Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Tipping Point for Shockoe Bottom Baseball

Note: This piece was published by on June 18, 2009. For whatever reasons, the once-dead-and-buried notion of stuffing a baseball park into Shockoe Bottom has been reanimated. So here's a look at my take on how it all ended, abruptly, four years ago.


The Tipping Point for Shockoe Bottom Baseball
by F.T. Rea

The air of inevitability that once hovered over the Highwoods Properties/Richmond Baseball Club plan to build a new baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom is gone.

The story of where professional baseball ought to be played in Richmond has taken many a turn over the last decade. Longtime Richmonders can’t remember another squabble quite like the one between supporters of building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom and those opposed it.

While of many of those among the opposition prefer their baseball on the Boulevard, still others see baseball itself as relatively unimportant to Richmond’s future, when compared to The City's infrastucture needs, schools, etc.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article on Monday about purple martins roosting in trees in Shockoe Bottom and online readers criticized/mocked the newspaper, “environmental whackos,” “anti-development crusaders,” former Mayor Doug Wilder, Mayor Dwight Jones and you-name-it.

Over the last eight months the comments space under most online newspaper and magazine articles about baseball in Richmond has included the same sort of over-the-top comments from partisan readers, who either boost or bash Shockoe Bottom or the Boulevard with practiced passion.

In the blogosphere it has been the same; if anything, the tone has been worse. That many of such comments were crafted under the cloak of anonymity hasn’t done much for the civility of the discussions.

After all the news stories saying the purchase was close, closer, closest -- RBC, headed up by Bryan Bostic, came up short of money to purchase the Connecticut Defenders by the June 1 deadline the team’s owner had set. With the news of the collapse of Bostic’s effort to buy the Defenders the momentum for keeping baseball on the Boulevard has picked up.

We read that other teams are interested in moving to Richmond. A new plan to refurbish the 24-year-old Diamond has surfaced: Opening Day Partners says it can do the job for $28 million.

Somewhat ironically, this newest plan bears a noticeable resemblance to the $18.5 million agreement that would have given the old ballpark a makeover after the 2004 season was completed by the Richmond Braves. That plan had The City, the owners of  the R-Braves and the surrounding counties all participating in paying for the facility.

Now the Shockoe Center project, as designed by Highwoods Properties, is up in the air. Highwoods’ spokesman, Paul Kreckman, has said repeatedly that without the baseball stadium component his company will just walk away from the entire $783 million scheme it has presented for developing both Shockoe Bottom and the area just south of the Diamond. 

Kreckman reaffirmed that position on May 12 at the Richmond Times-Dispatch Public Square Forum, conducted by the newspaper’s publisher Tom Silvestri.

To the extent the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium concept is truly fizzling, the tipping point may well have been the night of that RT-D forum. After the four invited speakers made their presentations, a two-to-one majority of the audience members who spoke weighed in against baseball in Shockoe Bottom. Applause indicated a split along the same line.

Although the politicians in attendance had little or nothing to say, they surely saw a roomful of voters. And, they certainly heard a laundry list of sensible reasons why NOT to shoehorn a baseball stadium into Shockoe Bottom.

In addition to being way outnumbered, as far as the attendance went, another part of what underlined the weakness of Highwoods/RBC position was how fairly the forum was conducted. Silvestri’s calm evenhandedness offered a sharp contrast to those individuals who said things that were off-the-wall, or perhaps less than forthright.

After all the hyperventilating in comments under baseball stories, the thinking that Richmond was evenly divided on whether to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom was revealed to be an illusion -- poof!

No doubt, that illusion had been fostered in some part by the aforementioned online comments, which allowed a handful of determined downtown baseball boosters to appear to be many more, in numbers, than they really were.

Everyone who bothered to attend the May 12th forum saw the plain truth in the bright lights -- one side of the debate had turned out a lot more warm bodies than the other. Over and over, they heard fellow citizens questioning the veracity of what Kreckman and Bostic were saying. The doubts became contagious. If any of Bostic's would-be investors were in the room that couldn't have helped his cause. 

If it had been a baseball game the score would have been something like Boulevard 9, Shockoe Bottom 2.

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