Two strikes on Dwight Jones’s stadium plan

May 23

For a view of what’s wrong with Virginia, and in particular the Virginia Democratic Party, consider Richmond’s dilemma over building a new Minor League Baseball stadium.

Pushing a $79 million plan to move the city’s AA-level Minor League stadium from a central location to the historic Shockoe Bottom area, Mayor Dwight C. Jones has run into a slew of problems. Jones also happens to be chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Jones’s vision includes the stadium plus apartments, stores, bars, restaurants and a museum on slavery, since the bottom area was second-largest slave trading center in the country. Building an entertainment complex on such ground is a sensitive issue.

Members of Richmond’s business leadership have tried three times in 10 years to build a replacement in Shockoe Bottom for the crumbling Diamond on North Boulevard, which once housed the AAA-level Richmond Braves. Dismayed by the state of the local digs, that team moved to a shiny new stadium in suburban Atlanta and were replaced by the popular AA Flying Squirrels, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.

The latest stadium plan arose last summer, when the head of a nonprofit promotion group representing the views of the city’s corporate elite resurrected the bottom idea.

Jones, fresh from his success in luring the Washington Redskins summer training camp from Northern Virginia to Richmond, seized upon the proposal.  He sees it as a way to develop the bottom while simultaneously opening up the Diamond site to retail development that the city center badly lacks.

Ever since, however, there has been one problem after the other. For starters, little detail about the new bottom plan has been revealed, even though it would be largely paid for with public funds. The region is divided on whether a new stadium should be built near the old site, given its convenience to suburbanites who make up much of the Flying Squirrels fan base. A 2013 poll by the Richmond Times-Dispatch found that most residents support the current site.

Then, a Chesterfield development firm, along with a developer who happens to be a Republican Chesterfield County supervisor, pitched a plan to build a stadium along with some retail at the old site. Better still, it would all be privately funded. The announcement stirred up long-simmering feuds between the city and the counties that helped build the Diamond but have been out of the picture regarding erecting a replacement.

It gets stranger. Wild-card Douglas Wilder, former governor and Richmond mayor, came out pushing for a slave museum at another site downtown. It also happens that Wilder was behind a disastrous 10-year-long effort to create a slave museum near Fredericksburg.

And now a rejiggering of the Shockoe Bottom plan means the city might have to buy the building where the headquarters of the state Democratic Party is located. It’s valued at about $1.3 million. Democrats are scrambling to create a “firewall” between Party Chairman Jones and any possible move, lest anyone get the wrong idea.

It’s not as if the Democrats don’t need the money. They are reported to be $600,000 in debt. Not to fear, a political action committee linked to Terry McAuliffe, governor and Democratic fundraiser par excellence, has magically come up with a big contribution to help.

Jones’s plan, however, looks weaker now, and he may not have the votes on the City Council to approve it. There are also renewed calls to make certain that the project is bid competitively.

As always, complaints are coming that Richmond never seems to be able to get anything done. Washington and Baltimore didn’t seem to have such trouble building stadiums. The Virginia capital is another story.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

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