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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

SPECIAL REPORT AND COMMENTARY: RVA Reaching Critical Crossroads

For decades, when discussions began concerning the lack of growth overall in the metropolitan Richmond area, the "Charlotte Comparison" would be introduced.

Indeed, in the 1970 United States Census, the city of Richmond was 57th, Charlotte 60th, with 8,400 residents separating the two. Over the next four decades, Charlotte grew, and grew. Southeastern bank headquarters flocked there. In sports, Charlotte was the home of the booming NASCAR. In 1988, they were awarded an NBA franchise, and the race was over.

In the 2010 United States Census, Charlotte is 17th, while Richmond is now 102nd.

In the 21st Century, however, Richmond has shown a strong penchant for becoming known in certain entertainment areas, from having one of the best craft beer scenes in the nation, to a growing number of well-respected restaurants, plus one of the best community run/walk events in America in the Momument Avenue 5K. Richmonders have proven that if they want something, they're willing to work hard to get it.

We look at where RVA is, and where RVA is strong, because this area is quickly approaching a crossroads from a sporting perspective, one which will decide what kind of sports and entertainment city Richmond, Virginia really is for the preponderance of the 21st Century. The signs have been all along the road of 2017.

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In 2009, the Richmond Flying Squirrels announced their arrival to The Diamond, where they would play until a new promised stadium was built. That promise was a large part of the reason the franchise moved south to replace the longtime Braves, who pulled out of Richmond after the 2008 season, and some embarrassing incidents and conditions at an aging Diamond.

The Squirrels conclude their eighth season in Richmond soon, and there is no new field of dreams in sight.

The franchise, however, watched as Richmond, under former mayor Dwight Jones, lavished a new training facility for the Washington Redskins to lure them to town for about three weeks each summer. Fans packed the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center for the first two years. Then, the "RGIII" bloom fell off the rose, the team struggled, vendors became unhappy with the city, and maybe, casual fans began to realize that, in the late July and early August heat and humidity, all they were seeing us, in fact, practice. The team again this year did not release daily attendance figures at camp as they glowingly did back in 2013. Now, new mayor Levar Stoney has entered renegotiation talks with the team, who have three years remaining in the original eight-year contract with the city to practice here.

And, in case you were on vacation in late June, it was announced that investors, led by the CEO of Dominion Energy, were actively pursuing plans for a new arena to finally replace the out of date Richmond Coliseum, opened 46 years ago, and in desperate need of replacement.

As musical and other acts once skipped Richmond to play in Washington and Tidewater, for the past decade, Richmond has seen its share of possible concert and event business snub them in favor of the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. Still, city officials have been very reluctant to bring Richmond a premier sports and entertainment arena for the 21st Century.

So, as you can see, within a one month period, the new arena talk became public, the Flying Squirrels won the rights to host the 2019 Eastern League All-Star Game (it'll be at The Diamond), and the Redskins came and left, the result another ho-hum training camp from an attendance standpoint.

Critics of the use of any tax dollars, especially by the City of Richmond, can immediately point to the deplorable conditions at George Mason Elementary School as reason not to spend money on large facilities that, in some's view, only serve entertainment purposes.

On the other hand, hotel owners and employees, and all those restaurants being lauded here in RVA, would love to see A-List music artists and other big events populate a new state-of-the-art arena. It would help sustain jobs, add others, and, at worst, keep the businesses alive and hopefully growing.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, a long-time proponent of bringing the Washington Redskins into a new stadium in Northern Virginia, wants to replicate the public/private partnership happening now with the construction of the new stadium for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, making the stadium a year-round destination with businesses all around, always open, in effect, muting the argument of spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a venue open just 20 times a year for their main tenants.

This theory could work in both the arena and baseball stadium situations. In fact, the baseball park has part of it already built in, with SportsBackers Stadium behind it, the Redskins Training Center nearby, as is the beautiful BowTie MovieLand Cinema complex on Leigh Street. However, the Greyhound Bus Station, built a few years before The Diamond, is an eyesore.

