Inside Baseball, Act II
There are times when the best way to understand a phenomena is to tell it slant, suitably dressed up in fictive garb lest the venality of the topic (and persons represented) put us off understanding altogether. City Council and the Mayor’s machinations in the last week or so is such a time. Last week, City Council voted 5-4 to strip the Mayor’s proposed 13 million for improvement to the bottom to make way for a stadium, and reallocated those funds for public schools and city infrastructure. A blow to the Mayor’s plans! But then, Monday, May 12, at an early afternoon budget meeting, City Council effectively reinstated those same funds, less 3 million for Richmond Public schools. Whether this will stand or not remains to be seen, and the forthcoming weeks will be decisive in determining where, exactly, a base-ball stadium will be built, or if there will even be one. To lighten the anxiety, and guard our dear reader’s sensibilities we thus present an encore of Happy and Hal who first made their appearance in a previous episode of our blog. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the play did not end there, and did, as promised, continue:
Act II, Scene I
Signs reading “Loving RVA” adorn the windows and walls of a bar in Shockoe Bottom. Happy and Hal sit in deep consultation at a side table while drunken guests stumble by. Occasionally someone yells, “Three Cheers for Baseball in the Bottom!” and the crowd roars their approval.
Hal: Well, they seem happy enough, Happy. Nice work!
Happy: Sure, so long as we supply the drinks.
Hal: Why so glum? It’s a great idea giving out free drinks to boost the stadium plan. This is the future I envision for the bottom, Happy! I am here surrounded by my dream demographic. Rich singles, unfettered by cares of raising children and the like, focused solely on immediate gratification. That’s my kind of living. Eat, drink and be merry –the perfect thought-free lifestyle for the condos we will soon build.
Happy (philosophically): You know, even with all the good I’ve done for this city, even with Redskin fans cheerfully enjoying their training camp six weeks out of the year, our city still has problems.
Hal: Geez, Happy, that’s hard to believe…What are they? Maybe there’s not enough money to seed our Baseball in the Bottom plan? That would be a problem! By the way, I saw those kids marching on City Hall demanding better schools—you didn’t give them any money for better schools, did you? That would be a problem.
Happy: Worse than that.
Hal: Worse than that, really? I heard it was pretty bad. One of the school board members said she wanted to throw up. How much worse can it get?
Happy: How much worse? Pfft, those kids were just bellyaching. What do they know about sacrifice? About setting priorities? 4 years, 5 years, they’ll be gone, but the city will still be here. You get me? We’ve got to think long-term. That’s why this thing I’m about to tell you is so much worse than a bunch of kids crying about tar water and snakes.
Hal: So what is it?
Happy, lowering his voice: Some schlep developer in Chesterfield made a counter offer.
Hal: What? A counter offer!
Happy: Shh, keep your voice down.
Hal: Geez, that is worse! That’s really worse.
Happy (whispering): It gets worser…
Hal: How much worser??
Happy: Lots worser. The offer is competitive.
Happy: (solemnly, nodding head) Yes.
Hal: How competitive?
Happy: Glancing around the bar, nervously …the offer is….promise to keep this a secret?
Happy: Okay. The offer is free.
Hal (shocked): Free? Like nothing?
Happy: Right, the city would pay nothing.
Hal: Free…(angry as he realizes the import of these words) Oh, Jesus Mother of God! You’re joking, right? That’s un-American!
Happy (Shaking head, sadly): No, the pitch is to build the stadium on the Boulevard from entirely private funds. No city funds involved.
Hal: Holy Jesus Mother of God! Free! What’s this country coming to?
Happy: I’ve decided to respond in the only reasonable fashion. I had my man Jack Berry on Venture Richmond rip this yokel a new one. Giving away a stadium! Who ever heard of such a thing? We accused him of being disrespectful of city leadership. We called him divisive, a hypocrite and a liar!
Hal (changing expression, cheerful): Yeah! Exactly!
Happy: We’re not going to let anybody shove a free stadium down our throat! We have self-respect here in Richmond!
Hal: Here, here! I like the way you think, Happy my man! That is just excellent!
Happy: (lowering drink, thoughtful)…Yes, Hal, and that seemed to work, up to a point… they withdrew their offer, but then, the other shoe dropped…City Council decided to strip my budget of all funds for the stadium plan to go forward. 5 to 4, can you imagine?
Hal (aghast): No!
Happy: (to himself, staring vacantly at an overhead TV screen) Yes… It is as the scripture says, dear Hal, vanity, vanity, all is vanity.
Hal: (nodding soberly) That it is, but I think it’s more of an emptying sensation. I see zeros fleeing my bank account before my eyes.
