At the request of four City Council members, City Auditor Umesh Dalal is delving into Mayor Dwight Jones selection of Tompkins Builders and S.B. Ballard Construction to build a $116 million jail in the East End.
In a letter to Dalal June 28, Council members Marty Jewell, Bruce Tyler, Doug Conner and Reva Trammell are requesting the city auditor’s “professional assistance in determining whether the procurement processes and procedures regarding the Richmond City Jail procurement was conducted properly in accordance with state law” and the city’s procedures.
In the letter, written by Jewell and signed by Tyler, Conner and Trammell, the council members request a “review and/or audit, if you deem it necessary in order to advise council prior to a vote on this contract.”
Dalal’s involvement is heightening tensions as City Council weighs Mayor Dwight Jones’ proposed agreement with Tompkins/Ballard. Some have questioned whether the process was fair, and whether the East End, where the current jail now sits, is the best location for the new jail. The mayor has asked for City Council’s blessing by the end of July, in order to have an official agreement in place by Aug. 5.
Following a two-hour work session Thursday night, wherein in Council members quizzed city officials about the jail procurement process, the Dalal letter sparked a heated exchange between Council President Kathy Graziano and Jewell.
“We could have avoided sitting here for two hours with questions being asked one way, another way, up the way and down the way,” Graziano, visibly unnerved, told Jewell as the meeting was breaking up.
Jewell shot back: “I challenge anybody in this room to tell the public that we, this council, don’t want to be confused by the facts,” Jewell said, adding that Dalal would provide much-needed expertise. “Does anybody here find something wrong with that? Does that sound like it’s something crazy?”
Dalal told Council members that his office could complete an initial review of the jail contract procurement process by July 13, council’s next work session. Afterward, however, he said it was certainly unusual to be asked to review a contract before it’s been awarded. “It doesn’t happen all the time,” he said, adding that in fact it was the first time he’d been asked to review a proposed contract.
For the perfect illustration of the sloppy and wishful thinking that plagues Greater Richmond, check out this morning's front page of the business section of the Times Dispatch.
There's one article shamelessly promoting the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce's new "initiative" with the cute name of "i.e.*" which purports to tell the world just how creative people in the city are.
Right next to it is a story telling us that Richmond's showcase example of "innovation," the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park "is doing well" but otherwise is in such dire financial straits that it is raising its parking fees and "voluntary" assessments of tenants. They've just lost one promising tenant to Denver and they're banking on the state government to come up with monetary support since North Carolina and Maryland support their research parks with state funds. Lots of luck there. The state has never paid a dime for the park which has produced only three actual incubated and gone-public companies. Two moved away and the other is bankrupt.
Therein lies the rub. Money. Venture capital and angel financing are lame in Richmond. Plus, the area does not have a Tier One university to anchor efforts for incubating start-up research companies. Go to North Carolina's Research Triangle Park and you have Duke, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Maryland has Johns Hopkins, the No. 1 medical research school, proximity to the National Institutes of Health and a serious biotech corridor stretching from Bethesda to Gaithersburg.
Here in Richmond we have the University of Richmond, a good liberal art school that does little research, and Virginia Commonwealth University which has some research but seems more stuck on the problems of its president Michael Rao who will finally be "inaugurated" next fall more than two years after he arrived. VCU is not in the same league as the Tar Heel and Terrapin schools, unfortunately. The biotech park here does have a big Philip Morris USA lab but it is notoriously secretive and company products help kill 400,000 Americans every year.
What to do? Well, if you are Thomas A. Silvestri, publisher of the Times-Dispatch and outgoing chairman of the chamber of commerce, you pretend, sort of like the kids in "Peter Pan.""We have to start believing we are the capital of creativity," he says.
That's where this marketing plan called "i.e.*" comes in. This week, for $125 a head, the "who's who of Richmond's creative scene" got together at the "secret" meeting place at La Difference furniture store for the launch. The three-year program is supposed to highlight "world class" creative talent here in Richmond. But if you look at the Chamber's Website, you find examples such as a young girl who regards "teal" as her favorite color and another individual who started a shoe store in Carytown. Sounds very creative.
The Martin Agency, the leading advertising shop that is an authentic Richmond claim-to-fame, is a big player in "i.e.*." Too bad advertising is just what it is — presenting an image someone wants you to believe, such as making people think that geckos are really savvy insurance executives with New Zealand accents.
What's missing here? Money, a top-flight university and competent local leadership.
Virginia Uranium Inc., a tiny Chatham-based firm that wants to mine uranium in south central Virginia near Gretna, is flying more than a dozen state legislators to France to drum up momentum to end the state's ban on uranium mining in next year's General Assembly.
The lobbying effort includes all-expenses paid and three days off in Paris so the legislators can visit a closed uranium mine in the city of Bessines in western France where uranium was extracted for a half a century before shutting down in the late 1990s.
Virginia Uranium's chutzpah is stunning. The four-year-old firm, led by a former Army and Foreign Service officer with no experience in the nuclear industry, had invited all 140 state legislators and most wisely declined. Legislators taking the trip this week include L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax), Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), and Del. William R. Janis (R- Goochland.) Sickles told The Washington Post that he is paying his own airfare and lodging.
The pitch, in a word, stinks. If state legislators want to educate themselves about uranium mining, that's commendable. But signing up for $10,000 or more in free travel expenses, although allowable under Virginia law, raises big questions about their integrity.
Virginia Uranium raises questions, too. Walter Coles, whose family owns Coles Hill, a uranium-rich farm dating back to the 18th century, runs the company with another local family represented by Henry Bowen of Sehva. The properties they own near Gretna and Chatham could have 110 million pounds of uranium.
It isn't the first time that companies have sought the Coles uranium tract. Marline Uranium Corp., a subsidiary of Marline Oil Company, started exploring the Coles property in 1977, announced a big uranium find in 1982 after drilling 210 holes. Yet the plan was stymied by uncertainties about the global uranium market and strong opposition from environmental groups. Cities in Hampton Roads also raised pointed questions because they get much of their drinking water from big lakes just downstream of the property.
Coles and his team have no experience in either the nuclear industry or minerals mining. A graduate of Fork Union Military Academy and the Citadel, Coles worked for a furniture company before serving with the Army in Vietnam. He later spent 30 years working for the U.S. Agency for International Development specializing in privatization and land reform programs for the State Department. None of the other members of Virginia Uranium's board has any mining or nuclear experience either. Most are lawyers or investment bankers.
The firm raised $2.38 million of a targeted $4 million in equity financing earlier this year, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. That was just a few weeks before a tsunami inundated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The disaster raised questions about the future of global nuclear power and the need for uranium. Germany, for instance, has announced that it will be shutting down all of its commercial nuclear power stations within a decade or so.
Add it all up and one wonders what is going on down in Chatham, or for that matter, in the bars and restaurants and hotel rooms of Paris.
Developers behind the proposed city jail project promised 800 new jobs, more than $112 million in economic impact and the addition of a retail shopping strip that would employ 150 people and generate $15 million in annual economic impact.
But it’s not the proposal Mayor Dwight Jones selected last week.
As City Council begins to pore over Jones’ recommendation to hire Tompkins Builders and S.B. Ballard Construction to build a new, $116.5 million city jail in the East End, details from the first proposal the city received are coming to light.
The proposal City Central LLC submitted in March of this year, and obtained by Style Weekly, is nearly identical to the unsolicited bid first submitted to the city on Feb. 16, 2010. City Central’s plans call for building a sprawling, one-story facility on a 40-acre site off Commerce Road. The group also proposed building a retail center adjacent to the jail, featuring a possible grocery store and other small retailers. City Central also included a workforce training facility nearby.
City Central’s plan was for the jail to anchor a “a comprehensive vision that links a needed new correctional facility to the revitalization of an historically significant south-side neighborhood and does so in a way that can be a model for minority economic participation in a major city project,” concluded Decide Smart, a local consultancy that prepared an economic impact analysis of the project for City Central in July 2010.
And the cost? $117 million. The original proposal, which caught city officials by surprise more than a year ago, was initially supported by the city, and Sheriff C.T. Woody. The site -- bounded by Commerce Road, Ingram Avenue, 17th and Bruce streets -- is closer to the Manchester courthouse than the existing jail, which sits on 6 acres on Fairfield Way.
In March 2010, Woody told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he preferred City Central’s location over the existing jail site, where Jones recommends building a new city jail. “That’s a perfect area over there, in my opinion,” Woody told the T-D. “I think it should be safer getting back and forth.”
