© 2019 Thad Williamson. Authorized and Paid For By Thad Williamson For Richmond City Council.

  • Thad Williamson

Navy Hill Proposal: Final Campaign Statement

The City of Richmond has a poverty rate of 25%. Nearly 34,000 working-age adults live in poverty, over 90% of whom do not have full-time jobs. Moreover, a significant portion of city land is held by non-taxable public entities; plus we have several blocks of non-productive land in the heart of downtown. Finally, the City is effectively barred from expanding through annexation.

For all of these reasons, it makes sense that the City of Richmond should explore options for bringing more economic activity downtown – creating more centrally located, living wage jobs accessible to City residents by transit, while adding to the tax base. Yet it’s also understandable that many residents in the 5th District and citywide distrust a complex proposal involving large amounts of money given the City’s dubious track record with high-profile economic development “deals.”

How then to proceed?

While we can’t ignore the mistakes of the past, we also can’t be defined and confined by them. We need a clear-eyed approach that draws on the lessons of the past without allowing those failures to cause us to miss positive opportunities to move forward as a community.

Earlier in this campaign, I put forth five core principles of progressive economic development that I would apply to any proposed economic development deal involving City resources: 1) commitment to hire local residents at living wages, 2) commitment to robust minority contracting, 3) commitment to affordable housing, 4) transparency as to potential risks to the taxpayer, and very importantly 5) evidence of significant public buy-in to the project.

I followed up on that platform by issuing an interim statement on the proposal in late September, laying out my concerns and questions. I also promised to issue this final statement today, October 21, and I’m pleased to fulfill this commitment today.

Since September, the review process established by City Council to review the proposed Navy Hill development is up and running, and many substantive questions about the project are being addressed. Copious information, including written responses to questions raised by City Council and at public meetings are available on the City and Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission website; these are well worth reading for residents interested in the details of this project.

Meetings of the Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission are scheduled to run until December 14, in addition to planned public hearings. City Council also has work sessions on the project scheduled through November, and is expected to hire an independent analyst to review the project next month as well. A potential Council vote on the project is not likely to take place until early 2020.

At this relatively early point in the process, I believe it is irresponsible to take a firm position in favor or in opposition to the proposal, for two reasons:

· There are far too many unanswered questions—both big-picture and detailed questions—to be a “yes.”

· There is too much potential opportunity in the proposal—for new investment, for employment, and for long-term fiscal benefit—to be a “no.”

My responsibility as a potential elected official is to make sure I am making factually informed, values-based votes about contested issues. I believe that we need to allow the review process to continue so that as many questions as possible can be asked and answered and so that the public has the fullest possible understanding of the deal.

This process is currently under way, and more and more details—beyond the glossy overview—are being unearthed. For instance (in part due to questions posed by Parker Agelasto at an October 7 Council work session), we now have available detailed year-by-year projections of revenues and debt service for the project under varying assumptions about future growth.

In addition to the five criteria stated previously, here’s what I’m looking for:

· Strong assurances and firmer evidence that the projected revenue numbers hold up.

· There must be ironclad assurance that deal will never have a negative net impact on the City’s contribution to RPS’s general fund or on funds available for school construction projects.

· There must be a firm commitment to the use of Project Labor Agreements to assure fair

treatment of labor and payment of family-sustaining wages in the construction process.

· In addition to prioritizing employment opportunities for local residents, there must be a firm commitment to assuring that the project also creates local ownership opportunities in businesses and restaurants anticipated as part of the project.

· We need to ensure that the public interest and our diverse community can be represented on the Navy Hill Foundation Board of Directors long term.

In short, we need to work through the process deliberately. If the proposal, or a modified version of it, is indeed a good deal to the public it should be possible for proponents to demonstrate that in a way that is persuasive to fair-minded people asking reasonable questions. Unfortunately, that has not yet happened in a way that inspires strong public confidence in the project.

My commitment to voters in the 5th District on this issue, should I be elected, is as follows::

· I will meet with Parker Agelasto, who has been participating in the City Council review, for the purpose of garnering all of his observations and questions.

· I will call a community meeting immediately after taking office, during the first week of December, devoted to this topic. I will offer 5th District residents the opportunity to directly engage with project proponents. And I will schedule as many subsequent community meetings as required.

· I will push for changes that strengthen employment, affordable housing, and minority contracting provisions, and also minimize taxpayer risk.

· I will proactively keep 5th District residents informed throughout the continuing review process and will always listen to concerns and questions from residents.

· If the proposal moves forward to a Council vote while I am in office, I will continue to engage with 5th District residents and will detail the reasons for my final position.

While the Navy Hill proposal is an important question for our city, it’s also important that we develop a healthy community decision-making process as a city wrestling with complex challenges. Our most important goal should be to establish strong progressive economic development standards that assure robust community benefits while minimizing (and making transparent) taxpayer risk.

With that long view in mind, I have laid out in this campaign specific policy standards applicable to all economic development projects, and also enumerated several specific additional requirements of the Navy Hill proposal. I have also pledged specific actions to residents should I be elected as 5th District representative.

I believe this is the most responsible and transparent course of action for tackling this challenging issue. If elected, I know the attentive and engaged voters of the 5th District will hold me to it.

Together we will work to build a thriving 5th District and City of Richmond!