Happy: It is a short walk from the hallelujah to the hoot, Hal, that is all I am saying.
Hal: (glancing at the overhead television where Happy is staring) What is that anyhow?
Happy: City Hall news. Since that mess about the schools, and the vote, I want to keep close tabs on them. See, the way it is, I am like Jesus Christ and they are like my apostles. You follow me? But of late, I am concerned that I may have a Judas or two…
Hal: I think you might have at least 5.
Happy: That’s what I’m saying.
Hal: I told you, you should have bribed them…A million here, a million there, makes it hard to say no.
Happy: Well, City Council did say no. After those young pups protested their lousy schools, City Council stripped 13 million worth of funding for the stadium in the bottom. I’ve never been so mad in my life. And hurt! After all I’ve done for them! I thought I was going to kick.
Hal: Like a death-blow.
Happy: Like a death-blow. …but…. (lights dim in the bar, crowd grows quiet and music begins –the harmony for “My Way”)
Happy: All funding yanked.
Hal: All funding yanked.
Happy: The end was nigh.
Hal: The end was nigh.
Happy: All we could do.
Hal: Was quiver or cry!
Happy: Yet there was this; some meager chance to make them feel my political lance. I told them straight, you screw with me, you’ll need six votes, or I’ll be free. I’ll veto everything you try to pass. I’ll be on you, like green on grass. And when you fail to override, you’ll get my budget, and then you’ll cry. And that next day, they folded their hands. They dropped their cards…. Yo, Hal, I kicked their cans!
We lost three million, but ten million saved for the stadium that’s here to stay! And why is this?
Hal: And why is this?
Drunken girl: Yeah, why ish this?
Happy: Because….. I did it MYYYY WAAAAAY!
Drunken Crowd chorus: He did it HIS WAAAAY
(music fades, lights dim)
Hal: So everything is set?
Happy: You’re in Real Estate, Hal. You know nothing is set until the deal is closed. The next few weeks will be make or break. That 10 million can get reallocated pretty quickly too….we’ll need all our folks here out in force — our drunken empty nesters need to make their needs known, or else those students might come back with more demands for safe schools. Or someone else might come up with another scheme for the stadium. It sends shivers down my spine to imagine all the better ideas that are out there. That’s why it’s up to us to keep them drunk and happy, Hal, so they never question our motives or our numbers. And a prayer or two might help.
Hal: Yes, drunk and happy, that’s the ticket!
Happy: (solemnly) Amen.
To be continued…unfortunately.
If you want to help activists trying to stop baseball in the bottom, here’s a handy link:
Here are relevant upcoming committee meetings thanks to Scott Burger:
Thursday: 2. Ord. No. 2014-108 (Patron: Mayor Jones) – To authorize the Chief Administrative Officer, for and on behalf of the City of Richmond, to enter into the Shockoe Development Cooperation Agreement between the City of Richmond and the Economic Development Authority of the City of Richmond for the purpose of providing for the development of a proposed project in the Shockoe Bottom area of the city. (COMMITTEES: Finance and Economic Development, Thursday, May 15, 2014, 3:00 p.m.; Land Use, Housing and Transportation, Tuesday, May 20, 2014, 3:00 p.m.)
If you’re interested in learning more as this story unwinds, here are some other resources and local articles.
The Losing Streak
Top of the ninth for the Mayor and things are not looking great. His no good, very bad losing streak started a few weeks before the month began in late April when the Wing Nut Collective posted an odd item regarding Mayor Jones’ real estate taxes. According to the City of Richmond’s Property Search and Tax Assessment data, the assessed value of the land that Dwight Jones’ house sits on has dropped $64,000 in the past year. No big deal, only all of his neighbors’ land increased in value–which makes you wonder. A city ‘revaluation’ was called in. That’s just a little awkward note to preface the streak to be, but it gives you the general flavor.
Meanwhile, last Monday, April 28th, Open High students Levi Bane along with Aaron Greene, Isabella Arias, Quante Barnes and Gillian Hogg organized a walkout of the student body over the lousy condition of Richmond Public Schools. Roughly 200 students altogether ended up leaving their classroom as part of a “Walk Out” protest—most of them from Open High, the remainder from Thomas Jefferson , John Marshall, Community, Albert Hill, Lucille Brown and Maggie Walker . They headed straight to City Hall to talk with Mayor Jones. The structural problems for the schools—covered nicely in this Style Weekly article – include tar diluted water oozing in “foul-smelling drops” into classrooms and hallways in Thompson Middle School, and black water-soaked ceiling tiles dropping from the ceiling. School Board Vice Chairman Kristen Larson said the environment there made her “want to throw up.” At Carver Elementary School, the skeletal remains of dead rodents crunched underfoot. Worse was Armstrong High where there were so many live rats that “snakes have become a problem as well.” It’s the kind of thing no one should have to deal with, much less high school students.
