Baseball at the Heart

The mayor’s proposal for Shockoe Bottom is a bit of a chameleon. When it was first revealed, it seemed like it was clearly a ballpark plan: baseball balloons, Nutzy, Parney Parnell cracking jokes. But as the plan progressed, this central goal became secondary to a host of other justifications for the development.

The phrase, “not just a ballpark plan,” has become popular in this current debate at the same time supporters of the mayor’s plan have proudly placed signs proclaiming, “I support Shockoe Ballpark,” in front yards and businesses. Clearly, we are confused. Like many, I’ve studied the proposal for Shockoe Bottom and attempted to make sense of all the arguments. As always with these sorts of plans, it is necessary to distinguish the certain from the projected.

Beyond all the letters of intent, the promises, and the economic projections, there is a baseball stadium. This stadium project will likely cost around $167M including interest over the next 30 years. We will hopefully finish paying off the debt around 2046. I will be almost 60 years old. These are the certainties of the mayor’s proposal. All other elements of the plan are subsidiary to the ballpark.

Below I have compiled four common arguments (other than baseball) and reasons why they are not substantive or central to the Shockoe plan:

#1. This plan will improve schools in Richmond

Schools argument

This is a photo of a billboard paid for by the LovingRVA ad campaign. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s exciting. How could any of us say no to a promise like “More $$$ for schools?” It pulls at our heart strings and connects the plan to something we love.

Then I realized: this is not a schools plan. Not a single dollar of this plan is allocated for school maintenance, construction, or modernization. There isn’t a contract that says that our government is obligated to increase school funding a certain amount each year. We also don’t have any idea how much added tax revenue this plan will generate so there can be no sure promise made for future increases.

And yet, we are being promised that this plan is for our schools and our children.

After digging around, I realized the connection from this plan to schools is pretty weak. The most I could find was a quote from Mayor Jones in the RT-D:

“I think that as we continue to negotiate with City Council people and get them on board, that there’s probably going to be some designated streams that go to some various places that people feel very strongly about….”

Wow. Either Jones was badly misrepresented or the mayor did a terrible job convincing me that that this plan will have any meaningful connection to things I “feel very strongly about.” This schools argument  is like playing “seven degrees of the Mayor’s economic development plan.” Where will all the money end up? We have no idea. But I promise there’s definitely a chance you could get a slice.

And I’m particularly annoyed because I do have a soft spot for schools. The need in RPS is incredible. There are countless reports and articles on the financial need and the deteriorating infrastructure of our school system. Our mayor is promising us more money will be sent to schools, but he isn’t saying how much. All we know is if we build the stadium in Shockoe and if it’s surrounded by lucrative businesses and if we can attract huge amounts of private investment on the Boulevard, then we will have more money that might be allocated to schools.

To me, that seems like a lot of “ifs.” If you care about schools, ask the mayor to sign on the dotted line. Anything less is empty promises.

#2. This plan will provide access to good, affordable food


I’ve heard this argument regularly enough that it deserves to be included in this list. I haven’t seen it on a billboard, but this is the argument that seems to tug at the “food justice” movement in Richmond and the desire for residents to have access to healthy, affordable food.

As a resident of the East End, I think it would be great to have a new grocery store. I think it will provide access to good food for a wide economic spectrum of people. Residents nearby will be able to walk to get their food rather than drive around the corner to Farm Fresh. Many riding public transit will be able to get off 10 minutes earlier than they would for the Kroger on Broad St. I wouldn’t have to drive out to the Martin’s at White Oak for fresh vegetables. Sounds great to me.

I just keep returning to the fact that the grocery store is not a central element of this plan. Honestly, this grocery store has more to do with economic development and the mayor’s revenue bonds financing scheme. I think we would have built anything there if it promised to bring in a certain amount of revenue each year. Also, do we have to build a baseball stadium to have a grocery store? More on that later.

#3. This plan will memorialize and interpret Richmond history

museum 2

The third claim is that this plan has been created in order for Richmond to restore the history of slavery to its rightful place. On the cover of the Venture Richmond “Downtown’s Transformation 2014” document (an unfortunate title), there is a presumptuous photo of the proposed slavery heritage site, an element of the Mayor’s proposed revitalization plan. On the second page of the document there is a photo of the ballpark. For some reason, Venture Richmond chose to promote the heritage site.

Here’s the problem: the slavery heritage site is not funded. We honestly don’t know when or if it will ever be built. To further complicate things, Richmond City Council and the state legislature of Virginia have recently committed funds to the construction of a slavery museum. Is the heritage site enough to fit the specifications of these funds? We don’t know. There are designs for a full museum, but they haven’t been adopted by the city or promoted publicly to my knowledge. If all funds go toward the museum, how will we pay to memorialize the Lumpkin’s Jail site?

Many of us are in favor of building something to commemorate the history of slavery in Richmond. The Washington Post even wrote an editorial in support of a slavery museum back in December. It’s certainly the most historically, culturally, and socially important element of the mayor’s plan, but it’s not the main attraction. This “heritage site” has been tacked onto the ballpark plan to satisfy those of us who care about history, culture, and memory.

It’s a beautiful design and I would like to see it in Shockoe Bottom. But I have to wonder: why do we need to spend $52,250,000 for a baseball stadium so that we can memorialize the history of slavery in our city?

I’m also very concerned with the process by which this heritage site/museum has been developed. When municipalities plan and construct museums or heritage sites, they typically spend years developing a network of scholars, institutions, community members, foundations, and government agencies in order to strategize the future success of the enterprise. If done well, this process results in a site that is ready to receive public school tour groups (where will the busses park?), host educational events (who will coordinate?), conduct relevant research, and curate exhibits to keep the material relevant and interesting for visitors. This sort of strategic planning results in a place that is vibrant and well-loved by locals and out-of-town visitors for generations to come.

If the mayor’s plan were truly a plan devoted to the history of Shockoe Bottom, there would already be a consortium of interested individuals from all over the nation and the world developing potential directions for the space and the building. Right now all I see is a pretty picture.

#4. This plan will stimulate the economy in Richmond


The argument for economic development is the lynchpin of this entire plan. Many believe that the “baseball stadium + hotel + grocery store + heritage site + apartments + future development on the Boulevard” plan holds the greatest possible economic benefit for years to come.

I have to respectfully disagree. If maximum economic output were the ultimate goal of this plan, Richmond wouldn’t have a baseball stadium at all. Minor league franchises are mostly money losers. They are highly subsidized franchises with all salaries paid for by their parent major league team and stadiums funded by localities. So it’s counterintuitive to include a ballpark in an economic development plan. Unless by “economic development” you mean “we need to find a way to pay for this darn baseball stadium.”

Also, not only are minor league stadiums expensive on the front end, they usually require renovations 20-25 years after they are built. It’s fitting that our local leaders travelled to Durham in January. A few weeks before the Richmond delegation made their trek, The Hearld Sun reported that the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, opened in 1995, the model for our ballpark scheme, is now planning a $20M renovation. Nineteen years after it first opened.

If it weren’t for the ballpark, Shockoe Bottom wouldn’t even be on the mayor’s radar. This flood plain is surrounded by the many hills of Richmond that don’t require a $20M investment in infrastructure for development to start tomorrow. There are cranes up in Richmond right now already investing in the future of this city. The only reason we’re talking about Shockoe Bottom is because we have this baseball team and we need to find a place to put them that can generate enough money to pay of the enormous sum it will cost to construct a brand new stadium. But if economic development were the goal, we would be saving our future tax dollars for general use rather than for servicing the debt on a baseball stadium for the next 30 years.

