A decision has yet to be made on a Diamond District developer, but resentments about the project among some Richmond City Council members were on full display at their meeting Monday.
After an update from staff that did not include an announcement of a preferred Diamond District development team, councilmembers weighed in on the mixed-use project in light of past economic development efforts that have not proven successful – namely, Navy Hill and a casino in the Southside.
Michael Jones and Reva Trammell, whose districts are south of the river, bemoaned what they described as a lack of support and agreement among their peers for those projects, revealing in doing so resentments going into their review of the planned redevelopment project that’s to include a new baseball stadium to replace The Diamond.
“There could be two economic development deals going on right now,” Jones said, referring to the Richmond Coliseum-centered Navy Hill plan and the proposed One Casino + Resort that city voters rejected last year.
“It would have been great for this to be the third major economic development deal to happen in this city,” Jones said. “I’m just one to remind us of that, of what we allowed to slip through this council’s control. We could have dramatically changed the upward mobility of this entire region. But we missed that opportunity, and we can’t let that go unheralded.”
Suggesting that the Diamond District project would likely involve tax increment financing as was proposed for Navy Hill, Jones added, “As we look at a TIF, remember that because we didn’t like somebody — because we didn’t like the mayor, because we didn’t like the CEO of a particular company — these deals did not happen and go through.”
Added Trammell, whose Eighth District would have hosted the casino, “I say my colleagues failed me. Some of my colleagues failed my people.”
Referring to the Diamond District, Trammell said: “My people are going to raise hell over this. People in Southside, they’re going to raise hell. They tell me, ‘Don’t support anything that’s across the river, because they hurt us over here.’”
The comments prompted responses from the rest of the council, who described the circumstances as different while also advocating for more economic development projects across the whole city.
“The casino was an option, but what’s before us is a chance to look at ‘what else,’” said Andreas Addison.
“It’s not just being upset about what we failed to pass before. We failed a lot of things,” Addison said, citing Sixth Street Marketplace and the Stone Brewing deal. “But we’re never going to get out of this hole we’re in without making some decisions, so let’s go forward and see what we can do together.”
While the Diamond District project does not require unanimity among the council, the project’s approval does require a seven-vote supermajority — meaning no more than two members of the nine-member council could vote against it for the project to go forward as proposed by the city administration.
Administrators have said they were aiming to present their proposal with their preferred development team by the end of this month. At Monday’s meeting, project manager Maritza Pechin said an announcement would be made “very soon,” while Leonard Sledge, the city’s economic development director, kept the timeframe ambiguous.
Asked if they could expect a decision in August, Sledge remained noncommittal, noting that negotiations continue with the three finalist teams.
“I would hate to give a firm date knowing there’s still work to be done,” Sledge said.
A delay could tighten an already tight timeline that the city is aiming to meet. To deliver a new stadium by the 2025 season — the deadline set by Major League Baseball for all pro venues to comply with new facility standards — developers vying for the project have said construction would need to start in the first quarter of next year.
The remaining teams vying for the project are: Richmond Community Development Partners, led by Machete Group, JMA Ventures and Tryline Capital; RVA Diamond Partners, led by Republic Properties Corp., Thalhimer Realty Partners and Loop Capital; and Vision300 Partners, led by Freehold Capital Management with members including Brookfield Properties and Hourigan.
Their proposals, submitted in June, are being reviewed by the project’s evaluation panel, which will make a recommendation to Mayor Levar Stoney and share it with the council. The panel consists of city administrators, councilmembers and an official with VCU, which owns the Sports Backers Stadium property that’s part of the otherwise city-owned development site.
Sledge said the city continues to negotiate with the three finalist teams. Outside consultants assisting with the process include national planning firm AECOM and Richmond-based Davenport & Co.
A final development agreement or contract would then be presented to the council, which would need a seven-vote supermajority to approve it.
Ann-Frances Lambert, one of the two councilmembers on the panel along with Katherine Jordan, called for her colleagues to support the project.
“This is something good that we need for the city of Richmond,” Lambert said. “Being a native daughter to this city, I’m tired of saying no. It’s time for us to say yes, and let’s bring some more development here to the city of Richmond.”
Stephanie Lynch said the circumstances surrounding the Diamond District are different than that of past proposals. She credited Sledge, Pechin and other newer additions to the administration for contributing to that.
“It’s just a whole different ballgame that is being played here in the city,” Lynch said. “We’re just in a different environment, and we have to take a moment to celebrate that. Not to say that there isn’t work to do, but I’m also very excited at the work ahead and very proud of the work that has been done on this particular project and the projects in the last two years.”
Added Council President Cynthia Newbille, “I hear the concern Ms. Trammell and Councilman Jones have verbalized, but I also am really clear that we need multiple economic development projects across the city footprint, and I mean the entire city. It’s not either or; it’s across the entire footprint in order for us to have the kind of revenue reality we are looking for.”