City Hall’s 60 Million Dollar Spending Spree

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

Let the quibbling begin! This week we learned Richmond’s Mayor had scored big. He negotiated a deal with the Richmond Metropolitan Authority (RMA) for $60 million. The money is a decades-old debt, owed to the city from when the Downtown Expressway was built. It was supposed to be repaid in 2022 when the road was officially turned over to the city. Jones got it much earlier than expected and kicked off a welcome “firestorm.” Everyone has an opinion on what to do with the money.

Which brings us to today. Three city council members called for a press conference. It was clear, the mayor’s announcement of the money and some of his ideas for spending it had hurt some feelings. Marty Jewell wondered  aloud why the Mayor hasn’t yet asked for council member opinions on how it should be spent. It was clear today, we’re in for a long debate over how the money should be budgeted.

The mayor made said on Tuesday, he believes some of the money should go to the communities that were pushed aside when the Expressway was built.  He’s targeting poverty and believes several projects in those area would boost the tax base and spur development. He’s made suggestions about helping build a new ball park and re-paving areas like Jeff Davis Highway.

Reva Trammell, Marty Jewell and Bruce Tyler focused on Richmond’s historically high tax rates. Trammell says the city should find ways to lower the admissions tax, meal’s tax and real estate tax. Tyler added, “At the end of the day we have to figure out a way to reduce taxes so that we can take the burden off the citizens.”

Jewell said, “clearly there are a lot of needs. Some of his approach (the mayor) makes sense, but then there are other ideas. We’re not short of them on council.”  Trammell added, “The money belongs to the citizens of Richmond, not the mayor, not the council.”

Council President Kathy Graziano was not a part of the press conference. She said today that the city should be cautious with the money; spending as much time “saving it” as spending it.

Now the city doesn’t actually get any of this money until at least November and you probably won’t see it budgeted until the 2012-13 budget cycle. So, there’s several months for the mayor and council to get together and work out a plan.

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The Power of Social Media: Union Hill Style

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

The folks in Union Hill started an interesting campaign on Twitter three months ago. They began calling out drug dealers in the neighborhood to Richmond Police via the popular social medium. As a result, they were also calling out Richmond Police for not paying enough attention to their neighborhood. The messages that hit the internet were often colorful and frankly, honest.

Here are a few examples of the tweets….

“Black SUV at 900 block of 24th owned by known dealer.”

“Known dealer hanging out at the corner of 24th/M White shirt/white jeans/white hat.”

” Lots of car and foot traffic to the green/white crack house near 24th/M. Come back and visit again today.”

 They neighbors sharing this twitter account have asked to remain anonymous, as it’s dangerous to be calling out illegal activity. It could be the first known twitter campaign in the world to take on drug dealers…. I can’t find another like it through searches on twitter, but who knows?

About 45 days into the campaign, Richmond Police and its chief did a walk through of the  neighborhood. Unfortunately, police denied it had anything to do with the twitter campaign. I know for a fact, police were well aware of it, as was Richmond Crimesolvers.  That organization actively began planning ways to reach out and help the residents in Union Hill with their problem. 

Either way, it appears Richmond Police have stepped up their presence and it seems to be making a difference. The anonymous tweeters posted this message today…. “Richmond Police we can’t say it enough, your noticeably increased presence is appreciated and effective!”

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Hiring Bonanza at City Hall

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

New faces are coming to City Hall!

Mayor Dwight Jones has hired for three key positions, including one job that’s been open for more than a year and a half.  That’s right, the city has finally hired a Director of Economic Development. Councilman Chris Hilbert famously worried the job had a “reputation” and consistently asked the administration about the vacancy over the last two years. Here’s more on that exchange.

Economic Development:

Lee Downey

There’s been 14 directors in 15 years. Mayor Jones acknowledge the jobs stigma, but also reiterated the fact that economic development was happening in Richmond, director or not.  Jones said today, “We’ve had so many economic development directors our Deputy (Peter Chapman) has been doing double duty, and so, an announcement today is welcome news.”

