The Washington Redskins training camp facility on Leigh Street. (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
When the Washington Redskins trot onto the field at the Leigh Street training camp facility in late July, players and coaches will have several questions to answer after a 2014 season mired in mediocrity: Will Robert Griffin III make it through an entire season without getting injured? Will the team be competitive in the NFC East? Will second-year head coach Jay Gruden have a job by year’s end?
Some city school officials, however, will still be asking the same question they’ve been asking since the facility opened two camps ago: When will Richmond Public Schools (RPS) see a return on investment for a deal that wouldn’t have materialized without the use of former school property?
“The whole Redskins deal, it all came together because of a building that was a part of the school system,” says Kristen Larson, Richmond School Board vice chair. “We got a little bit out of it, but we didn’t get anything near the full value of that building.”
School Board member Kimberly Gray, who represents the 2nd District, in which the training facility sits, puts it less diplomatically: “This deal was done on the backs of our children.”
The building in question is the vacant Westhampton school at 5800 Patterson Ave. RPS transferred the school to the city in 2009 as surplus property.
In 2012, when the city sought to bring the Redskins’ three-week training camp to the region, officials leased the school building to Bon Secours Virginia for 60 years. The health system plans to use it as a nursing school. In exchange, Bon Secours pledged $6.4 million to help pay for construction of the training camp, $831,250 a year for naming rights, and annual rent payments of $275,000 to the facility’s landlord, the city’s Economic Development Authority (EDA).
As part of the deal, which City Council approved without a School Board vote, Bon Secours agreed to pay RPS $100,000 annually for the next 10 years. It has thus far done so. In addition, the deal stipulated that the city pay the school system $195,000 a year. Several School Board members say they haven’t seen a payment from the city specifically tied to the deal, but Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for Mayor Dwight Jones, says the schools have gotten their $195,000 — and then some.
“The point of the matter is that schools funding was supposed to increase by at least that amount and has increased by millions in the years since the deal. We’ve tried to make that point clear over and over again,” Hawley says.
Had the city sold the building — assessed at $7.6 million — instead of leasing it, all the proceeds would have gone back into the cash-strapped school maintenance fund.
2nd and Long
In response to critics, the City Council has been trying find ways for the school system to get more use out of the training facility. The district’s athletic facilities have been in woeful shape for years, says Councilman Jon Baliles, and giving RPS teams a chance to play on the nicest field in the city would be a sort of consolation prize.
Baliles and fellow Councilman Charles Samuels proposed a measure earlier this year requesting that the EDA work with the school system to schedule high school football games at the Redskins camp for the upcoming season. But Baliles pulled the measure before it could go to a full council vote, saying the EDA did not believe the plan was feasible.
Not so, says Julious Smith Jr., the body’s chairman. The school system and the EDA have a good relationship, he says, and the EDA is willing to consider use of the field.
Just not that often. And not for regular football games. And not for any activity that might damage the fields, according to a series of emails provided to Richmond magazine by Baliles.
The emails, from City Attorney Allen Jackson and EDA board member Rich Johnson, came in response to a query from Baliles, who wanted to know if the school system could use the field for free. The agreement dictating RPS’ use of the field says only that the district can use it “a certain amount of days” a year. It doesn’t define “a certain amount” or what the uses might be.
However, it is clear that the expectation was that RPS would not be using the field often and that it “certainly would not be used” for weekly football games, Johnson wrote.
The clause referencing RPS’ use of the field was “inserted somewhat illogically to satisfy political concerns,” Johnson wrote, but the EDA could live with it because it expected “only ‘minimal’ use requests and because the EDA could control uses.”
“Guess that’s a no,” Baliles wrote Jackson in response.
Hawley, the mayor’s spokeswoman, says the facility has been used for 160 events since 2013, including three city high school soccer games this spring.
Even if RPS wanted to use the field, it couldn’t afford to do so, says Assistant Superintendent Tommy Kranz, who handles the school system’s day-to-day operations. RPS would be on the hook for about $15,000 for every football game played on the field, he says, because it has no bleachers, no night lighting and no scoreboard. All that would have to be rented, as well as a public address system and portable restrooms. Two teams and staffs would have to be bused. The district wouldn’t even make money from concessions, Kranz says. That would go to a contractor.
3rd and a Mile
So much time has been spent trying to sort all this out when the district has urgent needs, Larson says.
“It has been three years,” she says. “How much energy can we put into it going forward?”
This spring, the School Board allocated $450,000 to improve athletics facilities at city high schools and middle schools in April. It’s a fraction of what’s needed. A 2011 report detailed $8 million in upgrades needed to bring fields at four of the city’s high schools up to par with the new Huguenot High School.
Seeing how long the district has gone without and how quickly the Redskins deal came together is “salt on an open wound,” Gray says.
More cooperation is necessary between the School Board, City Council and the city administration when RPS properties are involved in economic development projects, she and Larson say.
As for what can be done at this point, Gray has an idea: Why don’t the Redskins cover the cost for students to use the field?
“What’s a couple thousand dollars to one of the wealthiest sports franchises in the country?”