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The final issue that has long delayed any true progress in any of these areas has been, of course, regional cooperation. Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover Counties have been reticent about playing a role in making a new arena or stadium come to fruition. After all, they're not being built in their jurisdiction, thus, taxes aren't coming into the coffers.....unless Richmond is willing to share on the back end.

In the end, everyone seems to be waiting for everyone else to make the much-needed and long overdue first move so that these dominoes can finally begin to fall. We are hoping Dominion Energy's late June talk of finally getting a new arena project going will be that first domino.

The bottom line is simple. If a new baseball stadium isn't built, soon, the Flying Squirrels, who have been one of the best community providers of sports, entertainment, opportunity and philanthropy this city has ever seen, will sadly pull up stakes, and bless another city instead, one willing to give them something that was promised to them here eight years ago: a real home. That's not too much to ask.

In 1984, after the end of the Richmond Braves' season, immediately, Parker Field was demolished, and, in the offseason, The Diamond sprang to life. The Braves opened the 1985 season on an extended road trip, then, by mid-April 1985, they christened their new home. That was 32 years ago.

There's no reason why this couldn't happen again, should it be determined that their current location is the best option for the new stadium. Send the Squirrels on a road trip in mid-August to complete a season. Immediately begin work on the new stadium, which can be a bit smaller, and more quaint, but with modern features.

At the same time, we propose the demolition of the Arthur Ashe Center nearby to use that space for parking. The Center is aging, too, and is nowhere close to being fully utilized. Its busiest season is winter for indoor track, and some high school basketball. Most weekends, Richmond-area high schools travel to the Boo Williams facility in Hampton for track meets. The favor is almost never returned.

Build a new Arthur Ashe Center in Eastern Henrico near Dorey Park or White Oak Village, which will bring hundreds, and sometimes a few thousand people to it for meets and other events. Let Varina and Highland Springs play a basketball doubleheader there, alternating years as "home" team. If Dorey Park is too far from White Oak Village for some people's taste, build it near the airport. That brings some monies back to one of your regional partners. It can also be used by AAU basketball programs for their year-round tournaments. More traffic, more business.

If Virginia State and Virginia Union continue to hold The Freedom Classic on Martin Luther King Weekend at the Coliseum, then why not a city basketball doubleheader at the new Ashe Center on that Monday or previous Friday? Would fans go 10 miles to watch TJ play Armstrong and John Marshall battle George Wythe, for example? Of course, they would.

With talk of some sort of train station stop at the Boulevard, that could only enhance the prospects of continued growth around what could be the future home of "The New Diamond".

As for downtown, there's little choice but to build a new arena next to the current Coliseum, then utilize the old Coliseum land for parking. Note to city leaders, lots of parking. Create plenty and make it affordable, and once and for all kill the notion in people's minds that "I won't go downtown, there's nowhere to park, and when you find it, it's too expensive!"

With low parking fees, you entice fans. Then, if you want them to spend $12 for a chicken tenders basket at the arena, so be it. There, they have a choice. In getting to the venue, they don't. And, use this time to recreate business opportunity around the new arena so the restaurant and hospitality businesses can thrive.

With the Greater Richmond Convention Center right next door, imagine a new arena with regular tenants from indoor football to, dare we say, hockey (Hampton Roads is back in the ECHL, you know...), restart the old holiday college basketball doubleheader featuring four state teams rotating yearly (VCU vs ODU in a new 15,000 seat arena? Sellout....), keep the Atlantic 10 Women's Basketball Championship, then go after other like events. Aggressively court LiveNation and get more musical acts in the arena. World Wrestling Entertainment, one tenant that hasn't abandoned the Coliseum, coming to Richmond for their "Raw" or "Smackdown" TV shows at least twice a year, would be thrilled.

In other words, make Richmond the destination it has always had the potential to be.

