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Setting a Course 

Four months into his term, Mayor Wilder talks about waste of taxpayer money, the future of Shockoe Bottom and the issues he plans to tackle next.



Style: What about the baseball stadium? If the Braves don't come back, could Richmond get another team? Also, there aren't a lot of cities that are getting new baseball teams without building new parks. That seems to be the trend.

Wilder: Is there a need for a new stadium or a need for a development around a stadium? To the extent that The Diamond is out there, to the extent that we had already committed to $18.5 million dollars in renovations [for The Diamond] — you mean to say there aren't some teams who wouldn't want to come to that? Where you have adequate parking, where you have easy access from the highway. [Interstate] 95 is right there, access to [Interstate] 64. Why would they turn it down? Because it's not brand new? I don't know that that's the case when the attendance figures here are second in the International League [in which the Richmond Braves play]. Why would anybody reject that?



So are you getting behind the idea of developing The Diamond area first? Maybe going in that direction?

If you look at my letter, I've asked [Terry McGuirk, president of the Atlanta Braves], Are you going to leave or not? Let us know something. [For the Braves] to respond, "We are waiting for the mayor to commit to show Richmond's commitment to it." And I ask you as I asked earlier on: Would you commit to … seriously considering any involvement based on the information that you have seen publicly? I tell you what you have seen publicly is as much as I've seen privately. I've seen nothing else other than what you've seen. Nothing.



One of the developers who came with the Braves, Timothy Kissler of Global Development Partners, said that when he first visited the Bottom he knew immediately that a retail and residential development could work. If so, why do you need a baseball stadium?

Why hasn't somebody else done it? That's a very good question. There are people who are saying they want to look at the development down there without a stadium.



Are you open to that?

I am. I tell you what I'm open to: Not being tied down so that things are being blocked — for new baseball teams that want to come in here or for development of the Bottom. We've got to get that drain fixed one way or the other. Now the question is: Do we fix it for another 100-year flood, which is uneventful in thinking that it might take place, or do we fix it in the ordinary sense of what ordinary rain and ordinary drainage would require? Particularly looking to what we may needed to have done with the floodgate when that rain came [in August]. Should we have done some other things that we didn't do? … Talking with people I know who are knowledgeable in engineering, they are saying that the type of pipe that would be needed for the drainage down there is a huge pipe … that it would have to be designed, it would have to be built, and that every passing day tells you that none of this is going to take place by 2008. Not that it's so expensive … but you've got to do it.

We're going to fix the drainage, period. The only thing that I have seen so far is that the Braves have said to the developers, If you guys can get us a new stadium, hey, we'll put it down there [in the Bottom], where we won't have to pay for it. Because you are going to be paying for it with all of the things that you are doing with the development around it. You have not heard anybody from the Braves say they are going to put up a dime for anything — debt service, engineering study, feasibility. I'm not being critical, I'm being realistic and objective.



Shifting gears. As you dug into the budget, what were some of the themes that stuck out, that emerged as you really dug into the financial situation of the city? What do we have to fix?

Our debt service, our debt capacity. We are just about here [raises hand to his chest]. We have a self-imposed 7.5 percent limit on where we go limited to our fund reserve. The legal limit is 10 [percent].

We have a $250 million hole in our retirement system, which really can't be addressed overnight. We've got to start making determinations: One, are we going to go to a state system, as some of the other localities do? If we are going to fund it, what are the better ways to do it?

We need to get a handle on the tax abatement. … It's almost, Hey, who wants a tax abatement? We're not treating it like it is money [chuckles]. You don't have to pay the taxes for the next 15 years. We just give it up. That's money that you are giving up. Residential and commercial. … [The city gives up] $13 or $14 million each year in terms of tax abatement. Real-estate assessments go up, and that's why it doesn't compute to revenues because of … how much of that is taken off the top for abatements. …

Consider when the suggestion was made, not by me but by the School Board members themselves, that the school administration [move its offices] to Armstrong High School. We find out now that it is in such bad shape that they can't go there. Now, that's a school that was only vacated a year or so ago. If it's in such bad shape you can't go there, then how could have the students stayed there during that period of time?

Why do we have all these schools? Our dwindling school-age population is under 25,000. We have more school buildings than you can shake a stick at. Many of them either need to be closed up or fixed up, combined, and that's going to take place. …



In your budget, you cut the School Board's capital improvements budget.

I didn't cut their capital improvement at all. ... They were hiding a capital improvement that they were not using. And to the extent that they weren't using [it], they waited until the last minute then to come to ask us [and] City Council to authorize them to use it as they chose. We said, Oh no, no. That was put there for that purpose. …

In the school system you got two payroll departments, two finance departments. … Why don't all city employees be automated in terms of their pay, deposited immediately? Why not? They do it everywhere else. Why is it that you need two printing offices? The city has one in the basement, the School Board has one on the 16th floor. Why? For what? …

Look at what we just did this week. [School Board Chairman] Steve Johnson and [Senior Policy Adviser Paul] Goldman got together and talked. So they are going to repaint all the crosswalks that should have been repainted. You know what [the school system does]? They paint them and they understand when they paint them this way that in six months, it washes away. Why? Because they didn't buy the highway machine-type painting device. …



It's going to wash away?

Yes. After six months. The money is in the budget for that machine and they never bought it [chuckles]. It's a zoo, trust me.



As the budget process comes to a close, what's next in terms of where you want to go in terms of your administration and the direction of the city?

We need to get a better handle on housing. … The council in my judgment needs to have a more direct involvement with the [Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority]. … I think we'll be opting to re-enter the state health policy. As you know, the city and only two other localities are not in the state plan. I think there has to be a reorganized effort relative to the economic development of the city.

We'll continue with public safety. We've announced the Beautify Richmond theme, which is far more comprehensive than just cleaning it up for 2007, but to make certain that streets, highways and roadways are kept clean and kept pothole-free, to make certain that slum landlord occupancy is something of the past. …



Your time here, some wonder if you will finish out your term. Are you?

Yes, I am. I am energized by it. The thing that flatters me more than anything else is that the people of Richmond would say that this old guy is looked upon to lead the city at a time when people my age would not be looked upon to do anything. And that energizes me more than you can imagine because there are new challenges every day. …The question people are asking me is, Who is going to be there after you leave?



Who do you see filling your shoes?

I don't see anybody. I see the people deciding that they will have a ship that is already chartered, and a course that is not going to be changed. A crew is going to be on that ship that is prepared to follow the appropriate leader. And they will select that person, and they will demand of that person, Don't you change the course of that ship. …



And it's going to take four years to get us there?

I look for four years to be the measuring mark of this administration. S



Part One of Wilder's interview with Style was published May 4. Find it online at www.styleweekly.com.



Wilder will share more thoughts at "As One: A Community Forum on Regional Cooperation Featuring the Honorable L. Doug-las Wilder, Mayor of Richmond," May 19, 4-6 p.m., in the Wall Auditorium at Virginia Union University, sponsored by Leadership Metro Richmond. Tickets are $20. 343-1500.
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