LOCAL Commentary :: Historical Reclamation : Urban Development

What now for Shockoe Bottom?

It looks like the proposal for a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom is dead. And while we cannot directly claim a victory, this is certainly good news.

So what will happen now? Mayor Wilder believes that with Global Development Partners gone the hounds of reinvigorated development may be yelping in packs at the city’s door. If so, we need to stay involved.

Shockoe Bottom is no less endangered now than before and the Burial Ground is under an even more direct threat. This fight is far from over and we will need your continued support and involvement to win.
What now for Shockoe Bottom?

By Ana Edwards

It looks like the proposal for a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom is dead. And while we cannot directly claim a victory, this is certainly good news.

Global Development Partners’ smoke-and-mirrors financing plan evaporated in the face of Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder’s “show-me-the-money” inquiries. It turns out that GDP’s promise that the Wall Street investment firm Lehman Brothers was willing to plunk down $50 million may have been a bunch of hot air.

So it was the lack of money that sealed the project’s fate. Most civic decisions tend to come down to the money. But, who knows? Perhaps Lehman Brothers got wind of Shockoe Bottom’s historic importance to the African-American community and decided to err on the side of caution. After all, the firm, with its roots in servicing Southern slave owners, had recently been the target of a class-action lawsuit for reparations.

Apologies notwithstanding, enough bad press may have been enough.

The Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project and many supportive organizations and individuals have remained steadfast in opposing a stadium in Shockoe Bottom - even when GDP’s Tim Kissler offered to help us land a $10 million grant if we’d go along with the proposal.

Let the record show: the Defenders are not for sale.

The Sacred Ground project was founded back in October 2004 with the primary mission of reclaiming the so-called “Burial Ground for Negroes” that now lies abandoned under a private parking lot at 15th and East Broad streets. But throughout 2005 the group’s energies have been focused on defending Shockoe Bottom from attack by GDP’s and the Richmond Braves’ development plans.

We’ve made repeated presentations to Richmond City Council, written articles, distributed fliers, made presentations in other cities and circulated a petition titled “Defend Richmond’s Black History” that called for an economic boycott of the city in 2007 should the stadium be built. More than 100 local, national and international organizations and individuals have signed that petition.

One particular highlight was our successful march and rally in March that deflated GDP’s attempt to show public support for its proposal.

A well-financed rally by YES! Progress Richmond at the 17th Street Farmers Market drew only about 150 people. The Defenders and Sacred Ground brought 80 opponents and with banners and chants marched on the stadium rally.

That action received extensive coverage by virtually all the city’s newspapers, all three local TV stations and even the remote radio broadcast the YES! folks had at their event. After that, GDP and the Braves gave up trying to manufacture public “support.”

Sacred Ground also has produced an alternative development plan for Shockoe Bottom, one based on heritage tourism.

Experiencing U.S. history is the number one reason that people outside Virginia visit Richmond. Economic studies, including statistical information gathered from tourism organizations, demonstrate that there is a longer, more sustainable economic boost from historic and heritage tourism than from sports venues.

Heritage tourism also provides a solid basis for preservation, investigation and commemoration of significant sites. Couple that with linking jobs and career tracks to educational benefits and vocational skills development, tied directly to the long-term tasks needed for such a project, and you have smarter urban development.

This past October we held a Sacred Ground SlamFest as well as a symposium titled “Sites of Significance; Stories of Resistance & Reclamation.” The two events provided both cultural and academic perspectives on the importance of gaining and preserving knowledge that can and should be accessed through sites such as Shockoe Bottom and the Burial Ground.

The Sacred Ground project was scheduled to present its alternative plan to the mayor’s Shockoe Advisory Committee Oct. 10. But the committee’s leadership panicked and cancelled the meeting when the media called to ask about attending - even though Kissler’s presentation of the GDP’s proposal had been wide open and well publicized.

So we presented our alternative proposal on Dec. 3 at the Defenders 2nd Annual Fighting Fund & Community Awards Dinner. The Advisory Committee has since informed us that we may present our proposal during its January meeting.

In the meantime, it looks like the stadium proposal for Shockoe Bottom is dead.

So what will happen now? Mayor Wilder believes that with GDP gone the hounds of reinvigorated development may be yelping in packs at the city’s door. If so, we need to stay involved.

For example, empire-building Virginia Commonwealth University has identified the site of the Burial Ground for Negroes as an “area of future consideration” in its 2004 15-Year Capital Development Plan. VCU owned the land before selling it to a Cincinnati real estate outfit.

Shockoe Bottom is no less endangered now than before and the Burial Ground is under an even more direct threat.

This fight is far from over and we will need your continued support and involvement to win.