So why are we calling this an development plan? The argument is this: the ballpark should go in Shockoe Bottom because it’s best in Shockoe Bottom because it will allow us to 0pen the area to private development so that the lease on the ballpark will be paid for. This is a cyclical argument: we have to spend money so that we can make money to pay off the money that we spent. Also, the word for that is not “free.” The only legitimate argument for economic development is on the Boulevard, everyone agrees on that. But why has there been so little planning done for this site? How sure can we be sure of its success?

You may be asking, “What about all the data that proves the stadium is a good idea for Shockoe Bottom?” Here we have to make a critical distinction between data-driven projects and data-justified projects. Throughout the planning process, our leaders have selectively chosen data that supports their goal: constructing a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. We can be certain this was not an externally vetted process. All the evidence we have seen is simply a case that our leaders have developed to debate and defend their plan. That’s not my idea of leadership.

Regarding this plan for Shockoe Bottom, we can only be sure of the expenditures. The revenue is all projected based on letters of intent and market analysis.

Again, expenditures = contracts. Revenue = projections.

The report put together by Davenport & Co. LLC includes a comparison between developing the Boulevard and Shockoe Bottom. According to this report, putting the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom is a responsible option. But in the low estimate for revenue generated in Shockoe bottom, the debt service (at $4,062,976) is greater than total revenue ($3,874,778) which leaves a projected deficit of $188,198 annually. And everyone has been telling me this ballpark is “free.” Am I reading that wrong? If this project were truly concerned with economic development, it would not include the city of Richmond diverting tax revenue toward paying off the debt service for the next 30 years.

Our leader is convinced the ballpark is our ticket to success when it is actually the ball and chain we will drag, year by year, into our own reluctant future.


My final question is, why isn’t Mayor Jones talking about the ballpark?

Perhaps it’s because an estimated 70% of the people that go to the Squirrels games live in Henrico and Chesterfield. Does it matter? I think so. Why should we divert $4.8M in tax dollars each year for the next 30 years to pay for an entertainment facility that primarily exists for county residents? Or why didn’t we wait for a more unilateral deal? In 2003, the counties were planning to pay two thirds of an $18,500,000 ballpark renovation. That proposal was sidelined by a local official that decided he wanted to build a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. The deal was scrapped, Nothing has happened ever since. Now we’re planning to pay 100% by going out on our own.

Mayor Jones seems to only talk only about economic development. Many other leaders in Richmond are excited about the heritage site. Most of my friends are excited about the benefits for local schools. All the while we’re skating around the most controversial elements of the plan: the cost of the ballpark, the lack of public support for the ballpark, and the location of the ballpark.

I’ll leave the last word to Andrew Zimbalist:

“Cities spend millions of dollars to support a variety of cultural activities that are not expected to have positive economic effects, such as subsidizing a local symphony or maintaining a public park. Sports teams can have a powerful cultural or social impact on a community. If that effect is valued by the local residents, then they may well decide that some public dollars are appropriate. However, if the public or its political representatives are trying to make the case that a team or a facility by itself will be an important development tool, then the electorate should think twice before opening its collective wallet.”

Richmond, if we want a new baseball stadium, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how much we might be willing to invest in a new stadium. Let’s talk about where we would want it to be built. Let’s not allow ourselves to be convinced into needing a stadium for a host of unrelated reasons.

16 responses to “Baseball at the Heart

  1. I still don’t see valid reasons listed here for halting progress on this plan.

    1. You don’t deny this project will increase the tax base in Richmond (it is the best plan on the table for revenue generation far above and beyond the initial investment.) If you want some percentage of the money tied to schools, ask for it via your representative in City Council. As you mention, the Mayor has specifically said he is open to this sort of idea.

    2. In this argument, you say:
    – “As a resident of the East End, I think it would be great to have a new grocery store”
    – “I think it will provide access to good food for a wide economic spectrum of people”
    – “Many riding public transit will be able to get off 10 minutes earlier”
    – “Sounds great to me.”
    Then you say, it doesn’t matter, because “the grocery store is not a central element of this plan”. Which is it? You sound pretty happy about this part of the plan. At least make a genuine admission that you LIKE -some- part of the plan.