So the Open High folks organized a walkout last Monday in protest. The walkout is strikingly similar to a boycott organized nearly half a century earlier by Barbara Johns, when she took it upon herself to publicize the loathsome conditions in Prince Edward County public schools. Her actions eventually led to the Supreme Court decision overturning the specious doctrine of separate but equal. As a consequence, integration was enforced across the country—something white Virginians in particular opposed organizing themselves behind the banner of Massive Resistance. This ultimately led to white flight, which subsequently turned the screw on budgets for the Richmond Public School system. Why? Because when integration threatened, the General Assembly removed the city’s ability to annex surrounding communities, stifling its tax base and piling on a mountain of debt. Henrico and Chesterfield counties were left to enjoy the region’s economic growth alone. Richmond public schools were left to starve.
Underneath this movement, of course, lies the logic of gentrification. Something you would think Mayor Jones would be hesitant to embrace, but you would be wrong.
By way of background, a little over two weeks ago, Mayor Jones made the mistake of echoing Louis Salomonsky in a Sunday Richmond Time-Dispatch article. In an interview with Open Source (WRIR.org), Salomonsky openly lamented the city’s “ghetto of people making $30k-50k a year”, suggesting it’s the reason the city keeps asking developers for more and more luxury condos. Salomonsky, it should be noted, has done time in federal prison for conspiracy to commit extortion for bribing a City Council member and also, notably, has a stake in the Mayor’s baseball in the bottom plan. Politically tone-deaf, the Mayor essentially seconded Salomonsky’s opinion arguing that minorities moving to the counties because of a “declining school system” would finally bring rich, childless empty-nesters into the city. Or, put another way, get rid of couples interested in quality schools for their children. Too late, the Mayor realized that political acuity wasn’t his strong point, but he did manage to get the newspaper to pull his quote from their website—though it’s still available in the printed edition.
So it’s within this context that Mayor Jones deigned to meet with the boycotting Open High students; a PR moved that failed. That Monday afternoon (April 28th), Mayor Jones made his intentions clear: new schools are the way forward, maintenance of existing facilities not so much. He insisted that investments needed to be made in revenue generating schemes rather than existing schools: baseball stadiums, Redskin training camps, things like that. Only, the actual revenue generation part of such schemes falls abysmally short. As an example, the Redskins training camp has turned into a net loss for the city. In fact, activist and former School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf had to prod City Council to collect the $100,000 owed to them from Bon Secours for the leasing of the property—funds that were to be paid directly to the Richmond Public School system. By February of this year, Richmond School Board member Kim Gray said “We have yet to see a dime.” That eventually turned around, but the city tax revenue still falls far short. The promised boon to local business is pretty much a mirage. Retail sales in Richmond during August, the month in which the bulk of the Redskins training camp was held, declined 6.8 percent compared with the same month last year. Whoops. According to Style Weekly, “during the training camp, many restaurant owners complained that the camp had done little to increase sales, with only a nearby McDonald’s reporting a significant increase in customers.”
So Mickey D’s gets a leg up, but that doesn’t really translate into the 3.8 million dollar revenue shortfall that the mayor slashed from the school board request for fiscal year 2015. Last Monday, in face of the Open High protests, City Council finally promised to restore that amount. But even that promise had a hidden caveat. As structured in the budget, the money will not go toward maintenance needs, but rather towards operation funding, which covers day-to-day expenses. Rats, snakes and black water dripping from the ceiling will remain the foreseeable norm. The Mayor tried to cheer the students by suggesting that his other big idea, the Baseball Stadium in the Bottom, could help close the revenue gap. Unfortunately said stadium plan would require capital investments from the city of 76.5 million over the course of thirty years. And the revenue projections are shaky at best. Not to mention, the chosen location would bury historical slave sites that Preservation Virginia decided to list as one of the top endangered historical sites in the country – the day after the students’ walkout: Tuesday, April 29th. Ouch. But really, the students weren’t buying the happy talk, either way.
Said Levi Bane, “The children of our city are this city’s future and it is high time that they be treated as such. A stadium which will hopefully provide more money in the future is not what our money should be spent on or invested in. Richmond Public Schools have thousands of children to invest in and thousands of children who, if provided for properly, will benefit the city of Richmond much more than a baseball stadium could ever hope to do.” The students are right, of course. But that was only the beginning of Mayor Jones’ losing streak.
