Monday, May 18, 2009

Richmond Debating Similar Stadium Issues as DC

Travel about 110 mile south of here on I95 and you'll see a familiar process unfolding. A city which had and lost a beloved baseball team wants to lure another. But standing in the way is the no so hidden elephant in the room: the stadium issue. Richmond, VA was home to the Richmond Braves form 1966 until 2008. The team had been playing in a stadium built in 1985, which once was considered the best in minor league baseball. Fast forward 20 years and not so much. The stadium, named the Diamond, was like our RFK. Serviceable, but with dark, narrow concourses, leaking locker rooms and a lack of revenue producing amenities like bars and quality food outlets. Long story short, the team (and its parent, the Atlanta Braves) wanted the city to construct a new stadium or else. The "or else" happened over the course of late 2007 and early 2008 when the Braves decided to move to Gwinnet County, Georgia, where, surprise, the county was building a new stadium for them at tax payers expense. It actually was a surprise to many.

The Richmond community was left stunned and the mayor (Douglas Wilder), who had not pushed the stadium issue, was partly blamed for the team's departure. Now there is a call for constructing a new stadium for a new team. Many Richmond residents residents are split, just as we were in DC over the construction of Nationals stadium. I would say most DC residents were against spending public funds for stadium construction. The jury is still out in Richmond; the main battle there is over the location of the new stadium. Build on the Boulevard (compare that to our Stadium-Armory area: near the old stadium, not much residential development directly next to the stadium, not downtown). Or, build in Shockoe Bottom (compare to our Near Southeast: will have to destroy a few historic properties, will probably make use of imminent domain, much closer to downtown and next to residential areas). All this to attract a new team, any team.

The team that looks like it will move to Richmond is far from MLB quality. It is a AA team from Connecticut. The former Richmond Braves were a AAA team that saw the likes of Tom Glavine, Ron Gant, Dave Justice, Deion Sanders and Chipper Jones performing during their prime. AA baseball is great, but the team may have to work harder to foster a decent fan base. Sound familiar?

I'm curious to see how the Richmond situation turns out. Occasionally Richmond, my hometown, is good at turning left when it obviously should turn right, missing a golden opportunity. That said, its often difficult to know when walking away from a big commitment will pay off more than taking a chance on a developer's grand plan. Usually a grand plan for a not so small fee. Condos, street cafes and bustling sidewalks around a sparking new stadium? Looks great in the renderings, but as we are learning, that vision may not materialize right away. Or at all. On the other hand, a civic investment on behalf of a private entity (the baseball team owners) could pay off in obvious ways. In regional cache, resident morale and ideally in increased taxes on new business dollars.

Richmond should look to DC, as a case study. Not because we made the right decisions at each turn, but more so to not make the same mistakes that we made along the way. Stadium or no stadium, Richmond will still be Richmond, as DC would have still been a great city without Nationals Park. We had been around since 1790 without Nationals Park and will be around for centuries after it is torn down. Richmond has been around for even longer and a new ballpark will not make or break the city. Just remember that hometown, and good luck.