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.

“I don’t know how City Council can support this choice,” Ms. Gray said Wednesday after being apprised of the consulting firm’s past ties to Mr. Hunden.

“We want an independent, unbiased review, and now we find that one of the key consultants on the Navy Hill project was a past vice president of the company that is going to do our review and that their offices apparently are located around the corner from each other,” Ms. Gray said.

“I do not know how close the professional ties are between Hunden and C.H. Johnson, but how can we now be sure that C.H. Johnson will give us an unbiased opinion?” she asked. City Council President Cynthia I. Newbille, 7th District, who led the effort to secure council support to hire an independent consultant, could not be reached for comment.

City Council Chief of Staff Lawrence R. Anderson and Deputy Chief of Staff Meghan Brown indicated they could not comment as the contract is in the procurement process.

However, it does not appear that the council has any further role to play. The request for proposals that drew C.H. Johnson’s response provides that the contract would be authorized with the signature of a mayoral appointee, Betty J. Burrell, city director of procurement services. The request for proposals did not appear to include any language stating that Ms. Burrell needed to notify, consult with or secure council’s approval before awarding the contract.

In response to a Free Press query, Ms. Burrell stated, “The Department of Procurement Services is not aware of any violation of City of Richmond conflict-of-interest regulations regarding C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc., based on its proposal.”

The choice of C.H. Johnson also has raised skepticism among some who also are concerned the company is based in a city that has made tax-increment financing, TIF, or use of growth in tax revenues a key element of its development efforts.

There are also worries that C.H. Johnson, like Hunden, sometimes has offered rosy assessments that did not pan out. For example, Kansas City, Mo., relied on C.H. Johnson in creating its Power & Light District to help revive its downtown. But the project has fallen short of generating the $18 million to $19 million a year in additional tax revenues C.H. Johnson estimated and has required $12 million to $14 million in annual taxpayer subsidies to repay its debt, according to The Kansas City Star newspaper.

The Richmond contract would give C.H. Johnson three months to review and deliver a report to City Council. While the report could be turned in sooner, the deadline would be in March, based on the current timing of the award, which could happen later this week or next week. The council set aside $190,000 to pay for a consultant.

The company would be charged to assess the assumptions regarding the $1.5 billion plan that Mayor Stoney is pushing and which the Navy Hill District Corp., led by Dominion Energy Chief Executive Officer Thomas F. Farrell II, would carry out.

The plan proposes taxpayer-supported construction of a new 17,500-seat arena to replace the Richmond Coliseum, plus private development of nearly 2,200 apartments, a new convention hotel, office buildings and restaurants and retail operations in eight blocks of largely city-owned property located between the Coliseum and City Hall and two blocks of city land located south of Broad Street.

Meanwhile, the Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission has scheduled its final meetings, with the next one set for 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Dec. 7, in the City Council Chambers at City Hall, 900 E. Broad St., and the last one from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Richmond Public Library Main Branch, 101 E. Franklin St.

The commission also plans to hold four public hearings to gather additional comments before issuing its report.

Those public hearings are scheduled for:

• Monday, Dec. 16, at 6 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, 1000 Mosby St. in the East End.

• Tuesday, Dec. 17, at 6 p.m. at George Washington Carver Elementary School, 1110 W. Leigh St.

• Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 6 p.m. at Hickory Hill Community Center, 3000 E. Belt Blvd. in South Side.

• Thursday, Dec. 19, at 6 p.m. at the Southside Community Services Center, 4100 Hull Street Road at Southside Plaza.

In response to a Free Press query, commission Vice Chairman John Gerner stated Tuesday that the final report would be delivered to City Council by Dec. 23, with a formal briefing for the council to take place at the Organizational Development Committee meeting on Monday, Jan. 6.