Last Thursday, May 1st, the other shoe dropped. What would be excellent news for the citizens of Richmond, was plain old bad news for the Mayor. Developers with The Rebkee Co. offered to fund the building of the Stadium privately on the Boulevard. All of it. No public funds involved. Under the broad outlines of the proposal, an 8,000-plus capacity stadium would be built entirely with private money on about 10 acres of Boulevard land. The first phase would involve a small amount of residential, retail and restaurant development. The developers also would have the option of building out the rest of the 60-acre Boulevard area. Now that’s a sweet deal. But the Mayor didn’t like it. Make your plans public, he said. After he kept his plans for a stadium in the dark for well over a year. Never mind that! Now we must have transparency in our projections! The Mayor’s good buddy at Venture Richmond, Jack Berry, sent out a nasty letter to Venture Richmond’s board where the Mayor presides as President: “Beware when a Chesterfield politician (Mr. Gecker) and a suburban strip shopping center developer from Midlothian (Rebkee) tell you they know what is best for your city,” Berry wrote. “Does Gecker’s involvement and approach strike you as a conflict of interest, and disrespectful of city leadership, even offensive?” Apparently, Jack Berry flunked out of charm school.
But there was worse news for the Mayor. That Thursday night, in light of the proposal, City Council voted 5-4 to remove $12.6 million of the $13.6 million that Jones had budgeted for infrastructure improvements needed for the publicly financed Shockoe stadium plan. The council kept $1 million for any infrastructure work necessary for the slave heritage site, “seeking to decouple the museum from the stadium proposal.”
In all, the council reallocated $3.25 million for school maintenance, $3 million for the riverfront plan, $4.5 million for projects in council members’ districts such as sidewalk repairs, and $1.5 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Jones would have none of it. He threatened to veto the move and said the council’s action last week sent the “wrong message” to the General Assembly, “The business community has said that they would help us raise a certain amount of money, but they’re not going to do it if it’s not going to be a part of the complete package,” Jones said. But it’s not like you can take his word to the bank. As Paul Goldman, former state Democratic Party chairman noted, “… the politicians have not leveled with anybody.”
Yes, that would seem to be the case.
The losing streak continued this week when Rebkee Co. responded to Venture Richmond and the Mayor’s nasty gram: “The mayor has made it abundantly clear that he does not need or want an alternative in the event the land acquisition and developer contracts for the Shockoe Bottom project do not materialize… While we don’t agree this is in the city’s best interest, we respect that decision. We also recognize that no plan can go forward without the support of those in control of the city. A transaction of this scale is difficult with parties who share the same goals; it is impossible between those that do not.”
So the alternative is scuttled, yes? Well, no. Not exactly. The Mayor equivocated. Shortly after his stern veto threat and Venture Richmond’s ill-timed letter, the Mayor tried to sound reasonable. Here’s what Jones had to say as of Tuesday, May 5th in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “…. [the] administration is still open to receiving more information from the development team behind the recently floated proposal for a privately financed baseball stadium on North Boulevard.”
So maybe it’s okay, after all? That talk about being disrespectful of City leadership? Conflict of interest? Nothing to worry about! Jack Berry had a case of the bowels. And so it goes. The Mayor may be looking for a lifeline, or he may just be saving face. The next few weeks will show how his losing streak shakes out.
Meanwhile, at the School Board meeting at City Hall this week, Open High students were at it again.
Kevin Tyler: “The buildings are still in disrepair…Today a tile fell from the ceiling and almost hit a student in the head.” He said that when they had talked with the Mayor, he told the students they needed to speak with their School Board to make their needs known. Of course, weeks after an article about dead rats, live snakes and ceilings oozing with black goo you’d think the school board would have figured it out. But the Mayor likes this dance because after the students go to the school board, the school board gets to come back to City Council to ask for the funds the Mayor insists are earmarked for things like his Baseball Stadium in the Bottom. Which may or may not be funded any longer, depending on how willing the Mayor is to follow through on his veto threat. Is that clear, everyone?
Despite the bureaucratic maze, the students have remained persistent. “So here we are,” said Tyler, “asking the School Board to make our needs known.”
In a voice tight with frustration, Sydney Pollard asked, “How do we improve the conditions of our schools? How do we make them safe schools?…’Safe schools’…why is that a question we even need to ask?”
And finally, Isabella Arias insisted that everyone was responsible for the current impasse, but she ended on a cautiously optimistic note, “If government officials are able to work together then there is hope for Richmond public schools,” which may be less cause for confidence than she thinks.
~Jack R. Johnson