Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ballpark Bandwagon Breakdown


Between January and September of 2014 Richmond witnessed the coalescence of a significant resistance to the notion of building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. In May the volume of the opposition chorus apparently surprised Mayor Dwight Jones (pictured left). Now it seems unlikely Jones’ so-called “revitalization” plan, as originally advertised, is ever going fall into place.

However unpopular with the voters the mayor’s plans for Shockoe Bottom and North Boulevard have become, shifts in the thinking of some on City Council may animate makeovers in 2015. What effect the rearranging of councilmanic chairs will have on the ballpark issue isn't known, yet. As we wait for that drama unfold, it's worthwhile to organize the 2014 record of the brouhaha for the sake of facilitating a clear perspective.

What came to stifle the mayor’s stadium-building scheme last year began gathering over the winter. Although no single entity was coordinating it, by early spring the escalating criticism of the Jones plan was pouring in from several directions.

However, now it seems there was one standout event that proved to be the tipping point. It appeared out of the blue on Apr. 28. On that Monday morning a group of students from Richmond public schools appeared at City Hall with a purpose. The majority of them were from Open High.

Whether one called it a "flash mob," or a "walkout," the protest march had obviously been prompted by a couple of telling Style Weekly articles ("Caving In" and "Filling Holes") published earlier the same month. The stories revealed dreadful conditions in some local public schools; the students acted on their own volition. They carried signs with messages for all to see. Some messages decried dilapidated school buildings. Others protested the Shockoe Stadium plan.

The next surprise came later that same fateful day. Instead of dispatching a brief note to congratulate the kids for their civic-minded moxie, and to say he was too busy to meet with them, Hizzoner decided to smooth the students’ ruffled feathers with his practiced mayoral patter. Well, in baseball parlance, Jones "booted" his chance to make a play. His painfully awkward response to the students' questions about the city's skewed spending priorities was worse than inadequate.

Naturally, the local media were all over the story of a flummoxed mayor. The kids looked good on TV.


Pre-turning point:

When Mayor Jones rolled out his large-dollar plan to “revitalize” the city on Nov. 11, 2013, he presented the building of a baseball stadium in the Bottom as an essential component. He spoke of how it would create jobs, enlarge the city's tax base and get a slavery-related museum built, too.

No doubt, 2014 began with the perceivable momentum on the mayor's side. Jones’ Chief Administrative Officer and top salesman, Byron Marshall, appeared more than up to the task of ramrodding the taxpayer-backed project through Richmond’s nine-member City Council.

As the baseball-in-the-Bottom bandwagon chugged through the first month of the 11th year of baseball stadium debate in Richmond, dissent to the mayor’s plan couldn’t be heard over establishment media-amplified boosterism. Venture Richmond’s ubiquitous LovingRVA public relations campaign was pumping high-test fuel into the bandwagon’s tank.

That, while no person or organization was speaking for the scattered opposition. Some wanted to protect Shockoe Bottom from an outrageously inappropriate development. Some saw another build-it-and-they-will-come boondoggle in the making. Others stood against what they believed to be an impractical plan, a plan that turned a blind eye on what baseball fans seemed to prefer.

Leading up to 2014, The Virginia Defender, published by Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto, had been focused on the issue for years. Owing to that effort and those of other activists, in February the resistance to baseball-in-the-Bottom continued gathering. STYLE Weekly stayed on the stadium beat with a series of news stories and several Back Page OpEds.

Social media’s role was snowballing. Facebook pages dedicated to opposing Shockoe Stadium included: Referendum? Bring It On!Save the DiamondSay No to a Stadium in Shockoe BottomShockoe ResistanceA Stadium RVA Can Love!. Outdoor billboard signs went up. Yard signs were posted. Activist Farid Alan Schintzius headed up the signage approach.

In March and April the Citizens Referendum Group held meetings at the City Library to discuss crafting a strategy to put a baseball stadium referendum on the ballot. Although that ad hoc group’s ambitious petition-signing campaign didn’t collect enough signatures to force such a referendum, the connections the undertaking created could come into play again. Many names and addresses of registered voters were collected. (An archive of published notices and articles on this issue is here.)

Other petitions were circulated. Boycott strategies came also into play. Political gadfly Paul Goldman weighed in with an avalanche of opinion pieces for WTVR.com. Although his message meandered over the year, Goldman was relentlessly hard-hitting with his many objections to pursuing the mayor's Shockoe Stadium concept.

In the wake of the notoriety of the Oscar-winning movie, “12 Years a Slave,” on March 25 the Hollywood Reporter weighed in: “Where the jail that held Solomon Northup once stood, a state-of-the-art baseball stadium may soon rise. That’s if the mayor of Richmond, Va., has his way.”


Post-turning point:

On Apr. 29, Preservation Virginia announced its Most Endangered Sites List for 2014, which included Shockoe Bottom. At this point three members of City Council were on record as being opposed to the mayor’s plan. They were: Parker Agelasto, Chris Hilbert and Reva Trammell.

The first of May brought news of an alternative stadium proposal, one for the Boulevard from a new developer. A week later Doug Wilder stuck his thumb in Jones’ eye by announcing his intention to revive his much-traveled slavery museum concept and locate it a couple of blocks from where the mayor wanted to put a similar museum.

On May 23, City Council members Charles Samuels and Jon Baliles put out a joint press release announcing their decision to let the sputtering Shockoe Stadium bandwagon pass them by. Joining with their three colleagues already prepared to vote against the mayor‘s plan, a new five-member majority was thus created. The bandwagon screeched to a sudden halt.

Four days later, Mayor Jones’ office announced his development plan for the Boulevard and the Bottom was being temporarily withdrawn from consideration. It was then anticipated the plan would be re-worked and introduced at a Council meeting before the summer was over.

Nonetheless, inside City Hall during June the stadium issue languished. In July Trammell suggested a referendum might be the best way to go. Her fellow Council members didn’t see it her way.

On August 3 a group of merry Richmonders paraded around The Diamond to mock the notion of demolishing it, only to build a replacement in the Bottom. As the accordion music swelled -- playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" -- some paraders may have wondered, once again, what the point of the LovingRVA campaign had been in the first place.

Was it to persuade the public? Or perhaps certain members of City Council?

In September, without much in the way of an explanation, Byron Marshall resigned. In the absence of a freshened up presentation from the mayor's office Council went on with other business.


If rumors are to be taken seriously, it now seems one member of last year's five-member-majority may flip this year. Time will tell. Still, what the mayor and any potential flip-flopping politicians should take to heart is this plain truth:

The opposition that swelled up in 2014 won’t be difficult to reanimate. It hasn’t gone anywhere, even if some politicians and rainmakers twist all the arms they can reach. After years of this issue flapping in the breeze, most voters have their minds made up. More salesmanship isn't going to change those minds much.

Moreover, last year’s coalescence of factions created something bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s something that isn't likely to ever stand aside for that old ballpark bandwagon. Nor is it likely to forget flip-floppery. For 2015, one thing is a safe bet: Dwight Jones wants no more face-to-face meetings with sign-carrying students at City Hall.

-- 30 --

-- Photo of Dwight Jones from Richmond.com. Photo of parade by WRIC Channel 8.

No comments: