Photo by Richard Macdonald
A pre-9/11 piece published in this magazine, with the headline “Bottom of the Ninth at the Diamond,” questioned whether the city’s leadership could rescue a ballpark falling into disrepair and keep baseball in the region.
In fact, it wasn’t the bottom of the ninth for the Diamond. It wasn’t even the seventh inning stretch. And when the first pitch cracks off the barrel of a bat on opening night April 9, 30 years after the stadium officially opened, the Boulevard ballpark’s fate still won’t be decided.
Meanwhile, Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ administration has promised to “act on the stadium issue when the time is right,” as spokeswoman Tammy Hawley writes in an email response to questions about the matter, reiterating the mayor’s words from his State of the City address in January. It’s unclear when the time will be right. Jones withdrew his plan to build a new stadium in Shockoe Bottom nearly a year ago, after City Council support for it waned.
The waiting game seems to have vexed even the paper of record. The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board voiced its frustration in a February op-ed with the headline “Deja vu all over again.” It listed more than two dozen front-page stadium-related stories the newspaper had published in the past decade-plus, concluding, “If this keeps up, baseball one day might surpass race relations as the most-discussed topic in Central Virginia.”
With no resolution in sight, the city and Squirrels re-upped the organization’s lease at the park. The agreement keeps the team at the Diamond for the next two years, then allows for three one-year extensions if both the team and city agree to it annually.
“Everyone involved would like us to be somewhere else by then,” says Todd “Parney” Parnell, the Flying Squirrels vice president and chief operating officer.
The Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, which supports the mayor’s proposal, led the Eastern League in home attendance last year, in spite of a facility that’s dated even by minor league standards. A $250,000 offseason splurge on upgrades to seating and concessions, as well as the addition of a live entertainment stage, will improve the fan experience, Parnell says. However, the improvements don’t mean the team wants to stay in the stadium forever, he adds. “Would I love for [the ballpark debate] to be over? One thousand percent,” Parnell says. “But it is what it is right now.”
A contingent of City Council members has put forth resolutions relating to Boulevard development, property acquisition in Shockoe Bottom and moving money for the mayor’s proposal to fund a facelift of the city’s dilapidated public schools. Those seem as mired as the plan itself.
When the mayor’s chief of staff, Grant Neely, appeared to dodge questions from Councilman Charles Samuels, 2nd District, at a February meeting, things got a bit testy. Sensing either subterfuge or miscommunication, Samuels pressed Neely on a deal struck between the administration and Councilman Jon Baliles, 1st district, and president Michelle Mosby, 9th district. The pair had agreed to withdraw a resolution that would reallocate $10.7 million, budgeted last year for the mayor’s Shockoe plan, to help cover school repairs under assurances from the administration that the money would be used solely for the “heritage site.” “Council and the administration don’t always see eye-to-eye on things, but we’ve always had the ability to negotiate in good faith,” Samuels says of the exchange.
Council, instead, continued the resolution to a meeting in May, when members will discuss budget amendments, and the body could vote to ask the mayor to reallocate the money. The body passed another resolution requesting that the mayor seek “regional participation” from Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties in finding a site to build a new stadium. City Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, 3rd District, says that because four out of five fans who attend Squirrels games come from the counties, finding a solution should be a regional priority and not solely a city concern. “The stadium is an amenity for the region, and the region should pay for it,” Hilbert says. “It’s not that the city can’t do it. But quite frankly, I don’t think we should have to. There’s no reason for the counties to be free riders on this.”
Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas says no one from the city had reached out to Henrico regarding the stadium as of early March. “We are reading the same information in the newspaper as others,” Vithoulkas wrote in an email response to a request for comment about council’s resolution. “There have been no conversations with Henrico or, to my knowledge, our other regional partners.”
Last year, Midlothian-based Rebkee Co. proposed an alternative, privately financed stadium plan on the Boulevard that incorporated new retail, restaurant and residential space carved out of the 60 acres of city-owned land on the stretch, considered one of the most valuable publicly owned parcels on the East Coast. By that time, though, Jones had already dismissed the idea of a new Boulevard stadium as a waste of the land’s untapped tax revenue potential.
Hilbert thinks the two could coexist, but is adamant about which is more important. “People north of the river need some place in the city to shop. Retail is more important than a baseball stadium being located on North Boulevard,” he says.
“The real concern is the longer this drags out,” Baliles says, “you’re going to see more and more retail develop on the fringes of the city, and that could impact what gets done with the site.”