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VUU President Now Tasked With Vetting Coliseum Redevelopment Deal He Previously Endorsed

Richmond City Council
(Roberto Roldan/VPM)

Among the list of candidates for the Navy Hill Redevelopment Advisory Commission approved by the Richmond City Council Monday night is a local university president who has already endorsed the deal.

Virginia Union University President Hakim Lucas was nominated by 9th District City Councilman Michael Jones at the council’s last meeting on Sept. 9. Jones said the move was about increasing diversity on the commission. The original list of six nominees proposed by the commission’s chair and vice-chair included three African Americans and three women. Last year, Lucas signed his name to a column that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch calling the deal “a good investment.”

Lucas’ appointment drew criticism from other city council members including 2nd District Councilwoman Kim Gray, who said it undermines the commission’s credibility in being an objective third party.

“This is insulting. It’s insulting to the process and it’s insulting to the people of Richmond,” Gray said.

Despite the protests, five council members approved Lucas’ nomination to the board. They are Michael Jones, Ellen Robertson, Chris Hilbert, Cynthia Newbille and Andreas Addison.

Lucas was one of three university presidents who endorsed the building of a new downtown arena as well as the redevelopment of the historic Navy Hill neighborhood by developer NH District Corp. President Michael Rao of Virginia Commonwealth University and President Makola Abdullah of Virginia State University also signed their names to opinion columns that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in late 2018 and early 2019.

Reporting by VPM News later revealed that both of those columns were ghostwritten by Jeff Kelly, a media relations consultant for the developer. The RTD told VPM it would not have published those endorsements had they known they were written by NH District Corp.

Lucas is also currently the subject of a lawsuit in Florida that accuses him of working with a private developer to defraud Bethune-Cookman University. Lucas was the Vice President of Bethune-Cookman before becoming president of VUU.

A spokesperson for Lucas did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a letter sent to City Council on Sept. 17, he said, “My support for the growth of Richmond does not eliminate my ability to advocate work and be objective to the detail of the project.”

On Monday night, Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, who voted for Lucas said he doesn’t believe his previous endorsement of the project disqualifies him from being able to independently evaluate the deal. He said Lucas has assured him personally that he can be objective.

“I felt that a member of Virginia Union should be represented in this important economic development deal and I also wanted to improve the minority balance on the commission,” Hilbert said.

In order to add Lucas to the commission, City Council needed to remove one of the original six nominees sent to them. They decided to remove Richard Crom, a Richmond resident and IRS analyst.

Fifth District City Councilman Parker Agelasto said he thought removing Crom undermined the commission, given that he was the only certified public accountant on the committee. 

“I don’t know Mr. Crom, I don’t know any of these candidates, but I know what is needed for a commission to have credibility and I am concerned about that right now,” Agelasto said.

The other members appointed to the board are: 

  • Mark Gordon, a former executive with Bon Secours Mercy Health
  • Grindly Johnson, Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Administration
  • Suzanne Long, a real estate attorney and the former Executive Director of the Virginia Resource Authority
  • Mimi Sadler, principal at Sadler & Whitehead Architects, PLC
  • Michael Schewel, a former Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade
  • Corey Walker, a visiting professor at the University of Richmond

Now that the commission has been seated, members will have three months to vet the assumptions and projections given by the developer and the city administration. They will then make a report to Richmond City Council. The Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission will have only a $5,000 budget to analyze more than 900 pages of documents outlining the $1.5 billion redevelopment deal. 


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