Sometimes good things don’t come to those who wait. Shockoe Bottom merchants are frustrated that Richmond will not be getting a baseball stadium and more than $300 million in development to potentially help rocket the area into a thriving hub of commerce. That’s because the master developer, Highwoods Properties, has withdrawn its plan. The news release did not make clear exactly why, but several merchants have said it is likely because Highwoods did not get the necessary level of interest from city administrators.
The master plan included condos, retail and a ballpark that would be home to a locally owned AA team. Detractors had said that the city might have ended up paying back the bonds if the stadium and team didn’t thrive as the developers expected and that the project was not worth that risk.
David Napier, president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association and owner of the Old City Bar, said that even though all the businesses in the area didn’t necessarily agree on the value of baseball, they all got behind the development to fix the biggest impediment to finally making the district thrive: the risk of flooding.
RBS talked with Napier over the weekend about how the news hit local merchants and why the area can’t seem to catch a break.
Below is an edited transcript.
Richmond BizSense: When did you hear the deal was off?
David Napier: The day it was called off. The developers of ballpark sent the news release to me as president of the neighborhood association. That was two hours before it was on TV.
RBS: Was there any warning that the deal was falling apart?
DN: We knew that the deal wasn’t getting done quickly because the city had to evaluate the direction it was going to take. Obviously, the developer was not getting what it needed. I think our print media did the residents of Richmond a disservice. I feel like print media got caught up in baseball, which was less than 10 percent of this deal, a creative way to fix the flood plain and open up the Boulevard.
Frankly, I’m not a passionate baseball person. I’m a passionate economic development person. This is a historic lost opportunity.
RBS: Why has that part of town been so slow to grow?
DN: Until the city spends many millions to do what the baseball park was going to do with flood plain issues, what you see is what you get. The city has about maxed out on what it can do on its own, until they use city tax dollars or tax incremental financing on other projects. That’s one reason Henrico eats our lunch. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s an economic opportunity for Henrico. The city needs to realize that a city that does not invest in itself slowly dies.
RBS: Do you think Highwoods pulling out will hit the local businesses hard, perhaps psychologically?
DN: Zuupa is now leaving the Bottom to go to Rocketts Landing. So we just lost another restaurant. I wouldn’t be surprised if things get worse down here before they get better.
RBS: Do you think the mayor moved too slowly?
DN: He has a lot on his plate, and he has to trust advisers. I think he could have gotten better advice. It’s time now for bold leadership from the mayor. He can’t look back. He has got to think about what can we do.
RBS: You expressed some frustration at the media coverage, and we’ve heard that from other local business people.
DN: When your paper and your weeklies have a position that affects their objective reporting, all citizens as well as mayor get only one side of what’s going on.
RBS: Was that a failure to win the PR battle? Isn’t that a part of any plan, just like hiring engineers or lawyers?
DN: You can talk to newspapers and try to explain your side of story. But if they choose not to print it, there’s nothing you can do. I’m not a PR person. I felt obligated to get the facts.
RBS: Merchants in Shockoe Bottom have complained for years that the gunfire at night scares off consumers. Is there a reason the local police can’t get that under control? I know you have proposed a nightclub permit to help vet club owners.
DN: I’ve been informed that it’s a race issue and that the city will not implement a regulation to help the situation. That the clubs are being “targeted” because they cater to a black clientele. But remember, these clubs are in clear violation of ABC laws and causing problems.
And keep in mind – I love nightclubs. It’s an integrated neighborhood down here. And there are some thriving clubs that cater to black crowds and only a couple bad ones. It’s also not a Shockoe problem. It’s a behavior problem.
RBS: Lots of cities are known for thriving nightlife districts. Why can’t it seem to stick there?
DN: There are a few bad players taking advantage of ABC laws, who don’t care about taking care of the neighborhood. We’ve got to get them to change what they do or change where they do it.
RBS: Moving back to the ballpark, how did the news hit you?
DN: It was very frustrating. I was pretty disappointed. I may have gone to a few games, but the ballpark wasn’t even on top of my radar screen. It was cleaning up this neighborhood. The empty buildings suddenly would have become more attractive. We would have seen an immediate change with excitement.
Sooner or later, we have to take a bold step. Anything is better. I’m at the point where I’d take a Target or a Wal-Mart.
That would be not my first choice, but anything is better than what we’ve got. We’re going downhill. We just lost a great restaurant. I haven’t talked to Zuppa, but I feel sure that if a ballpark were coming, they would not have given up that location.