Flying Squirrels owner and president Lou DiBella is passionate about keeping the minor-league team in Richmond. But he made a splash June 3 with an open letter to the Richmond community about his frustration with the lack of progress replacing the antiquated Diamond. The chief executive of New York-based DiBella Entertainment, which promotes professional boxing matches and other events, speaks with Style by phone:
Style: If you were to leave, where would you go? DiBella: Let me just stop you right there. I haven’t had one conversation about any place or venue. I have nowhere to go. I’m not threatening anything. People don’t seem to be paying attention now. Even to my letter even in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Look at the side article from Pat O’Connor of Minor League Baseball and Joe McEacharn of the Eastern League. It’s not three weeks from now or next season. It’s not going to be my option to stay in this obsolete, substandard facility. Eventually, It’s not going to be my option. What’s so hard about that for people to accept?
I guess we’re doing too good a job of making this facility that’s not adequate for the elderly, not adequate for those with disabilities, not adequate for our wounded warriors and not adequate for our baseball fans in 2015, not adequate for strollers and young babies. I guess we’ve done too good a job of making it look good for everybody coming there. I am victimized by the fact that I have a great organization and a great staff. My ownership keeps investing a lot of money.
It doesn’t change the fact that when there’s a rainstorm my executives’ desks get wet. It doesn’t change the fact that one horrible tiny, little elevator is on the blink constantly and that the elderly are forced to go up loads of concrete steps or that I have to violate insurance requirements and allow my staff to carry people down the stairs.
The elevator is a decade older. I hate the fact that the elderly can’t take full advantage of our ballpark. They can’t come. I hate the fact that our wounded warriors can’t access the park. Or children. That’s not OK. It shouldn’t be OK to Major [Dwight] Jones. That shouldn’t be OK to the county leaders. That shouldn’t be OK to the City Council members. It shouldn’t be OK to the citizens of Richmond.
What’s being lost on people? I haven’t made one threat in six years despite the fact that I’ve been tooled around and honestly been misled and caused to lose a lot of time, sweat equity, money on lawyer bills. I haven’t threatened anything, ever.
If you were to leave where would you go besides Richmond? There must be another team wanted by other cities.
It’s not that simple. There are all sort of territorial requirements. Do you really care? Do the people of Richmond really care where I go? If I had to go, to be honest with you, I’d start to look for potential county partners. But my first choice, and where we belong, I think, is within the city limits of Richmond. I think that’s where we belong. We’ve had great success on the Boulevard. We have been a great asset for the whole Richmond region. Where am I looking? I’m not trying to look. You want me to look, tell me. I want to create a dialogue. I want people to be honest and open and candid right now. If you’re going to screw around with us the same way you did with the Braves, the way Richmond did under false pretenses, and there’s no chance of any regional participation or the city being creative in building a stadium -- let me know now because I do have to start thinking about the future.
And by the way, like I said in that letter, there didn’t seem to take that long for there to be a consensus on there being a facility for the Washington Redskins to come in for three weeks a year. Are they a better corporate citizen than we are? Do they bring more benefits to the community than we do?
>Have you talked about other option like the Rebkee option? About doing something near The Diamond?
There has to be a private development deal worked out with the city and then the developer has to come up with a meaningful proposal. There’s no way the Squirrels can pay for the total cost of a new stadium. It’s not going to happen. It can’t happen.
Have you talked to the Dwight Jones administration about the Shockoe Bottom plan?
With all due respect, these are not fair questions. We’ve been talking to people for six years. I’ve talked to Style Weekly one hundred times over the past six years. I’ve talked to Dwight Jones and his administration one hundred times. I’ve have meetings for three years with the county leaders. I have spoken with local developers for private development. I’ve had meetings. There is no consensus. The political process seems to be broken. The consensus building doesn’t seem to be a great skill in this greater Richmond region. There seems to be a lot of paralysis by analysis -- a lot of passing the buck. I feel like the Squirrels, rather than being seen as an asset to our region, are seen as a political hot potato that no one wants to touch, or brand or advocate for.
I don’t have much more to say. Here’s what I want to make clear: I have nothing but love for the people of Richmond and our fans and people of Richmond. We have the greatest fans on earth. I don’t believe that the politicians have been as candid as they should have been. They have engaged in so much finger pointing. I also think a lot of them are well intentioned and also that they have a lot of the needs of the community at heart. I’m making a general point. We came to Richmond with expectations that were given to us. We came to Richmond because certain assurances were made to us. And that years later, I feel that every step we have taken, it is three steps backward. I feel like I am in worse shape than I was six years ago and the stadium is six years older and sometime down the road, maybe three, four, five years ago, I am going to be told that I can’t be here any more. On top of that, I have a fear of eviction, because there is not going to be a Shockoe Bottom stadium even though we stood next to the mayor when he announced that plan. And right now, all these plans for the Boulevard. The Children’s Hospital is now dead. All these plans I am hearing for the Boulevard don’t involve a stadium for us. So, that being said, I believe they are going to leave a 30- or 35-year-old Diamond in the middle of a spanking new project? Or am I going to be told to get packing? What’s going to happen here? Explain to me why I shouldn’t be concerned? Explain to me why I should be secure? I am asking. I am pleading. Tell me why I should feel that I have a home.
I am grateful for all the support we got from the fans. As Pat O’Connor, the president of Minor League Baseball, said: They let Triple-A baseball leave. Do you really want Double-A baseball to leave for the same reason a decade later?
It is 13 years since the stadium debate began. It is impossible to see a new stadium opening less than five years from now. There’s an election in 2016 and if everything was ironed out and done, it’s still three to five years after that before you have a stadium to play. You’re looking at 2020 or 2021 at the earliest. By that time, I will tell you, this stadium will not be suitable for baseball and that the powers that be in baseball are going to say, “Sorry guys, you can’t keep playing at The Diamond.” It’s not in the six weeks or six month or in the next season or two. And that has been made clear by Minor League Baseball, by the Eastern League and it will be made eventually clear by the powers that be in Major League Baseball. So I’m not making any threats. I want candor and honesty. Even if that candor and honesty says, “We don’t want you.” I need to know that.
The ultimate decision comes from Major League Baseball?
It is up to a lot of entities. Minor League Baseball. Their affiliates. The Eastern League. The Eastern League and Minor League Baseball allowed a minor league team to come here after a Triple-A team left because they were led to believe and I was led to believe -- in a group that I have invested well over $2 million at this point, probably closer to $2.5 million at this point -- into an obsolete facility. We were led to believe that a new home for the Squirrels was going to be built imminently. We’re no closer to that happening than we were six years ago. That’s simply not fair.
One more point. The Squirrels have always been willing to pay shoulder to shoulder. We pay well over $1.5 million in net, more than the minor league. … No one from the Squirrels is asking for a free ride here.