Bruce Smith questions race in role of Oceanfront development

Retired NFL football player Bruce Smith
Retired NFL football player Bruce Smith

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – In a letter sent to Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, businessman and former NFL football player Bruce Smith accuses the city of refusing his development proposals, possibly because of his race.

Smith, a commercial real estate developer, says in the letter that his proposals have been shot down by the city on several occasions he thinks a lot of it has to do with race.

“Despite my unflagging efforts and the inherent merits of these projects that would generate thousands of jobs and revenue for the city, I have been met with unwarranted opposition and refusals,” the letter says. “I would ponder the possibility I am being unfairly marginalized and excluded on the basis of race.”

Read Bruce Smith’s Letter

Smith goes on in the letter and charges the city with having a racist culture that excludes minority projects at the Oceanfront.

It is certainly not unfounded that I would ponder the possibility that I am being unfairly marginalized and excluded on the basis of race. I am left to question whether we are still operating under the implicit mandate of the Old South, which would require that economic empowerment and enfranchisement be reserved for whites only.”

The letter is dated November 18, 2016. It was addressed to the mayor and copied to dozens of city officials. 10 On Your Side’s Andy Fox interviewed Mayor Sessoms Wednesday, who said, “I welcome Bruce Smith with open arms to bring forward proposals to Virginia Beach and to do business. And I am also appreciative that he is also investing in a hotel at the Oceanfront that is almost complete.”

In 2005, Smith wanted to develop 10 acres at Rudee Loop. Mayor Sessoms calls this the most prime piece of property on the East Coast, and not ready for development now — by anyone. In order to develop it, there must be a heavy financial investment, and a grand, unique plan that so far, has not surfaced.

Sessoms says he spoke with Smith about it.

“I told him, if you want to move forward, I would be guarded, because I don’t think it would make the cut for the development we are looking at,” the mayor said.

Smith and his partners were rejected in 2008 to develop the 11-acre Dome site at 19th and Pacific Avenue. Then in 2014, only the Peterson Companies out of Northern Virginia submitted a Dome site request for proposal. Smith and his partners were nowhere to be found.

“No one else bid on it, and the Petersons were the only ones,” Sessoms said. “I wish [Smith] had, and I told him I wish he had bid on it again.”

Smith’s letter continues: “Operating under the implicit mandate of the old South, which would require the economic empowerment and enfranchisement be reserved for whites only.”

Records provided to WAVY News by the city show in the last fiscal year, minority-owned expenditures from the city totaled $17.4 million, and that’s up 23 percent over the previous year.

Sessoms pointed out Smith and his partners, including Hampton University, are investors in the Hyatt Place Hotel at 27th and Atlantic Avenue, which is under construction and on the Oceanfront. They are also investors in the Cosmopolitan Apartments at Town Center.

Smith said there is a difference between being an investor and being the developer who deals with the city.

“There is a culture that benefits only a few,” Smith told 10 On Your Side over the phone. “The only way I can be part of a project is if I am asked to be an investor.”

Smith was not available for an on-camera interview Wednesday, but says he will hold a news conference Monday.