Peter Galuszka is a regular contributor to All Opinions Are Local.
In Richmond, a shadow government of big business chieftains, lawyers, bankers and planners relentlessly tries to push things its way.
That’s what is happening with attempts to replace the city’s 47-year-old Richmond Coliseum, a 13,500-seat edifice that has fallen on hard times downtown. For years, no one has come up with a viable plan for a new coliseum, the need for which is questionable now that newer arenas have become popular entertainment destinations.
Undaunted, a group of corporate insiders — led by Thomas Farrell, the head of powerful utility Dominion Energy, and executives from other area companies, including Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes — is trying to create a plan for a new coliseum, apartment buildings, a hotel and restaurants north of Broad Street downtown.
The executives created a non-profit entity called NH District Corp. to spearhead the ideas. But the group’s corporate-state approach is raising all sorts of questions. The group suffered its first embarrassment in February when it was the only entity to respond to a city request for proposal for a new 17,500- or 18,500-seat coliseum costing $220 million in an area that is now mostly parking lots and offices. If you have only one respondent, is there much of a demand for the 20 or so properties that city planners would like to repurpose?
Then, on July 8, the Richmond Times-Dispatch got documents under the Freedom of Information Act that raise more doubts about what is going on. The documents show that Farrell wants two big Dominion office towers several blocks south of the redevelopment area to be included in a special tax zone to support renewal. One of the buildings would be a 20-story structure scheduled for completion in 2019.
In this scheme, according to Farrell, all of the property taxes levied on the two towers would go to help the new coliseum project. That one of them happens to be a new office tower owned by his company is a “coincidence,” Farrell told the Times-Dispatch.
The two buildings would generate from $4.2 million to $7.7 million for the project. Tax revenue from the two buildings could help the city get better interest rates when it seeks financing for the project, Farrell says.
He says his non-profit group will get no benefits from the project.
Tax increment plans have been used throughout the country for years to jump-start urban renewal projects. But not everyone is cheerful about NH District Corp.’s plan. Chris Hilbert, the city council president, called the Dominion idea a “non starter.”
Indeed, the scheme raises questions about why Dominion’s chief should get to decide where the taxes from his two major office towers, the heart and soul of the powerful utility, go.
Wouldn’t they be better spent fixing the city’s dilapidated school system and eradicating the city’s 26 percent poverty rate? And what do electricity ratepayers and state utility regulators have to say?
To be sure, Dominion and Altria have been generous in funding local arts and sports events.
But Richmond has already seen the foundering of several top-down projects, including the downtown shopping plan called Sixth Street Marketplace.
This approach goes against what is truly revitalizing Richmond these days: A bottom-up movement by artists, restaurant owners and small-scale developers who have rejuvenated activity in neighborhoods such as Scott’s Addition and Church Hill.
If I were they, I’d be upset. If someone struggles for years making a small restaurant work, wouldn’t he be angry that a big public money project is going create competition? After all, it is the little guys who have made Richmond the foodie and craft beer destination it has recently become.