A model for rebuilding Downtown

Letter to the editor

12/27/2019, 6 a.m.
“Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” With so much happening in Richmond, across the …

“Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

With so much happening in Richmond, across the country and around the world, we’re reminded of these words from the musical “Hamilton,” which just wrapped a 24-show run at the Altria Theater.

How fortunate we are — and how challenging it is — to experience and participate in the transformation of American cities and witness the progress that urban redevelopment can bring.

But we have to work for it. From better schools, inclusive housing and entertainment options fit for the 21st century, we have at our fingertips the ability to shape future generations and create cities where we are proud to live, work and play.

Lucky for us, the award-winning “Hamilton” came to Richmond when not that long ago, the very same venue was on the demise.

At the time, the 85-year-old building, then called the Landmark Theater, was in desperate need of renovations to the tune of more than $65 million. The city — perennially caught between fiscal priorities — could not dedicate those resources on its own, and so the theater languished.

But through an established partnership, the Landmark Theater was able to receive much-needed funding thanks to a generous influx of capital from both the city and locally based Altria, as well as other private donations and the use of historic tax credits. The renamed Altria Theater is now a thriving performance center that Richmonders enjoy year-round.

Since its grand re-opening, the surrounding area also has benefited from the economic growth that came with the new, modern theater — restaurants, cafés, hotels and other businesses able to capitalize on increased foot traffic and city residents looking for employment opportunities.

Beyond these traditional benefits, the cultural experience and exposure to the arts for our youths is priceless. From ticket donations to Richmond Public Schools to internships leading to careers, the revitalization of the theater has both helped propel youth interest in the arts and allowed for them to dream big.

This is just a small-scale example of how investment in our community can have an overwhelmingly positive ripple effect beyond a development site.

But let’s think even bigger. The story of the Altria Theater doesn’t need to be an anomaly for Richmond. The 80,000-plus tickets sold to two dozen performances of “Hamilton” generated more than $775,000 in tax revenue for the City of Richmond — and that’s just from admissions, meals and sales taxes from within the theater itself. It doesn’t account for the influx of business and additional tax revenue from surrounding hotels, restaurants or other stops that visitors made while in Richmond.

We know that audiences came from near and far to see “Hamilton,” with nearly 6,000 tickets sold out-of-state to those traveling from California, New York and Ohio. In fact, more than half of overall ticket sales in Virginia were from outside of Richmond.

Let’s not stop there and, instead, continue to attract tourism through the arts. Take the aging Richmond Coliseum. Before it closed, the Coliseum could house crowds of up to 13,500, but its outdated infrastructure and technology is not fit for the shows, sporting events, and A-list performers who tour the East Coast. With help from the philanthropic and business communities, we can partner with the city to revitalize Downtown, just like we did with the Altria Theater.

The Altria Theater model worked because a public-private partnership backed by the weight of the Mayor’s Office and Richmond City Council was formed to help take another step toward making Richmond a destination city on the East Coast. The partnership was fully focused on advancing the needs of the city and it has done that.

To complete our Downtown, we need the Navy Hill project, which will create thousands of jobs, hundreds of affordable housing units, job training opportunities and surplus tax revenue for the city — without raising taxes. The new arena is key to the re-development, and without it, the city will be challenged to realize surplus revenues to support education and fund other city services.

Because retaining valuable assets is a key priority of the city, the new arena will be owned by the city, and the financing is structured in a way that protects and invests in the city at the same time.

Can it be successful? Just look to the Altria Theater, made new thanks to public-private agreements and now a venue that brings top performances to our capital city.

We believe Navy Hill can do that and more.

C.T. Hill Goochland

Dr. Monroe E. Harris Jr. Richmond

The writers are members of the Navy Hill Foundation Board of Directors and the board of the Richmond Performing Arts Corp.