As Norfolk officials debated plans for the revitalization of Military Circle mall earlier this year, a group of council members and city staff took an unannounced trip to a Texas arena built by one of the developers partnering with musician Pharrell Williams.
Five city officials, including Mayor Kenny Alexander, flew May 19 to Austin to tour the Moody Center, a 15,000-seat arena on the University of Texas’ campus, and to negotiate with Oak View Group, the arena developer.
Alexander took a separate flight from the two other council members who attended, stayed at a different hotel and took a different tour of the arena to keep from triggering the state’s open meetings law. In Virginia, the meeting of three or more council members constitutes a quorum, which would require the city to publicly advertise the gathering and follow other rules of council meetings.
The Austin trip came a month and a half before the city reported it had begun negotiating with Williams’ development group from the three that offered proposals.
Council members Andria McClellan and Danica Royster also attended, along with City Manager Chip Filer and City Attorney Bernard Pishko.
“We were doing our due diligence. This is potentially one of the largest economic development deals in the city’s history. I think it’s appropriate for us to go and see what’s out there,” McClellan said.
The group returned the following day, city records show. Filer, Pishko and McClellan briefly attended a sold-out Eagles concert at the Moody Center that evening.
In all, the two council members and city staffers spent $6,069 in city funds on the trip for roundtrip plane tickets, hotel rooms and meals, according to city receipts.
Filer, Pishko and McClellan stayed at the Austin Fairmount — a luxury hotel — at nearly $600 per room, records show. Royster, who didn’t return calls seeking comment, stayed at a cheaper hotel.
Alexander paid for his own airfare, lodging and for a $150 ticket to the concert — and provided the receipts from a personal finance account to The Virginian-Pilot at the newspaper’s request.
“I did not travel with them. I traveled on my own dime and made all of my own arrangements,” Alexander said.
Alexander said that while the group traveled on the same day, he did not participate in the same tour or negotiations with other city council members.
“To have three or more, be it me or someone else from the council, that would have required a public meeting. We were aware of that,” Alexander said.
The Moody Center was built and is operated by Oak View Group, a California-based arena developer partnering with Williams to pitch an arena at Military Circle mall. The arena opened in April.
Williams and Oak View Group are part of the development team behind Wellness Circle, a $1.1 billion proposal that would rebuild the 75-acre mall site with a 200-room hotel, more than 1,100 new housing units and a 16,000-seat arena.
Like Wellness Circle, Oak View Group partnered with a celebrity to pitch the Moody Center: Texas native Matthew McConaughey.
The city is in “early negotiations” with Wellness Circle to redevelop the Military Circle mall area, but has not signed a development agreement, Filer told the Pilot this month.
Alexander declined to comment on whether he supports Wellness Circle’s arena plan, but said Norfolk and the region is in need of a large venue.
“Norfolk is the center of Hampton Roads and we are missing, as a region, certain shows because there’s not a facility large enough,” Alexander said. “We do not have a facility that can accommodate concerts of the size that some of these artists will play. And collegiate competitions won’t come to this area because there’s no facility to accommodate it.”
Filer and McClellan said they initially were skeptical that an arena could work in Norfolk. Several recent attempts to build an arena in Hampton Roads have failed to get off the ground. But after meeting with the Oak View Group at the Moody Center, both said they were optimistic.
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The Moody Center is the new home to the University of Texas men’s and women’s basketball teams, and will host other sporting events as well as music and community events. It’s a model the city could pursue, Filer said.
“The biggest concern that the council has is, ‘Can we fundamentally support a large arena without a professional sports franchise?’” Filer said. “I think the overwhelming answer to that, from what I observed at the Moody Center, is without question: yes, it is absolutely viable. It makes money every year mostly on music alone.”
McClellan said negotiations in Austin, in which Alexander said he didn’t participate, involved discussions about whether the arena could be built without raising citywide taxes — a critical detail for some council members. She said officials informed the development team that “we weren’t interested in taxing Norfolk citizens in order to create an arena” and “received a very positive response.”
“We went down still pretty skeptical about the financials of the deal. And over the course of the conversations, we came back with a much better opportunity for the city of Norfolk,” McClellan said.
McClellan said she’s not ruling out the possibility of trying to bring a professional sports team to the area.
“The opportunity here is to create an extraordinary entertainment venue like no other between Washington DC and Raleigh, North Carolina, that also offers future potential for the home of a professional sports team,” McClellan said.
Daniel Berti, email@example.com