An effort led by one of the region’s biggest corporate heavyweights appears to be taking aim at the ailing Richmond Coliseum.
A group of investors led by Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell is said to be backing and gaining momentum on a plan for a new arena downtown to replace the aging Coliseum, as well as potential redevelopment of surrounding properties, including remnants of the long-dormant 6th Street Marketplace and Blues Armory property.
According to sources with knowledge of the effort, the project is still in planning stages but is slated to be announced in the coming weeks.
Sources said Dominion looks to play a big role in the process, eyeing naming rights for the new arena as it has done with other venues such as Dominion Arts Center.
The company has secured a website domain for the potential endeavor, purchasing through an affiliate the rights to DominionEnergyArena.com. Online records show the affiliate registered the domain Feb. 6, the same day Dominion announced its plans to rebrand from Dominion Resources to Dominion Energy.
In addition to the 6th Street Marketplace property, for which the city has been working to gain clear title, other related improvements could include construction of a hotel that would serve both the new arena and the neighboring Greater Richmond Convention Center.
Other properties potentially in play include surrounding buildings and parking decks owned by the city’s public works department (see map below).
A spokesman for the investor group declined to comment. Dominion spokesman Ryan Frazier did not return a request for comment on the company’s involvement.
The whole plan, should it materialize, could unlock for revitalization much of the acreage bound by North Fifth, East Marshall, North 10th and East Leigh streets.
The properties that could be included are all city-owned through various departments, and encompass about 17 acres, the largest chunk of which is 7 acres housing the city-owned Coliseum.
The future of that land depends on how closely, if at all, the group’s plan follows recommendations made in 2011 by consultants hired by Dominion, Altria, Genworth and MeadWestvaco, now WestRock, to study the feasibility of a new arena in the region.
That three-volume report recommended the best site for a new arena sits just east of the Coliseum on about 5 acres currently occupied by a city public safety building and parking lots between 8th and 10th.
The report proffered a 14,000- to 15,000-seat arena could be constructed on that site for $147 million in 2011 dollars.
In endorsing the construction of a new arena, the study – by Barret Sports Group, Populous Sports Architects and Weston Sports & Entertainment – found the Coliseum required “significant infrastructure improvements” and “lacks modern amenities/quality finishes.”
Constructed in 1971, the Coliseum has been derided in recent years for interior issues such as leaks, in addition to its deteriorating exterior.
The 2011 report cited John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, which seats around 15,000, as the Coliseum’s most significant competition. It found that Richmond loses events to JPJ due to the Coliseum’s size and condition. It also found that promoters would prefer Richmond over Charlottesville. JPJ opened in 2006 at a cost of $131 million.
The Coliseum’s max capacity is around 13,000, but its configurations for most events lower that seating number by a few thousand.
The study cited potential interest from regular users for a new arena, including two minor league hockey groups, the WNBA, the NBA D-League, arena football, and concert and event promoters. It argued Richmond could land events such as NCAA tournaments and the collegiate conference basketball tournaments.
New regular users would be vital to any new arena, as revenue has been an issue for the Coliseum in recent years. A report from NBC12 earlier this year stated the arena has been operating at a loss since at least 2014, with a projected net operating loss for 2018 of $876,000.
City oversight of the Coliseum was transferred last month from the parks and recreation department to the city’s Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD).
Managed by public facility management giant SMG, the Coliseum’s regular acts have included arena racing, arena football and concerts. It was announced last week that rock band Foo Fighters will play the Coliseum later this year.
SMG’s contract on the Coliseum runs through 2018.
It is unclear how this latest effort would be financed, how much private and public money would be involved, and how city-owned properties might change hands to bring in private developers for surrounding properties.
Mayor Levar Stoney’s spokesman Jim Nolan said in an email Monday that “Mayor Stoney believes the Coliseum is a public asset that has become a public liability. It costs taxpayers more than $1.6 million a year, so it doesn’t surprise him that people are talking about it.”
For a contemporary example of how arena deals can be put together, a new $220 million, 18,000-capacity arena is in the works in Virginia Beach. That effort involves private investors putting down $70 million in equity and the rest in loans, with the promise of tax incentives back from the city.
At the time, the 2011 Richmond study said any effort for a new arena needed to include regional and corporate partners.
While Farrell and some of his peers may help provide the corporate piece of the puzzle, legislation passed in 2016 in the General Assembly could help smooth out the issue of regional cooperation.
A bill introduced last year by Del. G. Manoli Loupassi and signed into law by the governor would give the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority the added power to acquire land for, construct, own and operate arenas in the region.
That power would come with the caveat that any such undertaking be approved by the mayor, Richmond City Council and the boards of supervisors for Henrico and Chesterfield counties. The RMTA, which operates the region’s tolled roads and previously operated The Diamond, is governed by those three localities.
In a phone interview last week, Loupassi said he wasn’t aware of any current plan for a new arena but was prompted to introduce the bill last year after “a person of very credible means and ability came to me and said this is something they were working on because they wanted to find out the feasibility and what the numbers would look like.”
“As former president of city council, I knew the Coliseum in its current state was not something we could continue to carry forever because it’s an obsolete building whose prime has passed,” he said. “I wanted to at least tee it up so they could be in the position to speak about it intelligently.”
Joi Taylor Dean, RMTA’s interim CEO, said the organization has not been involved in any conversations regarding an arena downtown.
“As we have been in the past, the RMTA stands ready to assist in projects that will help to move the region forward,” Dean said.
The arena plan is taking shape while the future of another major local venue recently took a step forward.
The Virginia ABC put out a request for proposals earlier this month for about a half million square feet of new office and warehouse space that could potentially replace its home near The Diamond, a move that could free up the agency’s current home for a new baseball stadium.
BizSense reporter Jonathan Spiers contributed to this report.