Diamond in the Rough 

The feverish rush to build a downtown baseball stadium.

"In addition to the performing arts center and the convention center … the city could use another catalyst," says Davey, who is the project manager for a group of local business owners studying the matter. "The river is a golden opportunity."

The idea isn't exactly new. City Manager Calvin Jamison first floated the proposal two years ago, but it was swiftly relegated to the dugout. At the time, the project was deemed too expensive — between $55 million and $65 million — requiring regional cooperation rarely seen in metro Richmond.

So the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which manages the Diamond, started planning renovations to the current ballpark, which hasn't seen a major upgrade since being built in 1985. (Oddly enough, about a week ago a hunk of concrete fell 75 feet from the roof support into the stands, barely missing spectators. It was a freak accident, officials say, and the roof isn't part of the planned improvements.)

The incident symbolizes a new urgency for Davey's group. But they have a new twist: What if Richmond could get a new stadium for the same $18.5 million needed to renovate the old one?

By using a new Diamond as an anchor for a bigger, mixed-use project, Davey says the RMA may be able to attract private developers willing to foot most of the bill.

In the past few weeks, the group has worked feverishly to raise money for an ongoing study that explores the feasibility of such a project. The city agreed to pay $18,000 for the first phase of the study, which is being done by Looney Ricks Kiss, an architecture and design firm heralded by some for doing a similar project in Memphis. In that development, completed in 2000, a new stadium built for the Memphis Redbirds anchors a multiuse development that incorporates offices, apartments and retail shops.

The first phase of the Richmond study seeks to identify possible sites downtown. Davey, a managing partner at engineering firm Timmons Group, declines to identify where, except to say the site previously targeted in 2001 near the Federal Reserve Building, and potential sites in Manchester across the 14th Street bridge, are among them.

Frank Ricks, a principal at Looney Ricks Kiss, says the first phase of the study should be complete sometime in the next week or so.

"It's still early-on in the process, but I'm impressed with what I see," Ricks says. While the first phase only identifies possible sites, he says Richmond has several that make sense. The next phase will go into more detail. (So far, Davey's group has raised $20,000 of the $30,000 needed to pay for the second phase.)

The most important thing to remember, explains Ricks, is that a baseball stadium isn't a cure-all. "You don't go off and plant the ballpark in an area that is isolated by itself and expect everything to change," he says. "What we think you should do is nestle the ballpark up to the edge of an area that is seeing some strength."

That strategy, however, poses a conundrum: Local leaders such as Jamison originally envisioned the ballpark as a catalyst for the stagnant Canal Walk, not as an ancillary development. Ricks says the project won't likely be a catalyst by itself.

Jamison says the city needs all the development it can get.

"It's not an either-or," he says. "We've got to do it all … to become a first-class destination city." Jamison, however, says the project needs to be funded primarily by the private sector.

But will developers be willing to shell out $40 million on a project where its main anchor will be open only 72 nights a year?

Some experts say the odds are slim.

"It seems like a lot for a private developer to put out unless there is some quid pro quo," says Neil deMause, co-author of "Field of Schemes," a book on the nationwide trend of publicly funded ballparks and stadiums. "You can try and find somebody who is going to pay for most of a $60 million stadium, but I can't imagine they are going to do that without some other kinds of concessions."

Typically, deMause says, the public ends up paying more for such projects, because the risk is too great for developers to incur alone. Tax abatements, special taxes for infrastructure costs and other incentives are almost always included later. And new stadiums, he says, rarely spur the kind of ancillary development to justify the expense. These kinds of development projects can generate some traffic, but often there is only a minimal return on the investment.

"There is an argument to be made for that — that bad development is better than no development," he says. "I'm not sure I would pay to put that on a bumper sticker."

While fans may spend money outside the stadium during weekend games, the bulk of the 72 game nights tend to do little to stimulate the businesses around the stadium, deMause says.

And there is little quantifiable research suggesting otherwise. Ricks, who admits minor-league stadiums can't work alone, offers largely anecdotal evidence that Memphis is seeing true economic benefit because of the new stadium. He says the new development has helped local restaurateurs, hotels and other businesses downtown. But the true financial impact of the development is difficult to measure.

"We're urban planners, architects and designers, but we don't get into the trickle-down effect on restaurants and things like that," he says. To gauge the true economic impact of the development, Ricks says, his firm would have to hire a consultant.

Time, however, is running out. The Brave's 10-year contract with the RMA runs out after next season. And the major league Atlanta Braves, which owns the local Braves, has expressed concerns about the poor condition of the Diamond — the lighting is poor, the clubhouses are small, and the field dates back to 1953. While no ultimatums have been issued, owners in Atlanta could decide to move the team after next year.

"Sometimes we get caught up in the details," says Robert M. Berry, general manager of the RMA. "The important thing is we keep the Braves here for the fans."

And what would become of the Boulevard if the Braves move? The Braves drew an average 6,500 fans to its home games in 2002. One of the arguments for building a new ballpark downtown, says Ricks, has to do with the positive impact it can have on commercial property values and other businesses. So what happens to the area left behind? More studies are needed, says Ricks.

Davey says the current study isn't meant to answer all those questions, just offer some idea of whether a new stadium is, at least, possible. Chesterfield is expected to consider the matter again later this month. Richmond is expected to consider the options Sept. 8. Berry, of the RMA, says he's ready to issue work orders on the renovations by mid-September. Davey knows time is running out. The goal, he says, is to get the new-stadium proposal on the table simply as an option. He just wants one more chance.

"Just don't close the door on the opportunity," Davey says. "That's all we're asking for." S

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