After hitting a funding hurdle that slowed its momentum even before the pandemic ground it to a halt, a yearslong effort to provide a new home for the Richmond Police Mounted Unit is hitting a new stride with an assist from a local executive.
The Friends of the Richmond Mounted Squad has renewed its push to raise funds for a new facility to replace the unit’s current stables after reaching an agreement with the city to privatize the project’s funding and construction.
The City Council on Monday approved the agreement, in which the nonprofit group would donate the cost of labor and materials to construct the 10,000-square-foot, 3.5-acre facility that’s planned for city-owned land at Crestview Road and 39th Street, between Chimborazo and Gillies Creek.
The donation would equal the project’s cost estimate, which at $3.7 million is almost triple a previous estimate for the project, reflecting increases in construction and materials costs that have been fueled by the pandemic and supply chain issues.
In 2019, when the city had planned to fund the facility using general obligation bonds, the project stalled after preliminary bids came in at more than $1 million over budget, prompting the city to cancel its solicitation for bids. The lowest bid at that time came in at $2.5 million.
Despite the higher price tag, the Friends group is optimistic it can reach its new goal, buoyed in part by a helping hand from local businessman Will Massey.
Massey, an executive with solar energy contractor NCI, is heading up a campaign called “Raise the Barn 2022,” which seeks donors to help meet the Friends group’s fundraising goal.
Massey is friends with Leslie Buck, the nonprofit’s president, who said he approached the group when it was at an impasse on the project.
“COVID did a number on us, and that’s not really the time to be asking people to donate money,” Buck said. “Will came to us and said, ‘We would all like to help see this happen.’”
Having spent a decade working on a commercial horse breeding farm and managing thoroughbred horses for clients when he lived near Lexington, Kentucky, Massey facilitated discussions between the city, the Richmond Police Department, the Friends group, and construction firms Hourigan and Canterbury Enterprises, which provided the latest cost estimate and are assisting with the project. The two firms were not involved with previous work on the project.
The discussions led to the donation agreement that was approved Monday, setting the stage for the Raise the Barn campaign. Massey credited the agreement to the attorneys involved in those talks: Tonia Peake, who represented the nonprofit; Deputy City Attorney Bonnie Ashley; and Kelley Holland, Hourigan’s in-house general counsel.
“The city had done a lot of great work to create a shovel-ready project on really good land near Church Hill,” Massey said in an email. “The city budget just did not have room to cover a high-quality project, so it made sense to work with the city to figure out how to make it happen.”
With the agreement, it’s now on the Friends group and Massey to see the campaign through — a feat that Buck described as challenging but accomplishable.
“I think we have incredible public support. We always have,” she said. “That is the one thing that has been a constant: our public support and public concern for the horses, for the officers. Even despite the unrest in the city (in 2020), our support never wavered, which was always a good feeling.”
Such support is touted in the campaign, which notes similar fundraising efforts that have proven successful for mounted police units in Milwaukee and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as well as the U.S. Park Police Horse Mounted Patrol Unit in Washington, D.C. A donor memorandum brochure that’s being distributed describes Richmond’s mounted unit as “the bridge between our police department and the community.”
“There is a special bond between this unit and the communities that they visit,” the brochure states, adding that citizens are drawn to the horses and engage with the officers. “Richmond’s Mounted Unit needs to have a safe home space where relationships with the community and police can be cultivated.”
While the cost has changed, the planned project remains the same: a 12-stall facility spanning 10,600 square feet, with training pens and paddocks, administrative offices and parking. The plans are based on designs by Moseley Architects and a site assessment from engineering firm Timmons Group.
On top of providing training space for horses and officers, the facility would be designed to accommodate school and community tours, and provide space for the unit to grow and host other mounted units. Richmond’s mounted unit currently totals four officers and four horses: Scooter, Toby, Samson and Aslan.
The facility would replace the unit’s stables at 801 Brook Road, below the Chamberlayne Avenue overpass between the Interstate 64/95 interchange and an adjacent rail line, where trains pass daily. The location is prone to flooding and was deemed unsafe by the city two decades ago.
While the Friends group has been pushing for the project in the years since, Buck, who has led the effort the past six years, said she knows it will take some time to fully fund it. She and Massey said they do not have a timeframe set to reach the fundraising goal.
“We’re two decades in trying to make this happen, and we’ve had some hiccups and some issues. The sooner we can get it done, the better,” Buck said.
“I would like to think that, now that we have all of our permissions and we’ve done everything the way that the city and the lawyers and the contractors have asked us to do it, we can hit it hard on the fundraising and the big-ticket items and hopefully knock it out sooner than later,” she said. “Right now, where they are is so terrible, deplorable. It’s time to fix this.”