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In Their Words

The Easy Out

What a new ballpark really needs is a new perspective.

By John Gerner

John Gerner
In the early 1980s, the city of Richmond solely owned and operated Parker Field, a popular but modest minor league ballpark on North Boulevard where the Richmond Braves played. When that ballpark needed a major renovation, city officials reached out to the surrounding counties for help in building a new regional baseball stadium. This effort resulted in The Diamond, which opened in 1985 at the old Parker Field location with joint public and private funding. At that time, it was seen as a major symbol of regional cooperation. This is the high point of this story.

By the early 2000s, the Richmond Braves wanted major improvements to The Diamond. After much debate, the city and counties agreed to fund these improvements in 2003. This was the last official regional decision regarding a ballpark. According to the city ordinance unanimously adopted by Richmond City Council in September 2003, the city manager was authorized to execute an agreement between Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield to provide a little more than $18 million in financing for renovating The Diamond. We are still waiting.

What happened next is uncertain. Some say that the team changed its mind and would not have accepted the renovations if they instead could get a new ballpark. They did eventually get one, in Georgia, and left in 2008. Before then there were attempts to build the Braves a new stadium in 2003 and 2005. But instead of a new ballpark on the Boulevard, the planned location moved to Richmond’s historic Shockoe Bottom district.

The past decade has been a swirl of new ballpark proposals, assumptions and “what ifs.”

“What if the city of Richmond could get a new ballpark without spending more than it committed to improve The Diamond?” A private group proposed this to City Council in 2003, and it was intriguing. But there was no vote.

“What if the city could use a new ballpark as an economic-development tool to help Shockoe Bottom without costing the city?” Urban ballparks, especially those near downtowns, had become fashionable. The problem was that county residents and their government officials preferred the Boulevard for its easy access to Interstates 64 and 95. Henrico and Chesterfield said that if the city wanted to build a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, it would have to go it alone. So that became the plan.

And that plan (with different players involved) failed in 2005 and 2009. Each time, supporters of the Shockoe Bottom ballpark appealed to Richmond’s mayor and City Council. But the costs were enormous, and the city couldn’t afford to go it alone. But then in November 2013, Mayor Dwight Jones reversed his earlier position and formally announced the latest version of the plan.

Although the Shockoe Bottom ballpark plan might look good on paper, there are many concerns about it in the real world. During the years when previous versions of the plan came and went, there were many planning efforts with active public involvement that asked the question: “What’s best for Shockoe Bottom?” These resulted in the 2009 Richmond Downtown Plan and 2011 Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy report. Neither recommended a new ballpark there. That’s because Shockoe Bottom is much more than an area with open land for redevelopment. It’s an important historic area. It’s where the city actually began, where domestic slaves were sold at auction. There’s great potential for other, more appropriate uses. And so we now have this clash of goals and the major controversy it has created. There are influential politicians and developers pushing the Shockoe Bottom ballpark. But those who oppose it are numerous and passionate. City Council remains undecided on the issue.

There are also many financial assumptions in the current Shockoe Bottom ballpark plan concerning future development, expected tax revenues, and the developer guarantees involved. But the biggest assumption is one that we haven’t talked about. Every new ballpark plan in Richmond during the past 10 years has assumed that it needs to be publicly funded. And if that’s the case, the reasoning goes, it should be an economic development tool. But it doesn’t have to be. Ballparks are often built with little or no public funding.

There have indeed been privately financed minor league ballparks. This past January, a group of Richmond government officials and business leaders visited Durham, N.C., which has a publicly funded ballpark. Had they traveled another hour down the highway, they could have visited Greensboro’s privately financed ballpark that was built to accommodate a AA minor league baseball team, just like the Richmond Flying Squirrels. There are other ballparks currently being planned elsewhere in Virginia, but only Richmond’s would be publicly funded. Often, the development costs are lower when stadiums are privately financed. The developer takes the risks. If it doesn’t work, the private developer takes the hit financially. If it does work, the developer keeps the cost savings.

A privately financed ballpark in Richmond would likely return its location back to the Boulevard, where the region wants it. For the long-term viability of baseball in Richmond, it needs regional support. Most of the fans come from outside the city, primarily from Chesterfield and Henrico. Political leaders in the suburbs know this. If the location were shifted back to the Boulevard, there would likely be another opportunity to forge a regional effort there through shared incentives for this privately financed ballpark.

Given the controversy surrounding the Shockoe Bottom ballpark proposal, it would be best for those involved to re-examine the situation and reconsider all of our options. Especially those that can help protect Richmond’s limited financial resources. Let this story have a happy ending.

John Gerner is a Richmond-based leisure industry consultant. In the past, he served as Richmond’s liaison consultant for the Performing Arts Committee, representing both Richmond’s mayor and City Council.

The opinions expressed in “In Their Words” are those of the writer and not necessarily of Chesterfield Monthly.