But in July 2010, Jones told City Council that he’d always preferred the existing jail site, explaining that the state Board of Corrections had approved the location, which means the city would qualify for state funds for up to 25 percent of the construction costs.
“We do not want to jeopardize our approval or extend the schedule to obtain another approval for an alternate location,” Jones said on July 19, 2010, according to prepared remarks supplied to City Council.
But the City Central proposal also had preliminary approval from the state Board of Corrections, according to the group’s partners.
Art Hungerford, chief executive of Atlantic Constructors, sent an email to reporters earlier this week congratulating the Tompkins/Ballard team for winning the mayor’s approval.
“Beyond the debate over the site, we congratulate the [Tomkins/Ballard] team for an excellent design and price, and we wish them every success in building the new jail,” Hungerford wrote.
Other members of the team, however, weren’t as conciliatory. Al Bowers, owner of Bowers Family Enterprises, a minority contracting company and partner in the group, questioned the fairness of the process. After the mayor announced the selection of the Tompkins/Ballard group to build the jail last week, Bowers expressed frustration over the procurement process, and whether City Central’s initial unsolicited proposal had been “leaked,” giving competitors an unfair advantage.
“When you know people want to hang themselves, give them enough rope,” Bowers said.
As City Council begins to delve into the mayor’s proposed agreement with Tompkins/Ballard -- Jones’ hopes to win council’s blessing by July 25 -- the question, however, may be one of location. While City Central also put in a bid to build a new jail at the existing East End site -- for about $140 million -- the group’s projected cost for the South Side jail is nearly identical to the Tompkins/Ballard bid.
Three men have been charged in the homicide of Michael K. Brown Jr., three months after the 20-year-old was shot downtown on his birthday.
On Monday, Richmond Police detectives arrested Cory L. Worthington, 22, of the 2900 block of Ralph Boulevard; Giovanni M. Williford, 22, of the 1700 block of Jacqueline Street; and Willie T. Seaward III, 22, of the 1600 block of Jacqueline Street.
Brown had just left Club Aurora at about 1 a.m. March 13 when he was shot at Fourth and East Main streets. He later died at MCV.
Almost two months later Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., slipped into a diabetic coma and died. Friends and family said he struggled to care for his own health after the death of his only son. Mike-Mike, Brown Sr. called his son, would have attended the Virginia University of Lynchburg in the fall.
The Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force and Third Precinct officers arrested and charged the below three men with conspiracy to commit murder.
Out of desolation, the light appears. Arguably the most important project that Mayor Dwight Jones will undertake during his first term in office -- the construction of the new $134.6 million city jail -- just might be this administration’s defining moment.
And it illustrates the growing gap between the image Jones’ projects as the measured, grow-by-design-and-not-default mayor and, well, reality.
In one fell swoop, his announcement this week that his administration had selected Tompkins Builders and S.B. Construction Co. out of Washington, D.C., to build the jail has upset one of the city’s biggest minority developers and the state NAACP, and raised questions about familial relations with the jail project’s minority contractor, Thomas Davis, whose father is building Jones’ new church in Chesterfield County. The morning of the announcement, the Richmond Free Press published a story lambasting Tompkins Builders for having a “horrible record” when it comes to minority inclusion.
That’s a full plate of political drama, and the public vetting has barely started. City Council is expected to begin perusing the winning bid, along with the three other vendors who made the final cut, next week. Jones asked City Council to approve his choice of Tompkins/Ballard by July 25, in order to issue an official agreement with the contractors to begin construction by December.
Amid the fracas is the revelation that Jones’ church, First Baptist Church of South Richmond, is building a 2,000-seat sanctuary off Route 10 in Chesterfield County. The contractor that has been hired to build the church, which is still in the planning stages, is Davis Brothers, which is owned by Langston Davis, father of Thomas Davis, the minority contractor on the jail project.
After the meeting, Thomas Davis told Style that he had nothing to do with the project. He says the church’s board of trustees asked him to bid on the new sanctuary, but he declined. “I don’t really know the mayor,” he says, “but my dad does.”
Jones, meanwhile, declines to discuss church matters. His press secretary, Tammy Hawley, informed Style that questions about the church were off limits after the jail announcement on Thursday. (These questions are usually met with bewildered looks from Hawley. Why would anyone ask about the church?).