    3. “the slavery heritage site is not funded”
    This statement is categorically, undeniably, false. The state has committed $11MM, the City, $5MM, and the business community, $15MM. It is unreasonable and disingenuous to ask “why do we need to spend $52,250,000 for a baseball stadium so that we can memorialize the history of slavery in our city?” The baseball stadium is more than just the catalyst for the slavery museum – you are leaving out the surrounding development, the creation of infrastructure to support apartments where there are currently gravel lots, the subsequent development of the Boulevard site, and surrounding property value gains for both sites..

    4. If development was being planned on one of “the many hills of Richmond”, would you instead be complaining about destruction of housing to make way for development? Shockoe contains undeveloped space because of the investment it needs to be developed. This plan fills gravel parking lots in the middle of our Downtown – and I guarantee, if you place it somewhere else, someone else will have just as many arguments to make. That’s the nature of progress. It involves change – and people have proved resistant to change since the beginning of time.

    Oh, but of course, this is some vast conspiracy being perpetrated by licensed Public Accounting and Engineering Firms, a popularly elected Mayor, and popularly elected council members. Need I remind your readers? We (the citizens of Richmond) voted for our elected officials. We want bold, decisive action to move our City forward.

    If you’re going to argue against this project, bring suggestions to help us move forward, instead of implications the government is trying to “get one over on us”. This line of thinking is single-minded obstructionism and should not be encouraged. Those of us looking for a way forward for Richmond will no longer accept impassioned ignorance playing itself off as the will of the people.

    When my spouse and I moved back to Richmond after 3 years away in Charlotte, NC, we chose the City as our home, not the Richmond suburbs where we both grew up. We see promise in our City. Renewal – Investment – Energy – Passion. We are excited to be welcoming our first child – and our sincere hope is that our City will make investments and bold moves to generate the dollars we desperately need to invest in infrastructure for future generations.

    As a final note, since the opposition is fond of accusing this plan’s supporters of being “greedy, fat-cat developers”, I wanted to clarify my stake in these projects: I am in no way involved professionally, nor do I have any financial stake in the proposed Shockoe or Boulevard developments (in fact, I don’t even know of any friends working on the project or who have a financial stake).

  2. Forrest, I’m a little tired of this tit-for-tat style, but I do want to take a moment to respond. My opinion is this: the ballpark is the only integral element of this plan. All other elements and promises are projected. To this end, I’ve attempted to share why I believe the four prevailing arguments for the baseball stadium are either false or just very loose connections. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I think you missed the point.

    I state pretty clearly that I do like elements of this plan (you quoted them in your own comment). But these are all ancillary to the ballpark. You say “this is the best plan on the table.” Don’t you ever wonder why? If we truly wanted the best possible option, wouldn’t we have more than one to choose from?

    In these sorts of conversations there is always a question of progress. What is progress? Who has the best vision for the future of Richmond? You claim that I am anti-progress. That is false. I am anti your idea of progress. As to your idea of “impassioned ignorance,” take a look at your own comment above. You make many false assumptions about me, miss the primary thesis of my blog post and then tell me your biography to prove your loyalty to the city? I am incredibly committed to the city of Richmond. I’ve studied Richmond (and other cities around the world), I’ve lived in Richmond for years, and I have a clear-minded vision for the best possible future of this incredible place we call home.

    I never want our city to be stuck in this “one plan so we might as well go with it” situation again. No matter what happens, sharing ideas for the future of Richmond will be a significant new direction for my blog.