Jones hired Lee Downey, who starts May 2nd. Since 2008 Downey served as the vice president of business development for McKinney and Company in Ashland. He’s also worked as Marketing Manager for McGuireWoods LLP and as a business development project manager for Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP). During his time as VEDP, the city says Downey managed a variety of business development projects, creating more than 4,000 new jobs and $375 million in new investment for the state.

Downey said today, “I’m excited, I’m excited! My family lives in the city, we love the city. My background, my love, my career, my excitement is economic development and blending the two is a dream come true for me as a career. Being able to have my job be something that I’m so passionate about is exciting.”

As for the job’s notorious turnover rate, Downey says, “no reservations in that point.”

Chris Hilbert said today he’s excited to finally see the job filled. “The Picasso exhibit, the VCU men’s basketball team, the Squirrels… people who live in the counties are coming into the city now because of these things and we need to build on that.”

Mayor Jones said, “It also would not have helped us to choose somebody because the gun was at our neck. We wanted to make sure that we got somebody good. Somebody who had the training and the expertise. Someone with a record of having done economic development. A lot of times (the city’s) named people to economic development because they’re a good guy. We need somebody who can get the job done.”

Parks and Rec:

Dr. Norman Merrifield

This is another job a lot of people in the city had their eyes on. Former director, J.R. Pope left in the middle of a scandal involving a scathing audit report on his department. You can get the back story here on “Desk-gate”. 

Today the Mayor announced he’s put Dr. Norman Merrifield in the position. Merrifield starts on May 21st. He most recently served as the administrative executive officer and director of the Cincinnati Recreation Commission.  He’s also served as director of parks and recreations for the city of El Paso, TX.

 

 

Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Finance:

Eric M. Tucker

A position I usually dub the “finance guru”! Marcus Jones early this year to take a job as the City Manager in Norfolk. You can read all about that here.  Today the mayor announced he had selected Eric M. Tucker for the position. Tucker comes to Richmond from Prince George’s County, Maryland and Detroit, Michigan where he coordinated ratings efforts leading to upgrades for both jurisdictions’ bond ratings. The city says Tucker managed a turnaround of a $63 million deficit into an $18 million surplus.

Tucker said today, “Having worked in Maryland and being familiar with this area, I know that Virginia has historically been one of the best-managed states in the country and Richmond is now becoming one of the best-managed cities. I certainly hope to be part of, as the mayor said, continuing that process to make this a top-tier city in the state and in this country.”

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When it Rains it Pours News

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

Yesterday was not a day to be in a newsroom. Around 2:00, which is already starting to be crunch time in the news business, “breaking news” began.  You probably see those words all the time now. CNN and FOX constantly call things breaking at the bottom of your TV screens. But, in the local news world, “breaking stories” mean, news that happens at the most inopportune time that we MUST cover.

Example:  Around 2:00, dayside reporters like myself are probably back in the office and writing their 5:00 and 6:00 stories. Nightside reporters, or “nightsiders” as we call them, get in around 2:30. That period of time inbetween is limbo.

Yesterday, I was covering the vandalism of two statues on Monument Avenue. It was a story I knew the other stations didn’t have and once I found out they did, I was able to break it. As I was breaking it though, we found out 2 Richmond city teachers were disciplined in a standardized testing scandal. And, while we were deciding what to do with that bit of info, I got a call that a story I’d been working on was about to break as well…. (9 city workers arrested in an over-time scandal)  Soon after we learned a Chesterfield County student was arrested for making an explosive. Geez. Everything happened in a span of 5 minutes! It all got covered (and well I might add) but that gives you a little sense of an “atypical” reporting day. (And what a local news reporter means by “breaking” news)

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VCU Wants City Stadium and Talks Football

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

Football???? VCU??? Now that I have your attention, I know many of you will say, “but they are undefeated right now?” (That’s the joke I heard over and over this week over Twitter and Facebook.) But in all seriousness, let’s talk football and VCU. It’s definitely all the buzz. I sat down with VCU Athletic Director Norwood Teague this week, he had no problem talking about it.  

