Saturday, May 24, 2014

Agelasto, Baliles, Hilbert, Samuels and Trammell: Are you ready for a referendum?
With a pivotal vote scheduled next week, five of nine members have now announced their opposition to the mayor's plan for Shockoe Bottom.

In the last month, Richmond’s longstanding debate over where to build a new baseball stadium took a turn that can't have pleased Mayor Dwight Jones. Hunkered down around a war-room strategy table, he's probably not having much fun this weekend. Jones needs a new plan on Tuesday morning.

In spite of a slick ad campaign to sell the mayor's scheme, the sentiment against it has been gathering ever since it was announced six months ago. The work of many individuals and various groups has helped to facilitate that gathering. So, is Shockoe Stadium dead? 

Well, maybe it's dying. The bandwagon has clearly lost its momentum, but as Yogi Berra might advise, "It ain't over 'til it's over."

On Memorial Day it will have been four weeks since the student "walkout" demonstration at City Hall, on April 28. Yesterday’s news that two more members of City Council are planning to vote against proceeding with Mayor Jones’ so-called “revitalization” plan -- Charles Samuels and Jon Baliles put out a press release -- threw a big log on the fire that has been burning up support for the mayor’s convoluted development scheme for Shockoe Bottom.

The spark that lit that fire came from the action of some 200 public high school students, who walked out of their classes to peacefully protest City Hall’s skewed spending priorities. They carried signs to decry rundown conditions at school facilities. Some of the signs cited the stadium issue. Their demonstration should eventually been seen as the turning point of Richmond's decade-old baseball stadium brouhaha.

April 28: Mayor Jones talked to some of the students after the demonstration. He fell flat on his face. The students were too polite to laugh as much as they probably should have.

April 29: Preservation Virginia announced its Most Endangered Sites List for 2014, which included Shockoe Bottom.

May 1: News of an alternative stadium proposal broke. That night City Council voted 5-4 to strip away some $12.6 million from the budget for infrastructure changes for the mayor’s aforementioned plan.

May 5: The noise pouring out of the curious Rebkee vs. Venture Richmond feud was hard to decode. 

May 8: Former-Gov./Former-Mayor Doug Wilder stuck his thumb in Mayor Jones’ eye by announcing he wants to revive his much-traveled slavery museum concept and locate it a couple of blocks from where the mayor’s plan would have a similar museum.

May 21: Del. G. Manoli Loupassi made a move to put the kibosh to the mayor’s EDA-facilitated secret bidding process.

May 22: Del. Joe Morrissey announced he would drop some legal action on City Hall if the mayor tries to go ahead with that secret bidding thing.

May 23: Samuels and Baliles put out their joint press release announcing their decision to jump off the stalled Shockoe Stadium bandwagon. 

Good news notwithstanding, the petition drive of the Citizens Referendum Group should go on. As long as Council could still “revisit” the Shockoe Stadium issue, as Samuels and Baliles have suggested, there’s no reason to discontinue the effort to let the voters have a say in how future large developments will be handled.

So pursuing a referendum remains worthwhile. Those of us who staunchly oppose baseball in the Bottom may have just taken the lead in the game's score, but it’s too soon to celebrate a victory.

Perhaps members of City Council should now consider offering up their own referendum strategy. Wouldn’t an advisory referendum sponsored by members of City Council be a move worth considering? Council has the power to simply order up a referendum, if it so chooses. Reva Trammell has already said she favors a referendum.

Instead of arguing against letting the voters have their say, maybe Parker Agelasto, Baliles, Samuels, Chris Hilbert and Trammell should be crafting the language of a new referendum proposal, which would compete with the CRG’s two proposals. Hey, I'm certainly aware that some people in town think the wording of the existing proposals could be improved.

Once the Shockoe Stadium dragon is slayed, for good, Richmond’s government should pivot to focus on fixing public education. Smart politicians shouldn't forget the images of those students carrying protest signs. How to best build a museum that tells the story of Shockoe Bottom before the Civil War should be carefully planned. The plan should have nothing to do with a sports arena. 

The Flying Squirrels are doing fine where they are. Eventually, a good plan to build a stadium to replace The Diamond will surface. It will most likely call for building it in the same neighborhood. No doubt, the plan will include developing the area around it for mixed use.

Who knows? Once the wooden stake is driven into the heart of Shockoe Stadium, we may begin to hear talk about a combination of regional cooperation and private money to replace The Diamond.

The future is bright. Have a nice weekend.  

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