reality of its origins, finally resolving to make right what has been so wrong for so long.

Because of all this, this small piece of land does not belong to Richmonders alone. It belongs to the whole country and especially to all those people whose ancestors once stood there, bound and chained, forced to watch while their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and even their own children were sold away to lives of torment.
You can read their full statement here. I think a lot of people would take issue with their characterization of a baseball stadium as a "desecration" of the Shockoe Bottom site, especially considering the terrible shape the site is in now: abandoned buildings and weed choked lots being the prevailing land use at present.

The problem with this group's position is that they don't propose any realistic alternative. I'd love to see this city seriously compete for the U.S. National Slave Museum. Former Governor Doug Wilder's attempt to create a USNSM in Fredericksburg has failed. A much better location for such a museum would be Shockoe Bottom, at the site of Lumpkin's Slave Jail. Ironically, it is the mayor's plan for a Shockoe Bottom stadium and associated development that includes plans for a museum about slavery, and not the opposition.

In the end, the two proposals for a new baseball stadium are too different and too dependent on outside factors for a referendum to provide a useful choice. Keeping the stadium on Boulevard means making a future stadium hostage to whether or not the counties are willing to pay for their part of the project. Are Richmond's taxpayers ready to pay for the stadium themselves with higher taxes? If that is what Charles Samuels is proposing, then he should be more straightforward and simply propose that solution. A referendum isn't helpful to the mayor's plan either. The mayor is engaged in negotiations with developers, and in order to avoid giving up too much in these negotiations, the mayor needs a viable alternative. If we were to have a referendum and the mayor's proposal won, it would ironically tie the mayor's hands in negotiations with the developers.

In a weird way, both of the proposed deals "need" each other. The city needs the Shockoe Bottom proposal to give it leverage in talks with the counties about the Boulevard location. It needs the Boulevard proposal to give it leverage in talks with developers about the Shockoe Bottom location. Tying the City of Richmond's hands with a referendum won't pay for or build a new stadium; all a referendum would do is tie the city's hands in negotiations and ensure that wherever the new stadium was built, the city will have likely given up more than it needed to in concessions to either the counties or developers. Wherever the new stadium is to be built, the city will do better in its negotiations if it keeps all its options open until a deal is ready to be signed.

Update, July 8, 2013 -- 8:21 p.m.: After two hours of hearings and debate, Richmond's City Council has rejected a proposal for a referendum about the location of a proposed new baseball stadium for the Richmond Flying Squirrels.

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