Aside from the obvious constitutional objective of separating church and state, one might wonder if Jones is fully committed to the city as mayor if he’s also full-time pastor at the church, and running the day-to-day operations. Secondly, there may be, at some point -- such as Thursday’s jail announcement -- possible conflicts of interest. Say, a contractor participating in the city’s biggest construction project in more than a decade whose father happens to be building the mayor’s new church.
Jones, of course, doesn’t see any reason that he would ever need to answer such questions. In an interview with Style in early February, with Hawley at his side, he almost offered an explanation of sorts. An excerpt:
Style: Are you also the full time pastor of First Baptist Church?
Mayor Jones: I’m a full time mayor of Richmond.
Hawley (speaking to Jones): Isn’t it fair to say your son is the primary pastor of the church?
Jones: Yeah, but you know, if you start, you’ve got to finish. So if you get into it … because people don’t understand the culture of churches and they really don’t understand the culture of black churches. So you don’t even talk about it.
Talk about that with reporters? Because it’s clearly apart of who you are.
Hawley: That’s not a part of his role as mayor, that’s what he’s saying. He’s happy to talk about his role as mayor.
Jones (speaking to reporter): If you have something you want to talk to me [about], if you want to confide in me, or talk about your religious issues. I’ll be happy to talk about you off the dime, on my free time some other time.
In the interview, the mayor seems to be in agreement with Hawley’s description that he’s no longer the “primary” pastor, although what that means exactly is unclear. On the church’s website, he’s prominently displayed as “senior pastor” of the church, ahead of son, Derik, who is listed as the pastor. The sign announcing the “Future Site of First Baptist Church of South Richmond” on Route 10 in Chesterfield also lists Mayor Jones ahead of his son. The hierarchy is clear in the church’s public literature.
Flash back to the jail announcement Thursday. At the time, Style had yet to confirm that Davis Brothers was the general contractor for the new church in Chesterfield. So the question we weren’t allowed to ask had to do with something admittedly broader. In other words, Jones certainly had no trouble talking about the church while running for mayor in 2008, and often pointed out that he was the only candidate who had engaged in any kind of tangible economic development within the city -- namely, the role his church and its nonprofit development arm, the Imani Intergenerational Community Development Corp., played in redeveloping Hull Street in Manchester. On April 16, 2008, the day he announced his campaign for mayor, Jones proudly proclaimed: “I am the only candidate that is running that has contributed to the economic development in the city by developing apartments and commercial space in the Hull Street corridor.”
But on Thursday, the church was off limits. Why would Richmond’s mayor build the new church in Chesterfield? Yes, the old church will remain on Hull Street, according to the church website, but didn’t Jones once tout the spiritual, social and economic benefits of church-based development in the inner city?
“No comment,” Jones says.
And there are other questions about the jail proposal that may actually have a bigger impact. Particularly, upsetting Al Bowers, owner of Bowers Family Enterprises, who sued the city and former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder for allegedly attempting to boot minority contracting company from the Miller & Rhoads hotel project downtown. He’s one of the city’s largest minority contractors, and -- and this is rare in Richmond -- is unafraid to punch back publicly.
Bowers took a seat in the back of Council chambers during the announcement Thursday morning with King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state NAACP, sitting nearby. His company was part of the original team that made the first pitch to build the jail, for $117 million, in an unsolicited bid in February 2010.
Bowers says his team’s original bid was lower than the others, even after the city opened up the bidding and a second, more detailed round of proposals came in from competing contractors. Bowers questions whether the process was fair. During the presentation, the administration claimed that Tompkins/Ballard was the only bidder that came in under the $134.6 million projected budget, with a total bid of $123.1 million. After the meeting, neither city officials, nor George Kreis, senior vice president of Tompkins Builders, could confirm the total cost attached to the winning bid.
“I don’t know if I can tell you,” Kreis says. Chris Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer for the city, says the restraint is due to procurement law, which is complex, and the many steps involved in the bidding process. He did, however, concur (with agreeable nodding) that the $123.1 million figure is accurate.
The point, however, shouldn’t be lost: There are real questions that will need to be answered by the Jones administration regarding its decision to select Tompkins/Ballard as the winning contractor for the jail. And it may get ugly before it’s over.