One day after Virginia Beach City Council met to discuss an updated arena financing deal, mayoral hopefuls butted heads about the issue at a forum Wednesday night.
The forum, hosted by Phi Theta Kappa at Tidewater Community College Virginia Beach, invited candidates for all four contested spots on the council to discuss a variety of issues facing the city. The forum was moderated by Joel Rubin, president of Rubin Communications Group, whose questions prompted the candidates to focus on the proposed light rail expansion, the proposed Oceanfront arena and the city’s relations with TCC. Overall, the event attracted 13 candidates, including Mayor Will Sessoms, who is running for reelection, and the three contenders who are seeking his job.
But for the four mayoral candidates, the issue of the proposed arena was at the forefront.
The discussion came on the heels of a new proposal that indicates bonds will be sold as unrated instruments and that the developer, United States Management LLC, will increase its equity contribution by $7.5 million, to offset the risk of unrated bonds. The total projected cost of the arena is roughly $200 million.
Mayor Will Sessoms reiterated that funding for the arena will come from taxes paid by people who buy arena tickets and people who stay at local hotels.
“If you do not use the arena and you do not stay at a hotel, you will not help pay for it,” he said Wednesday night.
But for candidate Richard Kowalewitch, who is running for mayor, those tickets may cost too much.
“Remember these high-price tickets?” he said. “Think about your budget in your house. If you go two or three hundred dollars a month in disposable income that you might spend at the movies and out to dinner or wherever you may go, those high price tickets — once you buy that ticket, you don’t have that $300 anymore. That means you’re not going out to that restaurant. You’re not going to go out to that theater and pay that tax.”
For candidate Don Weeks, the arena has a “number of challenges.” One, he said, is the number of meetings conducted in closed session.
“Secret meetings, questionable ability to raise the money — if they issue the bonds it sounds like they’re almost going to be junk bonds. Again, we don’t have all the details,” he said later in an interview. Weeks represented Kempsville on city council from 1998 until 2000.
He noted that funds from the hotel tax might be better used elsewhere.
“Any time you take money away from schools, I’m not a fan of it,” he said.
Sessoms insisted that the funds will not, in fact, take away from the police force or schools. Like many other candidates who spoke Wednesday, Sessoms said the deal may be too good to pass up. He didn’t indicate how he’d vote this coming Tuesday, though.
“This is highly unusual, and I think because of the investments made in the city over the years this has resulted in someone on the private side willing to take some risk and invest a lot of money on the arena, and they’re betting on it being successful based on the taxes the property generates on its own and a hotel tax,” Sessoms said.
When it was his turn to speak, candidate George Furman III held up his water bill.
“Truth of the matter is, it will affect us. No matter what you think or say, look at your tax dollars,” he said.
He pointed to the fees on the back of his bill.
“Everything else has a fee and you can’t lower a fee. A fee is permanent. You can’t take it away. So in other words, they’re taking your money, you can’t get it back,” Furman said. “So somewhere along the line, we’re getting a bad deal.”