It was highly symbolic that Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones chose the newly renovated Hippodrome Theater as the site of his State of the City Address on Feb. 3.
The city’s economic development successes were a key part of his speech. The theater is emblematic of the triumphs. It opened in 1914 and hosted legendary acts such as Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Richmond native Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. After years of decay, developers are turning the theater into a music hall. The project also includes apartments, retail space and restaurants, one of which is already open.
Jones said it was "fitting" he was speaking in a "venue which has sat empty for most of the last 40 years."
The mayor then boasted that there are "$981 million, almost a billion dollars, in active development projects right here in the City of Richmond."
Our daily commutes take us past many of the works and we wanted to find out if all those cranes really comprise $981 million in "active" projects.
Tammy Hawley, the mayor’s press secretary, sent us a project list that added up to $981.7 million in public and private investments. But she added some fine print. While Jones said the ventures were "active," Hawley said the figure is actually based on projects "we know about that are either recently completed, under construction or in the pipeline."
The 28 listed projects range in value from $3 million to $158 million. Many of the largest public investments are improvements at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus and at the Medical College of Virginia, its hospital campus.
The biggest project is a new school of medicine at VCU. The city’s development office says that project will cost $158 million.
The next-largest project, by dollar value, is the building of a new wing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which the city says cost $150 million.
Residents of the city’s Museum District, where the VMFA is located, are hardly troubled by construction noise and dust, however. That’s because the new wing opened on May 1, 2010.
The list of projects includes the $64.8 million Williams Mullen building on 10th Street in downtown. But the law firm opened for business at its new location on June 14, 2010, nearly nine months before the mayor’s speech.
Also listed are a $10 million expansion of the Virginia War Memorial and the $10.1 million refurbishment of the city’s Manchester Courthouse. Both projects are completed.
And the city identifies two Jackson Ward apartment complexes--one targeted at VCU students and the other at the over-55 crowd. Both are completed and open to tenants.
We counted $249.4 million in completed ventures that are on the city’s list of "active development projects." Cross them out and the value of active projects is actually $732.3 million. That’s a 25.4 percent difference from the mayor’s figure.
Then there’s the case of Crosland LLC’s proposed "Manchester on the James" project for 200 apartments and parking at the southern end of the Lee Bridge. The city says it will cost $26.6 million.
The City Council approved the project in June 2008, stipulating the company must get a building permit within two years and begin construction no more than six months after that. The General Assembly has passed a law allowing a grace period for projects delayed because of the recent recession, so the project will not need further approvals before construction begins.
No building permit has been issued for that site since 2008, when a demolition permit was issued. The demolition permit expired in October 2009.
Let’s review our findings.
Jones said in his speech that Richmond has "$981 million in active development projects." His spokeswoman, when contacted a few days later, clarified that the number includes recently completed projects, sites where work is currently ongoing, and planned projects.
When completed works are excluded, the number of current or planned development deals falls to $732.3 million, 25.4 percent less than what the mayor cited. And another project, the $26.6 million Manchester on the James, is dormant.
No doubt, Richmond has been developing in recent years and several major projects were successfully completed in 2010. But the mayor’s number is not right; it paints a better picture than what exists. Therefore we rate the Jones’ claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.