Dollars and Sense

City Council aims to ease the pain of Richmond’s approach to economic development.

In 2012 there was the Redskins Training Camp, which ran $1 million over budget without anyone from the city administration or Economic Development Authority bothering to tell City Council. Its members were open about their displeasure.

In 2013, there was the mayor’s Shockoe Bottom ballpark development proposal, which died after council members said they’d vote against it, citing the difficulty they faced getting key financial details about the project.

2014 turned into the year of Stone Brewing Co. — a far more popular proposal that will bring the large, West Coast craft brewer to Richmond. But that too turned contentious, with authority members again failing to disclose a multimillion-dollar cost overrun to City Council members until after the agreement was finalized and released last week.

The extent of the dysfunction hasn’t escaped City Council members. Months before the recent Stone Brewing gaff, they began thinking about how to reform the city’s approach to economic development.

They hope to introduce the resulting legislation within the next 30 days. The goal is to make things more open and collaborative, says Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, an ally of the mayor who nonetheless spearheaded the effort.

The policy should “eliminate a lot of the confusion — perception or reality,” she says — “of things not being transparent and people feeling like they don’t have access to the data they need. I think that should make a huge difference.”

Robertson says her approach is twofold. First, she wants to outline a standard public process for an approach to development deals so everyone will know exactly when to expect information. Second, she wants the city to revisit its master plan for development, a document that was finalized in 2000 after a series of public meetings that began in 1996.

An updated document would make it clear what types of development residents would like to see in different parts of the city, Robertson says. That way, when a company approaches the city with a deal that needs to remain confidential, economic development staff already will have gathered feedback and have a sense of what the community will support.

Robertson says she developed the plan with Councilwoman Kathy Graziano and a handful of community advocates.

Stewart Schwartz, the director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates about planning issues primarily in the Washington area, says part of the strain in Richmond relates to the newness of its form of government. It wasn’t until 2004 that Richmond began electing its mayor at-large and making him the city’s chief executive.

“On the one hand, it makes perfect sense to have an at-large, directly elected mayor,” says Schwartz, who lives in Richmond and is a board member of the Partnership for Smarter Growth here. “But the separation between the executive and legislative branch seems to create inefficiencies, and it can create a system where the executive branch is not as willing to share all the information it should with the legislative branch.

“It puts staff in a difficult position because they’re hired and fired by the executive and yet they’re asked to be completely forthcoming by the legislative body.”

Through the course of the debate about Stone, City Council members complained about the difficulty they faced in getting information about the deal.

“We can’t make decisions based on partial information or no information,” Councilman Jon Baliles says. “And if the administration is not willing to provide us with that information, it makes the decision-making harder and sometimes that leads to what people may see as tension. But it’s not tension — it’s frustration.”

It’s uncertain whether Mayor Dwight Jones and his administration share council’s concerns. In an interview at the end of 2014, Jones told Style he thought City Council was getting too mired in administrative details of his big-picture proposals.

His administration also appears unwilling to acknowledge the lack of transparency with which council members say they’ve struggled. The same day the Stone Brewing lease was made public last week, revealing the $3 million cost overrun previously undisclosed, the chief operating officer of the city’s Economic Development Department, Jane Ferrara, told a gathering of local business leaders that “despite what you read … every document was a public document,” Virginia Business reported.

Lee Downey, the city’s top economic development official, says he’s been participating in Robertson’s effort to reform the city’s approach to economic development. But there are limits to how much things can change, he says.

“We’ve been having conversations about things we may do going forward,” he says. “I think we’re trying to come to some resolution, but there are definitely challenges with nondisclosure agreements.

“What we’re doing is reaching out to everyone to say here is how we work and why we do it and listen to concerns and just go back and forth to find a path forward that will work for everybody.” S


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