by James A. Bacon
The big news out of Richmond today is that Virginia Commonwealth University and the Richmond Flying Squirrels have committed to being “major contributors” to a baseball stadium near the location of the existing stadium, known as the Diamond. The memorandum of understanding was announced in a press release yesterday.
“This is a significant step forward for baseball in the Richmond region,” said Mayor Dwight C. Jones in the statement. Jones has spent the better part of his tenure as mayor trying to identify a location and financing for a stadium to replace the aging Diamond.
The announcement did not identify a site, although the Richmond Times-Dispatch cited sources as saying that officials are “still targeting” land occupied by an aging Virginia Department of Beverage Control warehouse. Nor did the press release say who would pay for the facility, although it did state that VCU would take the lead in efforts to develop the stadium.
Media accounts provided no details about the proposed site other than its location near the Diamond. While the McAuliffe administration probably can be counted on to be supportive of the project, it is unknown what issues might be encountered in making the ABC-warehouse property available. On the positive side, moving the stadium would open up 60 acres occupied by the Diamond and its parking lot to redevelopment. Located near the Boulevard interchange with Interstate 64 and the rapidly redeveloping Scotts Addition neighborhood, the property would be prime real estate. The prospect of adding to the tax base would make the initiative a winner for the city.
The bigger question is who will pay for the project. The Squirrels have indicated a willingness to pay a lease of about $1 million annually. That compares to annual financing costs (using very rough numbers and assuming the project is financed through 30-year municipal bonds) in the $2.5-million to $3-million-a-year range. Times-Dispatch sources indicated that the city and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover also would contribute to the project but gave no idea of how much.
Noting that the facility would be comparable in size and amenities to ballparks in Charlotte, N.C., and Allentown, Pa., the press release also said it could be used for concerts, festivals and other events, all of which could generate revenue as well.
To me, the biggest question is the role of VCU. How much of its own money will the university put into the project? How much exposure will the university have if the project falls short of financial expectations? And to what extent will VCU’s commitment to the ballpark crowd out its capacity to undertake other long-term capital projects? It’s far from clear, given the little we know, whether or not the project is a wise commitment by VCU.
Update: Mayoral candidate Joe Morrissey has declared that he would reject the use of public funds “no matter how camouflaged” to help build the baseball stadium. “The Diamond was built in 1985. The average public school in the City of Richmond was built in 1955,” he said in a press release today. “We need to focus on modernizing the schools before spending public money on a new baseball stadium.”