CITY STADIUM:

Let’s start from the beginning. Two weeks ago I obtained copies of Fulton Hill Partnership’s proposal for a shopping center on the City Stadium site.  Many residents who live near the 82-year-old venue have been up in arms over the idea of  tearing down the stadium. I began hearing buzz that VCU was meeting with Richmond’s Mayor this week. And sure enough, Athletic Director, Norwood Teague was kind enough to sit down with us. He says unequivocally, VCU wants the City Stadium property. “We’ve been following the debate closely. Certainly it’s something that we’re interested in. We’re definitely in discussions with the powers that be. We are very interested in the stadium.”

Teague says VCU wants to keep the property a stadium. He says, “there’s a lot of other uses that we would have from an athletic standpoint, whether it be tennis or baseball, there’s a lot of options…. It’s such a great piece of land, that’s close to VCU… and it would be tough to see it go away from an athletic venue.”  

FOOTBALL:

As for football Teague said,  “It’s something that if we do, we want to do right. We know that it costs a lot of money and the economy’s not great right now, but it’s something that begs the question because we’re a large school.  A lot of our fans want it, a lot of our students want it. There’s some that don’t, but it’s something that we’re going to research and research pretty heavily over the next year.” He went on to say, “Most schools that have started a football program at the Division I level, whether it be Old Dominion, UNC Charlotte, or where ever, they have a stadium they can play in right away. If football is a possibility I think you can connect the dots that City Stadium would certainly work well for us. It’s something where looking at. Something we’re trying to evaluate and see where it all ends up.”

Richmond’s Mayor, Dwight Jones had this say this week, “We’re going to do a series of community meetings to find out once again the community wants. As a part of that process you’re going to have entities that have vested interests. They’re going to do what they want, and so I would imagine VCU will be out there pumping up the volume. I would imagine developers will be out there pumping up the volume. When we hold our community meetings, we want to find the highest and best use for the property. We don’t want to do that absent from the community’s input, we want them to have input.”

And so the debate continues…

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Details on City Stadium Proposal

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

UPDATE: (Thursday Afternoon)

NBC 12 has obtained copies of conceptual drawings for the City Stadium site. This is what Fulton Hill Properties is proposing. I received the renderings from a source and not from the developer. In a statement this afternoon a spokesperson for the Fulton Hill Partnership, Paul Bratten, told me, “We are in the preliminary planning stages. We are eager to engage the public and talk to them about the possibility for the highest and best use for the site.”

Conceptual Drawing of City Stadium Proposal

Original Story:

NBC 12 has learned some of the details given to City Council members about the controversial proposal for City Stadium. A good source tells me that Fulton Hill Partnership is going to send the Mayor’s Administration an unsolicited proposal for a mixed use development. The plan leaves about 15% of the 20 acres site for retail. About 40% would be for a mixture of high and low-rise residential units. I’m told there could be some underground parking and even a medical building on the property. Of course, these details are subject to change. There’s no timeline yet on when the proposal will go to the Mayor’s office. The developer wants to buy the land from the city and pay for it upfront. There’s already been one contentious meeting. People who live near the stadium are very concerned about what will be put there. Many have voice opposition to a shopping center. At that meeting Mayor Dwight Jones announced that there was no done deal.

City Stadium Background: The stadium was built-in 1929 and seats about 22,000.  For several decades the stadium was the home of the Richmond Spider’s football team. Richmond built a new stadium last year and moved out. The City Council voted to restore the name, “City Stadium.”

The Richmond Kickers use the stadium now as do the football team the Virginia Hornets.  The stadium is in Councilman Marty Jewell’s district.

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Top 10 Richmond Stories of 2010

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

The list is back! The top stories to happen in the city this year. My only qualification is that the news happened in “city limits”. Here’s my list from last year if you want to compare.  

#10. JR Pope/Deskgate: (Auditor Strikes Again)

This story eeks in at number 10 on our list.  JR Pope (longtime city parks champion) resigned days before a City Auditor’s report revealed extreme waste in his department. In fact, we haven’t heard the full story yet. The entire audit on the Department of Parks and Recs will be released in 2011. What grabbed people’s attention was the $36,000 spent on a desk for a community center.  Council members were outraged,  citizens angry and many people also came forward in defense of Pope.

#9 Rudolph Deflation: (Red Nose Blows Out)

A viral video makes the list purely for its hilarity. (If you haven’t seen in please look it up on You Tube!!!) Rudolph goes down in the city’s annual Christmas Parade. Its head ran into a light post and Rudolph popped! Then the video, taken by a Richmond family, hits the internet and  news outlets around the country. The video appears on the Nightly News and even the late night talk shows. Richmond’s Rudolph rupture will go down in history!

#8 VCU/Michael Rao: (The Non-Story Story)

Did his wife fire someone in the president office? Why were there confidentiality agreements on a University campus? What happened during his review by the Board of Visitors? The Michael Rao saga of unanswered questions makes our list at number 8.  

#7 Tameka Claiborne: (Missing Mother)

A mother goes missing. Her toddler is found wandering in an apartment complex. Her boyfriend, gone. It was a wild and heart wrenching story that ended when Tameka Claiborne’s body washed up in Charles City County in the James River. Her boyfriend goes on trial for murder next month.  

#6 Justin French: (Police Fizzle French Plans for Richmond)

It started with his declaration, Justin French was purposely defaulting on 10’s of millions of dollars in loans on 5 local banks. Than came word he was under investigation. Days later the feds raid his Shockoe Slip office. A week after that he’s arrested at the Richmond Airport trying to leave the state. The saga of high-profile developer Justin French will continue well into 2011. What exactly he did with State and Federal money is the question to be answered. In the meantime, many of his city properties remain in limbo.

#5 Noise Ordinance Unconstitutional: (City Law Quieted)

It was meant to help neighborhoods in the city gain some control over nuisance neighbors, but when City Council passed its new noise ordinance, controversy ensued.  A rock band was cited and then decided to fight. The judge agreed with a local attorney and ruled the ordinance over board and unconstitutional for making a religious exemption. City Council is back at the drawing board. A new proposal is expected next year.

#4 Richmond Squirrels Success: (Going Nutzy for Baseball) 

Gotta have some good news stories on the list! The Squirrels certainly know how to make an entrance. They built excitement after announcing their arrival and the ball park was packed both opening and closing weekends. The organization drew sizeable crowds throughout the year and they provided family fun entertainment (just like the promised). Also, that darned Mascot was EVERYWHERE! Nutzy headlined ground breakings, was caught skating and even scaling tall buildings. Where will we see Nutzy next?

#3 Apostle Anthony Taylor: (Police Chase Death)

Coming in at number 3 on our list is a story that broke a lot of hearts this year. A pastor, who had just wrapped up a sermon, was driving home and was hit and instantly killed by a man leading Henrico Police on a high-speed chase. Apostle Anthony Taylor’s church was devastated and so were many in the tight-knit Church Hill community he worked in. And now his death may lead to major changes in police polity, statewide, when it comes to police chases. The General Assembly will take up the issue this January.  

#2 Snowmageddon: (Winter Wipe-out 2010)

It closed schools, airports, entire interstates and trapped Richmonder’s weekend after weekend. Old man winter certainly played a joke this year, pelting the region with record snowfall. Snow removal budgets were blown state-wide and grocery stores couldn’t get enough bread or milk on the shelves. When I moved to Richmond, people told me Summers were HOT HOT HOT and it NEVER snowed. Um, yeah…  

#1 Ukropalyse: (Ga-Ga for Groceries)

What’s more Richmond than a grocery story dominating the headlines, TV, Radio and blogosphere for months? The Ukrop family is iconic Richmond and the brand, a part of the city’s fiber. The deal to sell was inked at the end of last year, but it took months in 2010 for the sale to finalize and the transformation into Martin’s to happen. I’m anxious to see which grocery chain is on top when the yearly rankings come out after this winter. In the meantime, you can still get those famous white house rolls at Martin’s and I won’t be surprised when they are one day available at other grocery story chains.

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