Parking Lot Apocalypse 

Correction: In earlier print and online versions, Style incorrectly reported that CDA attorney George Scruggs recommended waiting to lower event parking fees until after the MAC Events Home Show at the convention center. It was not Scruggs, but Johnnie Hogue, regional manager for Standard Parking, who made the recommendation. Style regrets the error.

A bout of capitalism is breaking out on the 15th floor of the Riverside on the James office building at Haxall Point.

Jim Johnson, chairman of the Broad Street Community Development Authority, which is in the business of managing parking decks downtown, is proposing something surprising: It's time to drop the $8 event parking fee to $5.

"I'm saying effective today," he says, stirring only a light rebuttal from the parking lot manager, Johnnie Hogue of Standard Parking, who thinks it's best to wait until after the MAC Events Home Show at the convention center, during which parking spaces will be in unusually high demand.

Board member Ron Stallings argues him down, proffering the ability to gain "customer loyalty" from downtown parkers in the future by dropping the fee now. Heads nod. Stallings, sensing opportunity, goes on to propose a more effective marketing campaign for the CDA's lots. There's more. It's time to brighten up the early-bird signs in front of the decks. "Halloween orange and black that you can see for miles away," Stallings suggests. "Let's kick it up a notch with some other colors."

The board members are giddy, almost punchy, with visions of ingenuity during their monthly meeting Jan. 24. A week earlier they had some bad news to deliver to City Council's finance committee: By fiscal 2009 the CDA expects to be short on cash, roughly $750,000 to $1 million short, and needs help covering its bond payments. It was the first time the CDA had come to City Council asking for money.

City Council took it well, even thanking Johnson for giving the city a heads-up (the shortfall isn't expected for another year). At the meeting last week there was a sense of relief. They'd gotten the bad news off their chest and it was relatively well-received.

CDAs, increasingly popular with cash-strapped municipalities, create special tax districts to pay for public infrastructure such as roads and utilities. Five years after the Broad Street CDA launched, the one caveat so repeatedly dismissed by public officials has come to roost. The city backed the loan when the CDA issued the $66.7 million in high-interest government bonds in 2003, which went to clean up about 10 blocks around the convention center and East Broad -- for better streetscapes, utility hookups and the demolition of 6th Street Marketplace.

The deal was such a surefire success, city officials told City Council and Richmond taxpayers, that there was little to no chance taxpayers would get left holding the bag. The revenue to pay back the bonds was projected conservatively — the two city-owned parking decks generated $2.3 million before the CDA took them over in 2003, and the city hands over $400,000 from the Richmond Coliseum's budget, for example.

The city agreed to a "moral obligation" to cover up to $3 million a year in bond payments if the CDA fell short. Such obligations aren't legally binding, but failure to make good on its verbal promise would damage the city's pristine bond rating. Coming up short would mean the parking revenues didn't grow as planned, an unlikely scenario, former Deputy Director of Economic Development Edwin Gaskin assured Style in 2003.

If the parking revenues didn't grow at all, that would mean the convention center was doing nothing to bring people downtown. "That's an almost apocalyptic scenario for downtown," Gaskins said dismissively.

It's not quite the apocalypse — the convention center had a record year in 2007, according to convention center officials — but the $1 million shortfall hurts nonetheless. Don't blame it on a conventionless convention center (more on that next week), but on faulty parking lot projections and the fact that the Miller & Rhoads hotel still hasn't happened, the performing arts center complex got delayed and Richmond Marriott occupancy hovers at 69 percent (really, not a horrible year in 2007, but still not enough to justify building the planned 200-plus tower).

Then there's the competition, something that wasn't factored into the original parking lot projections. But the CDA board is hard at work pulling the entrepreneurial levers, extracting their milk from the government teat. They also have a feisty new board member to rustle things up a bit, former Richmond Mayor Roy West. They even meet in a building that stands as testament to Richmond innovation — a brand-new riverfront office tower on Brown's Island that cleverly skirts $556,000 a year in real estate taxes thanks to the historic tax abatement program (a small building is connected to the historic hydroelectric plant on the island).

Next year, a headache looms. The apocalypse is on a timer — 17 months, and ticking. "We made our December payment and we'll be able to make our June payment," Johnson says. S

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