City, county leaders foresee a regional shift
Conversation about replacing the aging Diamond – where the Squirrels will play their first home game of the season on April 6 – has long been treated as a symbol of how local leaders have problems working together toward a common goal.
This year, however, the top leaders at the three biggest jurisdictions – Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond – all seem to agree on one thing: Forget about the ballpark.
There’s been a sea change in local leadership recently, with a new mayor in Richmond and a new county administrator in Chesterfield. Even Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas is relatively new, having been sworn into office in 2013.
And all three agree that regional cooperation needs to be defined by something more than building a new ballpark, and who pays for it.
With all of these changes, is the region poised to get its act together for the first time in recent memory? John Moeser thinks so.
“The prospects for regionalism may be higher than any other time since I moved to Richmond in 1970,” says Moeser, a senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The new county managers and some of the newly elected officials talk about the importance of cooperation.”
Del. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, agrees. In addition to the changeover of the top leaders in each locality, Loupassi mentions the departure of Chesterfield supervisor Dan Gecker, the retirement of the now-deceased Henrico supervisor David Kaechele and the death of Henrico board chair Dick Glover.
“We’ve had a massive amount of turnover in elected leadership in all three jurisdictions. I would say in the last two years, Henrico probably lost half a century of elected leadership experience,” Loupassi says. “That’s a massive change. You’ve [also] had a fairly dramatic amount of change in Chesterfield leadership.”
Loupassi says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that this new crew of leaders will collaborate better as a region.
“My guess is there will be some dynamic regional experimentation at some point,” says Loupassi, who led the push in the General Assembly to equalize representation between the three localities on the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority, formerly the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, in 2014. “Whenever you have a new person, it provides opportunities, but to the extent that relationships of personalities come into play, only time will tell as to whether or not those relationships are effective.”
Regarding relationships, much has been made of the connection between Chesterfield County Administrator Joe Casey and Vithoulkas. The two have known each other for more than two decades. When Vithoulkas became Henrico’s county manager in 2013, his first personnel action was hiring Casey to replace him as deputy county manager.
“When I pick up the phone and speak with Joe, there’s a genuineness there. I would do anything to help him professionally and personally, and the more time I spend with the new mayor, the more excited I am about some of the possibilities,” Vithoulkas says. “Right now, there’s a feeling that I’ve never felt as county manager. It’s incredibly positive.” Casey shares similar feelings about Vithoulkas.
“There’s a long history there for myself personally and professionally,” Casey says. “The basis for some of this regional cooperation is the basis of friendships, basically.”
As for Levar Stoney, both county administrators have positive things to say about the 35-year-old mayor.
“I can tell you that [in] three months with the new mayor, I personally have had more conversations with him in 90 days than I had in the four-year time period when [Dwight Jones] was here,” Vithoulkas says.
Part of Stoney’s appeal is that he’s not seen as part of the old Richmond political guard, which produced the city’s last two mayors – Jones and Doug Wilder, who became the country’s first black governor in 1990.
“I do see things differently than my predecessors, and I think Joe [Casey] and John [Vithoulkas] are joining me in that vision for what Richmond as a region looks like. We have to turn away from the battles of the past,” Stoney says. “We’re in a new day when it comes to regional cooperation. … After I won, I drove to Chesterfield, just to show that driving 20 minutes or so isn’t very far. We have to get to work to create a win for our residents.”
That said, Stoney may have some cleaning up to do at City Hall before substantial changes can start, tackling problems that include underfunded schools, aging infrastructure and a severely limited debt capacity. Regional priorities may have to take a back seat, at least initially.
“The mayor’s got a dramatic challenge that he’s facing. I think he’s going to have to look inward before he looks outward,” Loupassi says. “It takes some time to get your sea legs. I don’t expect anything in the near future, but I would expect that there will be opportunity for these folks to work together.”
But even these problems may provide an opportunity to collaborate.
“I think both of the counties can be incredibly helpful to the city by sharing some of our best practices with the city,” Vithoulkas says. “Ultimately, the better we all are, the better for the region, the better for the business interests in the region.”
Casey cites public safety and water and sewer agreements as areas where the region currently cooperates successfully. Moving forward, Casey says he’d like to do a better job of promoting the region, citing sports tourism and the fact that Henrico, Chesterfield, Hanover and Goochland counties all currently have AAA bond ratings.
Stoney says he’d like to work toward a comprehensive regional transportation network, and see more work done regionally with an eye toward economic development and public safety. Vithoulkas also highlights transportation and promoting sports tourism as long-term goals.
As for the long-running debate over replacing the Diamond, all three downplay its importance, both as a priority and as a symbol. For more than a decade, the aging baseball stadium has served as a potent symbol of regional dysfunction. Political leaders from Henrico and Chesterfield have long balked at partnering with the city to build a new facility, now the home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels.
“Personally, I think the reference to that one project being an example of regional dysfunction is overstated,” Vithoulkas says of the Diamond. “There are many reasons that this project has not come forward.”
Casey says that the ballpark should be viewed as one of a number of regional resources, like the county’s Henricus Historical Park and the Collegiate School Aquatics Center, built by the regional partnership SwimRVA.
“If a ballpark is defined as a regional asset, again, it needs to be defined alongside other regional assets for which we’re all contributing towards,” Casey says.
Even Stoney downplays the ballpark’s importance.
“Where the Squirrels play cannot be the overriding question of what sort of region we want to be,” Stoney says. “We have to think bigger than that. That’s why I always talk about transportation, because that affects all of our residents. Entertainment can’t be at the center of defining regional cooperation.” ¦