  3. Hell yeah it’s a ballpark. What’s wrong with that? Baseball is a good thing. Baseball fans are a good thing. Baseball fans from the suburbs spending their money downtown is a good thing. Revitalizing the living heart of Richmond is a good thing. I just came from there and people were enthusiastic. When I asked a guy outside River City Diner about the ballpark, he looked toward the site and said “Just imagine”. Two words that say it all. Just imagine an exciting downtown Richmond where people can live, work, shop and play without having to get in a car. Just imagine a city where you don’t have to drive to the suburbs to buy the basic necessities of life. Just imagine sitting in the cheap seats watching the sun set behind the Richmond skyline. This is not an imaginary thing. It is possible, but we have to seize this chance. What we decide will say a lot about Richmond.. Oh yeah, one more. Just imagine 500,000 people a year coming to Shockoe Bottom to find out what we already know, that Shockoe Bottom has more attractions within walking distance than any other place in the city. I hope City Council has the courage to take this chance. It’s Richmond at the brink. Do we go forward or just talk about it? I’m tired of talk. I’m ready for some doing.

    • Hey Paul,

      I have issue with this: “I’m tired of talk. I’m ready for some doing.” Especially when the project is going to cost an estimated $70M initial investment … having a thorough review is an important step.

      Also, I’m not so sure that people from the suburbs will be spending their money in Richmond except to pay for tickets and refreshments at the baseball games, but all that money is just going to service the debt for the next 30 years. Is this a “spend money to make money” scheme?

      Also, where did you get your 500,000 number?

      I’m all for courage and imagination. This plan is more of a leap of faith.

  4. Thank you for this article! Richmond is a unique city; we don’t need to copy Charlotte, Durham or San Antonio.

    • Thanks MH! I agree. We need every city block and street and alley in RIchmond to be maintained and developed to it’s greatest potential: A beautiful, efficient city.

  5. Baseball fans from the suburbs aren’t going to spend money downtown. Unless that money is for parking or game tickets. This whole thing reminds me of previous promises. You know the ones for 6th Street Marketplace, the Main Street Station Mall, the Convention Center, and the Canal walk. If built this will end up the same.

    It seems to me that with the state of the City these days, the Council could think of better things to go into debt over than a baseball park.

    • Hey Mike,

      I’m constantly thinking about the fact that there are only 70 home games a year. Some seem to think that’s worth the cost. I personally support development in the heart of Richmond that can be enjoyed every day, weekend, holiday of the year.

  6. Baseball fans are just ordinary people looking for something to do. Plop them down in the middle of a living museum like Shockoe Bottom, they will walk around and see the sights, especially on weekends during daylight hours. There is so much to do and they will be surprised and what an interesting place it is. What’s more, they will know how easy it is to get to and they will be back on non game days to see places like the Canal Walk, the restaurants and shops on Shockoe Slip, art galleries and museums like the Poe Museum and the Slave Heritage site. Families will love Bottoms Up and singles will hit the sports bars. A successful urban enterprise needs to offer a lot of destinations and activities.

    The Project for Public Spaces has something called The Power of Ten

    This is the concept that any place, community or destination must have ten competing uses to sustain it. These could be dining, rafting, shopping, entertainment or other uses. Each of these would compliment and compete with each other offering the public a raft of choices and reason to return again and again. This formula has been replicated around the world. At the end of this article is a sampling of project that were facilitated by PPS.

    Shockoe Bottom has this in spades.

    • Paul,

      Do you have research to back up what you’re saying? Has this happened in other cities? What are the average trip times for families going to minor league baseball games? Really curious. If that research exists I’d love to know.

      Also, your reference to Power of Ten is misguided. The whole idea of that project is that, “A great destination has at least 10 places within it, each with 10 things to do.” There is only one thing to do at a baseball stadium.

      Here’s more: “At the core of the Power of 10 is the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there. These could include a place to sit, playgrounds to enjoy, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience, and people to meet. Ideally, some of these activities are unique to that particular spot and are interesting enough to keep people coming back. The local folks who use the space most regularly are the best source of ideas for what uses will work best.”

      Don’t miss that last line: “The local folks who use the space most regularly are the best source of ideas for what uses will work best.”

      What “local folks” are going to be using the stadium regularly?

