City Council spars over voter advisory referendum on $1.5B Coliseum plan

George Copeland | 8/16/2019, 6 a.m.
Richmond residents were lining up Wednesday to speak their minds on Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s $1.5 billion Coliseum replacement and …

Richmond residents were lining up Wednesday to speak their minds on Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s $1.5 billion Coliseum replacement and development plan for Downtown at the second of two special City Council meetings in two days.

At issue is a resolution proposed by Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell, 8th District, that would allow city voters to participate in an advisory referendum on whether taxpayers’ dollars should be used to build a new Coliseum.

At an initial meeting of City Council on Tuesday, Ms. Trammell’s resolution fell one vote short of the six needed to send the advisory referendum to Richmond courts for approval ahead of Friday’s deadline to get on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Ms. Trammell and Councilwoman Kimberly B. Gray, who supports Ms. Trammell’s resolution, promptly called for a second special meeting of the council to allow for public comment after the 5-4 vote for expedited consideration failed, blocking the referendum from moving forward.

“Either you’re on the side of the people or you’re not,” Ms. Trammell declared after the Tuesday meeting, which attracted more than 30 people to City Hall’s modest 5th floor conference room.

The resolution would allow Richmond voters to share their thoughts on funding the massive project, but the results would be non-binding. The ultimate decision on whether the Coliseum replacement and Downtown development project is approved would be left to City Council.

Joining Ms. Trammell and Ms. Gray for the expedited consideration were Council members Parker C. Agelasto, 5th District; Kristen N. Larson, 4th District; and Council Vice President Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District.


Kim Gray


Ms. Trammell

Mayor Stoney’s 900-plus-page proposal, submitted to City Council last week after more than a year of formulation, would divert from the city’s general fund coffers any new real estate tax revenue generated by new projects or increased assessments on existing properties in an 80-block area around the Coliseum.

Instead, new real estate taxes generated in the special Tax Increment Financing district would be directed toward paying off loans to build a new 17,500-seat Coliseum.

The TIF area would stretch from 1st to 10th streets between Byrd Street and Interstate 95-64. The new tax money from the area would be diverted for up to 30 years, under the plan, instead of going into the city’s general fund to pay for schools, police and infrastructure needs.

Under Mayor Stoney’s plan, about $900 million would be pumped into the project by Navy Hill District Corp., led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, who helped create the plan. The corporation, which would manage the project, would pay the city $15.8 million for the property where a 541-room hotel, 2,500 apartments and other developments would go. The property is now valued by the City Assessor’s Office at about $60 million.

Mayor Stoney and other proponents say the development would create thousands of jobs and net $1 billion in new tax revenue over the course of 30 years.

Discussion of Ms. Trammell’s resolution for the non-binding referendum highlighted how divided City Council is on the project.

Mr. Hilbert saw Ms. Trammell’s resolution as a more “narrowly focused” alternative to the “poisonous referendum” advocated by Paul Goldman of Put Schools First that would require 51 percent of the tax revenue from the TIF district to go toward improving and modernizing the city’s public schools.

However, Mr. Goldman said Tuesday afternoon that his petition drive to get his referendum on the fall ballot failed to get the required 10,000 signatures from registered voters.

He expressed doubts that Richmond Voter Registrar Kirk Showalter “applied the law correctly” when counting the signatures, adding that he remains “100 percent confident that I got the signatures based on the law to put it on the ballot.” A hearing on his referendum petition is set for 11:30 a.m. Thursday in Richmond Circuit Court.

Ms. Showalter’s office said Tuesday she would be available for comment at the hearing.

As for Ms. Trammell’s referendum resolution, Councilman Andreas D. Addison questioned the language used, saying the wording assumed “a lot of knowledge on behalf of the constituents.” Ms. Gray countered that the language was directly borrowed from that of the ordinances introduced by Mayor Stoney’s administration with the project.

Councilman Michael J. Jones, 9th District, who also voted against the expedited consideration, expressed concern that he was “being asked to punt something that I haven’t gone completely through.” He also questioned the need for an advisory referendum in the face of the council con- vening a Navy Hill Commission to study and advise the council on the project.

“We are confusing the daylights out of the public,” Dr. Jones said.

Following the vote, NH District Corp. spokesperson Jeff Kelley issued a statement calling the resolution “disappointing.”

“The council is trying to circumvent the very process that they, themselves, created because a few Richmond outsiders are telling them what to do,” Mr. Kelley stated. “We’ll keep listening to the people of Richmond as this project moves forward and urge the council to do their job and their own due diligence.”

Ms. Gray, speaking at the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, said that is exactly what the council intends to do.

“We’re working to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and we’re going to move forward making the best decisions with the best information that we can garner,” she said.