Over vocal opposition from West End residents, Richmond’s City Council tonight approved a broad resolution endorsing Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ proposed deal with Bon Secours Richmond Health System to build a nearly $9 million training camp for the Washington Redskins.
The proposed agreement with Bon Secours, announced last month, provides $6.4 million in sponsorship for the camp in exchange for a long-term, low-cost lease on the former Westhampton School property at Libbie and Patterson avenues, among other elements.
The resolution approved tonight by a 6-2 vote is not binding, and the various aspects of the economic development package will have to be approved by the council in more specific form in the coming weeks.
However, 1st District Councilman Bruce W. Tyler, who represents the area and voted against the resolution, said it clearly sets the city’s course and denies a chance for meaningful input from residents who have opposed giving Bon Secours a $5,000 yearly lease for 60 years on the Westhampton school site for a major medical expansion of St. Mary’s Hospital.
The hospital system will also operate a men’s health and sports medicine facility at the site of the training camp, to be built on state land behind the Science Museum of Virginia and will build out an expansion Richmond Community Hospital in the East End to provide health services and investment city officials says is desperately needed.
“Once we start down that road we can’t turn back,” said Tyler, who tried to amend the resolution to take the school portion out of the language. “This is about more than a resolution. … It’s not fair to the citizens of the 1st District who have not had any input in this process.”
Third District Councilman Chris A. Hilbert was the only other council member to join Tyler in opposing the resolution, arguing that the move broke faith with past council assurances that revenue from former school properties would go back to the school system.
“This is certainly a legal transaction, but not one that I believe is in the spirit of what we committed to earlier,” Hilbert said.
More than a dozen speakers lined up to oppose the resolution and many others sat in the audience, with some holding signs. They questioned the economics of the deal, a lack of transparency in putting it together and the fate of the school building, which dates to 1917. City officials Monday night said the hospital system will make an effort to preserve the building’s façade and will maintain playing fields on the land.
“The financial terms of the proposal are terrible for the city,” said Elliott Harrigan, chairman of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. Harrigan added that the transfer of public property to a private entity “sets a terrible precedent” in terms of economic-development trumping community planning.
“I’m extremely disappointed with the city administration and Bon Secours taking this approach,” Harrigan said.
Belle Landrum, who grew up in the neighborhood, attended the Westhampton school and still lives nearby, called the deal “very short-sighted.”
“We pay a lot of taxes there and we’re getting nothing back. We really don’t need these medical offices,” she said outside the council chambers. “Bon Secours has not been up front with us. We’ve known they wanted that property for a long time.”
Other council members pledged to closely scrutinize the details of the proposal as they come up for approval.
“What we are saying tonight is ‘We like this package,’ ” said Council President Kathy Graziano. “The devil is in the details and we’re going to get to the details.”
A vote was delayed on another measure that alters the city's bond ordinance to allow a city loan to the Richmond Economic Development Authority to jump-start construction on the camp. That loan will be paid back through Bon Secours and other business sponsorship, city officials have said.
The full cost of building and maintaining the camp over a 10-year period has been estimated at $13.7 million by city officials. It is projected to draw thousands of visitors to Richmond and have a yearly estimated economic impact of $8.5 million in the city.
Richard Johnson, chairman of the board of the city’s Economic Development Authority, which will build and manage the training camp facility, said the board has enthusiastically endorsed the plan.
“We look at this as a very safe investment,” Johnson said. “The exposure to the city in the event of a downturn … is very modest.”
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