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Independent, unbiased?

Questions raised by City Councilwoman Kim B. Gray about consulting firm’s ties to backers of the $1.5B Coliseum and Downtown development plan

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/6/2019, 6 a.m.
A Chicago-based real estate development, hospitality, hotel and tourism consulting firm with ties to known advocates of the $1.5 billion ...
Richmond Coliseum

A Chicago-based real estate development, hospitality, hotel and tourism consulting firm with ties to known advocates of the $1.5 billion Richmond Coliseum replacement plan has been tapped to undertake what was to be an independent and unbiased assessment of the proposal for Richmond City Council.

The firm is C.H. Johnson Consulting also known as Johnson Consulting.

Its links to a key consulting firm on the proposed Coliseum and Downtown redevelopment plan, and a past tie to another plan supporter, the Greater Richmond Convention Center Authority, turned up after the city Department of Procurement Services, issued a notice of an intent on Nov. 26 to award C.H. Johnson the consulting contract.

Potentially worth $190,000, the contract would authorize C.H. Johnson to undertake a wide-ranging, 90-day study of the assumptions on which the Coliseum and Downtown development plan is based.

The announcement of the pending award to C.H. Johnson by an arm of the city government that reports to Mayor Levar M. Stoney, who is backing the massive plan, was issued even as a separate City Council review panel, the Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission, entered the final phase of its work. The commission is expected to issue its assessment of the proposed project later this month.

Mr. Johnson

Mr. Johnson

On the surface, C.H. Johnson, which lists more than 23 years of experience in convention center and hotel developments in a variety of cities, has no direct relationship with the principals or the proposal that the city and Navy Hill District Corp. are spearheading. The plan calls for new larger arena to be built in Downtown, along with a convention hotel, apartments and other developments on mostly city-owned land near City Hall.

Mr. Hunden

Mr. Hunden

However, an internet search shows relationships involving C.H. Johnson that are raising eyebrows among those who are not sold on the proposal, notably City Councilwoman Kim B. Gray, 2nd District.

One item that has caught Ms. Gray’s attention is the past professional relationship between Charles H. Johnson, the consulting company’s president and chief executive officer, and Robin Scott “Rob” Hunden, president and chief executive officer of Hunden Strategic Partners, also of Chicago.

It turns out that Mr. Hunden, who produced the key bullish report on the project that Mayor Stoney has leaned on in backing the proposed development, served as a vice president of C.H. Johnson consulting firm from 2000 to 2005.

Mr. Hunden highlights his time at C.H. Johnson and the 100 projects he handled for the consulting company in listing his credentials on such websites as LinkedIn.

In addition, the C.H. Johnson firm in 1999 was the consultant for the Greater Richmond Convention Center Authority, also now a cheerleader for the proposed Navy Hill project along with its tourism marketing arm, Richmond Region Tourism, led by John F. “Jack” Berry Jr.

Kim Gray

Kim Gray

The 1999 report from the consultant provided key data and backing for the authority’s proposed $165 million expansion of the Richmond Convention Center at the time that the city undertook it with Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties.