Past The Presser: Interpreting the Timing of Richmond’s ‘Sudden ECHL Return’

(Photo: Joe Mahoney | Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The minor pro hockey world was set ablaze – seemingly out of nowhere – Monday, as a sudden press conference was publicly announced to be set in front of the Richmond Coliseum in Richmond, Virginia – former home of a slew of professional hockey teams in multiple leagues.

At said press conference, it was unveiled that former Greenville Swamp Rabbits owner Fred Festa has gained approval from the ECHL to expand a hockey franchise back to RVA. Festa, who had recently stepped down from W.R. Grace, a Chemical Conglomerate based in Maryland, stood and talked about the history and necessity of hockey’s return to eastern Virginia; citing the proud history and stories that were confined within the Coliseum walls.

“We got everything here to make this thing a success,” said Festa “People came to the old arena, they came, they saw a show and then they left…this is going to be a meeting place where we want people to come to the game, we want them to eat dinner first, we them to stay around and after the game, we want them to go to the local venues.”

Alongside the longtime operator of the Bring Hockey Back to Richmond Facebook page, and representatives from Navy Hill, an overall sudden – but successful – press conference had been conducted in a roughly 20 minute time span, and spouted great news for hockey fans in a historically hockey-affectionate city.

Until it actually didn’t.

While the press conference seemed to boast of great achievements in the process of reintroducing hockey to the city, the underlying narrative goes much deeper than that for those outside of the area. In fact, it reaches years prior to an out-of-the-blue professional hockey return conference, and actually shows the impact sports – even at the ‘AA’ Level – can play in a sociopolitical climate.

Power and Perception are two dangerous tools in a political atmosphere, and when you’re talking about real dollars, the impact can suddenly take a toll that affects the day to day lives of citizens of a geographical area.

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Renderings of Navy Hill Arena / Multiplex (Courtesy: Navy Hill)

Some years prior to yesterday’s announcement, the City of Richmond has been in a hotly-contested discussion on the integrating and updating of portions of the historic city; most topically for those reading this specific article, the demolition of the shuttered Richmond Coliseum, and ensuing replacement with a brand-new, state-of-the-art 17,500 seat arena & surrounding multiplex, named in honor of the project that would help make it possible: Navy Hill Arena.

As currently proposed, Navy Hill would consist of a 17,500-seat arena, a 541-room Hyatt Regency hotel, 2,000 market-rate apartments, an initial 280 income-based housing units with potential for more, renovated Blues Armory building, GRTC transfer center, and additional retail, office and city-use buildings.’

(Richmond Biz Sense)

Seems like a great idea, right? Richmond is a great sports city, proudly sporting the Richmond Flying Squirrels of the MiLB, and formerly hosting many hockey teams in years past. Minor League Sports have definitely shown to have positive impacts for the economy of host-cities, especially for those directly off commonly-driven tourist interstates (such as I-95, for Richmond). However, this scenario is only unique because of the level of which it finds itself.

Arena, Stadium, and Coliseum strong-arm deals are commonplace at the Major League level; the Oakland Raiders move to Las Vegas, the abandonment of the old-home of the Atlanta Braves, and of course the disaster of the Los Angeles Chargers (of San Diego). However, in this case, the situation is not of a team using its position as leverage against a city, but rather a development using a team as leverage against a city.

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Proposed Development Area of Navy Hill.

See, the problem with the Navy Hill Arena and Development is simple: frankly, Richmond doesn’t want it. Projections on the project are ranging in the billions of dollars category, with massive renovations needing to be done to downtown. No small-change or small project.

In fact, the timing of the ECHL announcement is far from sudden or out-of-the-blue, but rather a carefully coordinated PR and Marketing move from Navy Hill in a last-chance effort as a crucial vote is coming in the next month. As the City Council was putting a vote together to ask Mayor Levar Stoney to outright withdraw the proposal from Navy Hill – which was eventually voted in favor of 5-4 – hours prior, Navy Hill and Fred Festa unveiled their ECHL expansion franchise given that their proposed arena were approved.

83893631_465893314318329_2441975562483269632_nIn the press release handed out at the event yesterday (see right, provided in the Bring Hockey Back to Richmond Facebook group), it is even stated below HOCKEY RETURNS TO RICHMOND! that the means of the new franchise exist SOLELY on the grounds that the new arena project happens.

This point is insanely important to remember. While Richmond has been – and should once again be – a fantastic non-traditional hockey city, using it as a political chess piece is not the proper way to see the return be made. That is where I believe the most misunderstanding is coming from.

In the press conference, the talk was focused mainly – as expected – on the benefits hockey brings to the city, the power of tourism and community pride, the economic impact, and the feats of the new facility. However, literally none of this matters unless there’s a new arena – which is living on life-support – approved for this hypothetical team.

I commend the efforts of Mr. Festa and of Navy Hill for what they want to do, especially with Festa stating that he himself would invest multi-millions into the project and ECHL franchise. The problem is the underlying reason. Timing is everything, and with an announcement of this magnitude in a city this hockey-hungry, it leads to a false-narrative to the average eye that Richmond is no-bars-held getting an ECHL team once again – rather than using the power of nostalgia and empty-promise as a political prison.

Again, I have suspicions to believe that Festa is working in good faith, but I also understand the implications behind such a move and such a decision in a location like this. Festa is the perfect candidate to spearhead such a franchise and campaign for Navy Hill, and of course should this become approved, would be an appropriate person to bring hockey back. Consider his experience in ownership of a Greenville team for over six seasons, as well as his management experience with W.R. Grace. He’s well-spoken, appears as a ‘young’ hot shot, and is your perfect face for progress.

Of course, his ability to invest and grow certainly doesn’t hurt either when you’re talking about what would now be the cornerstone calling card of the development project.

Consider the recent news that broke the hearts of hockey fans along the Mississippi River, in which the long-proposed return of hockey to Southaven was discussed to the point of even talking league-joining, team-naming, owner in constant communication with fans via Facebook, and then suddenly: poof. No more professional hockey return to Memphis Area.

While the surrounding circumstances may be different, the final story is the same: promising a hockey team with no ice to skate on means you don’t have a hockey team. It’s dishonest, deceitful, and supports a false narrative to claim that “hockey is back!”, when there’s nothing more than a handshake agreement and the hope of an arena or lease.

Now, and going back on this, from a Marketing standpoint and especially on a PR standpoint, this is a phenomenal play by Navy Hill. You have proof that your project can attract high-level entertainment and promised-stake from a well-respected professional sports league, and that it can garner high-level investors. Worst case scenario: your project doesn’t get funded, and you have tangible proof of the impact you would’ve made. Best case scenario: you just claimed a multi-million dollar investor and guaranteed, noteworthy tenant for your financial gamble. It is in every sense of the phrase, a win-win.

The even bigger winner in all of this may be Fred Festa, who said in his portion of the conference that “despite having multiple location options in other cities, Richmond is his top choice.” Again, you’re looking at best-case vs. worst-case, and it all looks like a win for Festa. He’s getting, especially in its current state, a free feasibility study on a popular former market with no financial risk. At its worst, he can return there in the future when a new arena does exist or show what kind of impact his name attachment had to a possible expansion. Once more, best case, he has his team where he wants it.

There is no true loss in this decision by and for Festa & Navy Hill. Except to the fans and hopefuls of a real return to hockey in their city that doesn’t lack depth or content contingent on a massive city redevelopment project.

Back on a political side, Mayor Stoney has been a proponent of the Navy Hill Project for well-over two years now – going back to the unveiling of the project plans in 2018, which Stoney met with open arms. Some from Richmond claim that his support of it is in pursuit of a legacy-project, or something to remember his terms by; Others, in support of Stoney and the Project view it as a stalwart effort to re-energize economic influx and favorable recognition to the City of Richmond.

With this final vote from the City Council, it forces the hand of a final kill-or-keep vote due in late-February.

“We do not take this step lightly, however we believe that there are numerous substantial reasons for Council to take appropriate action in response to the many public concerns that have been expressed about this project,” said Councilwoman Kristen Larson “We recognize and appreciate the hard work and substantial time that has been spent on the creation and review of the current ordinances. However, for all of the reasons stated previously, we believe that now is the time to ‘hit the reset button,’ take a deep breath, and commit ourselves to a review process that is open, fair and equitable.”

Of course, with public discourse against the billion-plus dollar development, it is only expected that their elected officials oppose the project; that is after all, the job of elected officials, act as representatives for the people who give them power. It’s important to remember too, it’s not being shot down strictly because of the limited-representation from the public in favor of it, or because it’s a new arena, or even because of the ECHL; this particular development is being disapproved because political and public officials believe that proper process was not followed in the pushing through of such a matter to the mayors office almost immediately.

This issue has been a hot one in RVA, but becomes an interesting and more nationally viewed one as a rhetoric on how even hockey at the ECHL level can be used as a politically-motivated pawn in the process of pushing projects through. Again, I don’t state that as saying that the sole idea behind the seemingly sudden appearance of an ECHL franchise’s availability, but the timing and reasoning is apropos.

I understand, of course, the application, timing, and feasibility that goes behind such expansion for a league. As well, I’m not going to ignore the obvious that if such a massive arena was/is to be built, of course it would require a primary tenant, and with a long history of hockey and long-time desire for its return, it is a no-brainer for Festa as a businessman and man of hockey, as well as Navy Hill in their search to turn public support in their favor.

I for one am always in favor of the growth of hockey, and especially in such a market like Richmond, it is a harmonious concept. This is a time, however, where it seems to be so much more based on looking for political ventriloquy to force the hand of public support to save a dying development project.

The people of Richmond deserve professional hockey’s return; but they deserve it to be more than a conceptual what if, but rather wait until it is a when.


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