  7. Hey, I just thought of something: Ten or so summer nights a year, hundreds of suburban families come to the city to watch Richmond Kickers soccer games at City Stadium 6 blocks from Carytown. Does anyone know how many of them spend time & money in the City once they leave the soccer game? (To be accurate, what I mean is money these families spend in the city either before or after the soccer match). To me, Carytown has much more to offer your typical family of four than does the Bottom. So I would assume that a smaller percentage of Shockoe baseball families would stick around the Bottom than would the City Stadium soccer families who choose to “extend their urban experience” in Carytown. So if research shows that a small, portion of the soccer-goers stick around to shop & spend in Carytown, I’m thinking an even smaller portion would spread their dollars around the Bottom. What I’m trying to discern is whether this urban consumption by suburbanites would reach the level of “operative economic behavior.” I think the banks know quite a bit about this question, since most people leave a trail of their spending habits by always using that little plastic card in their wallets. [And surely, banks closely examine card use & sell the info to market researchers – so they can devise more & ingenious ways to cleverly pry our money away from us. Banks, if you’re reading this, sorry for the unkind words. Won’t you please tell me how your customers spend their urban-excursion dollars.] Whaddya think, Michael? -Jimmy Blackford

  8. I will try to answer the many questions and random order.

    Jimmy, a few thousand soccer fans in the Bottom would be most welcome and there is plenty for families to do. Bottoms Up Pizza, the heritage sites, the Poe Museum, the Canal, James River etc, all within walking distance. If they want to go to Carytown, they can drive there just like they do now.

    The Bottom is a ten minute drive from the Boulevard making it ten minutes closer for a lot of people. I’ll be walking.

    The Power of Ten is not a hard and fast rule. It is a concept. They state that very clearly here.

    “PPS calls this concept the Power of 10 (we are indebted to the classic
    short film, “Powers of 10,” by Charles and Ray Eames), but there’s no
    reason to get fixated on a particular number. What’s essential to keep in
    mind are the ultimate goals of variety and choice.”

    Also, they (City Admin) are expecting over 100 dates a year including VCU games, High School and College tournements, concerts, soccer games, and whatever else they or you can think up. It is our ballpark. We will own it. In addition, The surrounding park and museum will be open year round as will the concourse for walking.

    Ah yes, the 500,000. Squirrels average 450,000 alone. The many other uses will easily add 50,000, probably a lot more. That doesn’t include people who come down to see the museum or the people that come back on non game days.

    Did I miss anybody?

    • Hey Paul,

      Thanks for the followup. I personally don’t think that a theory from the Project for Public Spaces is a good argument for this ballpark simply because it’s not public space. So still support my my earlier comment. I’m glad you mentioned it; I just don’t think this is the best application.

      I read that the squirrels had 434,769 in attendance last year: Was curious about your use of 450,000 specifically.

      I haven’t seen formal partnerships with high schools, VCU, or other organizations. It’s fun to dream, but I’d like to discuss the plan as it’s being presented. If you have references to these partnerships and projections in formal documents I’d love to see them.

      • It’s been as high as 463,000 in the past 5 years. I used a round number. The Braves use to draw even more.

        I think think the Power of Ten is a good concept and I think it applies, as I said, “in spades”, to Shockoe Bottom. I could become the most important destination in Richmond. The whole area is primed for explosive growth. I think this development is the key. It is the missing piece of the puzzel that connects all the important downtown destinations together. I don’t know how to put that in a study. I just feel it in my bones. I’m determined to do all I can to make this happen.


        Date: Thu, 27 Feb 2014 18:25:58 +0000 To:

      • Paul,

        I appreciate your enthusiasm. I’m equally convinced that the ballpark is actually going to divide Shockoe Bottom more than connect it. This is a broader question about how urban planning can best serve the needs of residents. Check out the master plan for downtown Rochester, MN:

  9. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better!
    Looking through this article reminds mee of my pprevious roommate!

    He constantly kept talking about this. I’ll sennd this article to him.

    Pretty sure he’s goiing to have a great read. Many thanks for sharing!

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