One of the biggest events of my media career was a weekend spent at the Richmond Coliseum covering the first two rounds of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament in 1990. UVA, Syracuse, Notre Dame were the headliners. The city was alive and electric, and so was the action. Thousands of people in, and around, the Coliseum.

We have, from a people standpoint, the infrastructure to put on large-scale events. Ask the folks with UCI 2015.

Richmond is quickly approaching a crossroads, and, we feel we'll reach it sometime by the turn of the decade. We hope that the year 2020 will be populated by the christening of a new "Diamond" on the Boulevard, surrounded by tons of nightlife choices, a beautiful new Arthur Ashe Arena, a building worthy of such a namesake, filled over 100 days a year by scholastic and college student-athletes, finally breaking the stranglehold of the Boo Williams facility in Hampton, and, dirt flying downtown as our new arena, whether it's named after Dominion Energy or not, rises from its foundation.

Or, we could have the same old aging, dying facilities, the end of a decade run from the Squirrels, and the same old bickering which has paralyzed this region for too many years.

There are signs of life. Richmond Raceway, despite lower NASCAR attendance figures, will spend $30 million on upgrades, especially to the infield of the track, lauded as one of the best in the sport, to make races there as interactive for fans as humanly possible. The Richmond Kickers, with their lease completed with the city for City Stadium, will steadily improve another aging facility in our town while providing a product that gets more popular each year and brings international talent to our city. We applaud both of these organizations.

The Richmond Region's biggest corporate residents must step up. It's in their best interests to commit serious funds to these projects. Offer up naming rights. We won't complain if we see, for example, less television commercials (sorry, Gene Cox!) if the new baseball stadium is called "Elephant Insurance Park". Richmond's corporate tenants must come together and really show they are as committed to the long-term future of Richmond as its residents, and, hopefully, its leaders.

As for the City of Richmond? That George Mason Elementary School finds itself in its current condition is a travesty and an indictment of the previous administration and each member of City Council and School Board. Yes, huge investments are needed in the school system, not to mention other areas of vital city offerings (police, fire, etc). Huguenot High School is a fine example of what can be done.

But, did you ever stop to think this? Dozens and dozens of other cities around the nation have been able to build new schools, renovate others, provide for first responders, and help build entertainment centers in ways where said city would recoup monies for decades. In the 1970's, Cleveland was on the brink of bankruptcy. Twenty years later, the baseball world all wanted to descend on the new Jacobs Field, a crown jewel of Major League Baseball. Of the $175 million spent to create the stadium, $91 million came from Indians ownership, $84 million from a 15-year "sin tax" on cigarettes and alcohol. The stadium deal also included the current home of Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Voters there have approved the tax's extension to, in part, continuing to keep those facilities, and the Cleveland Browns' stadium, to receive upkeep.

It's past time for investment, for actual prudent financial allotment, and time for everyone in the Richmond Region, no matter how much, or how little, skin you have in the game, to get our beloved city set for the next 50 years. Create a non-profit partnership to oversee the projects, and their upkeep, so we don't get into this predicament again.

Richmond Region Tourism does a fine job promoting current facilities from SwimRVA and River City SportsPlex to RF&P Park, Strikers Park, and others for youth sports. They've proven people are happy to come to Richmond.

Fifty years ago, we were on par with Charlotte, North Carolina. Today? They have two professional teams and a reputation for being a progressive city in the "New South". Richmond can either, finally, push the button and secure for our city, our next 50 years, or we can sit in our individual craft beer parties and suburban restaurants and lament how Richmond can't get much done.

Well, we are Richmond. So, let us begin.

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We are happy to hear your thoughts and comments (keep them respectful or they will be deleted) in the comment section below. We know full well these are suggestions, there are plenty of holes in these thoughts, which is why public/private and regional partnerships are needed, yesterday, to tackle the issues and begin to finally move this albatross forward, and create a soaring eagle instead.

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