The City Stadium Dilemma 

Virginia Commonwealth University is reasserting its interest in acquiring City Stadium, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This isn't exactly big news, of course, as VCU has been expressing interest in the property ever since the University of Richmond built its own on-campus football stadium, which opened last fall. VCU would use it for multiple purposes, keeping the 16-acre property as an athletic facility, but make no mistake: the university sees City Stadium as a potential home for VCU Rams football, Division I-AA, if it ever decides to pull the trigger and start a team.

There's no question that VCU football makes sense. With a student population of 32,000, making it the largest public university in the state, and a huge alumni base in metro Richmond, it would have instant fans and paying customers. Football builds loyalty to the university, helps bolster fundraising and, perhaps most important, becomes a significant marketing tool for the university nationally. As President Michael Rao attempts to attract more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition, adding football can become a powerful campus amenity.

For the city, however, VCU's interest in the property poses a dilemma. City Stadium may be the most valuable piece of underdeveloped real estate in the city. It's bounded by Interstate 195, the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway. See our story this week. Fulton Hill Properties wants to build a retail center on the site for this very reason: It may be the only property in Richmond that has the market potential to develop right now -- regardless of the economy — because of its size and interstate proximity, making it easily accessible from south and north of the river, from the near West End to Church Hill. 

While nearby residents want the property to remain an athletic complex, the property offers an opportunity for the city to land major, tax-producing retailers. Not that long ago, Wal-Mart even expressed interest in building a supercenter on the property. While even the mention of big boxes makes certain people in the city, and many in the surrounding neighborhoods, shudder, such retail can be a huge economic generator. In a city that desperately needs to add jobs and keep retail dollars from fleeing to the surrounding suburbs, City Stadium offers a rare opportunity. 

The economic impact of handing the property over to VCU would be nil. VCU is tax-exempt, thereby generating no real estate revenue. In fact, VCU already sits on nearly $1.5 billion worth of real estate between its medical and academic campuses. It doesn't generate a drop of real estate taxes.

And college football, if VCU does decide to launch a team, also wouldn't help the economy much. There is a wide perception that college football would mean big business, but not really. In fact, an economic study looking at the impact of college football games on local economies led by Robert A. Baade, a sports economist at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill., found that even major college football programs create no discernible economic impact on their respective communities. 

“While successful college football teams may bring fame to their alma mater, fortune appears to be a bit more elusive as big plays and big crowds inside the stadium don't seem to translate into big money outside the stadium,” the study concludes. Read the study here.

So, City Stadium becomes an interesting test for Mayor Dwight Jones and City Council. What to do? Cede the property over to VCU and realize no net economic benefit and keep nearby residents happy? Or sell the land to retail developers and go for jobs and tax revenue on behalf of the entire city?

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