In the political game to keep baseball in Richmond, it would seem the departure of the Richmond Braves in January may have been an intentional walk.
Richmond officials announced last week that North Carolina-based Highwoods Properties had been awarded the master development agreement to redevelop both the Boulevard and Shockoe Bottom.
Contained in that agreement — or more specifically, in the Highwoods Properties proposal that led to its choosing — is a resurrection of plans to relocate the city's diamond to Shockoe.
What wasn't mentioned in the city news release is that Highwoods Properties submitted its plan to the city Oct. 24, 2007, a year before the award of the contract — and three months before the Braves announced they'd be moving to Gwinnett County, Ga. The timing raises a new question: Would Braves have reconsidered staying in Richmond had the organization known about the proposal?
E-mails between the city and Braves management before January indicated that the team's move was largely out of frustration with the city's slow — often seemingly stalled — response in negotiations to replace The Diamond, the aging ballpark on the Boulevard.
But the move was also at least in part because the Braves had no desire to remain on the Boulevard, says Pete Boisseau, a spokesman for Highwoods Properties.
“They announced the move the same day the city put out its [request for proposals] for the Boulevard that included a new ball stadium,” Boisseau says. “They didn't want to be on the Boulevard.”
City spokesman Linwood Norman disputes that, saying the Braves “had indicated that their planned departure had been in the works for about two years.”
Gwinnett Braves General Manager Bruce Baldwin says speculation over whether knowledge of the Shockoe proposal might have changed their mind is “pure conjecture and I'm not sure I want to go down that path, to tell you the truth.”
Baldwin says the Shockoe proposal “was not presented to us and the only thing that was available was what the city had proposed, and that was building a ballpark adjacent to the interstate [on Boulevard].”
As a result of the city's bad play on the Braves deal, Boisseau says, Highwoods Properties will have a tight deadline to ensure that its own plan to redevelop the 17-plus-acre Shockoe site doesn't go foul. (See related story, page 12.)
Hinging the downtown plan on a team means that a replacement for the Braves must be found by March 1.
“We wish we'd gotten started sooner because we might have had a team here,” Boisseau says, suggesting the Braves “might have stayed if [the city] had moved expeditiously.”
But Boisseau stops short of condemning the city for not moving faster: “The city really did its due diligence on this project before they finally awarded it.”