VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Monday, Virginia Beach businessman and Hall of Fame football great Bruce Smith called on the City of Virginia Beach to conduct a disparity study. He wants a study to ensure qualified minority owned businesses have an equal, unbiased path to opportunity in doing business at the Oceanfront.
He first made this statement last Wednesday, and did so again Monday at Rudee Loop at Rudee Inlet. He claims he was excluded from a project at that location after submitting an unsolicited bid to develop 10 acres at the Rudee Loop. City Council has repeatedly said they are not interested in developing there until after the very last lot at the Oceanfront is developed.
Councilman John Uhrin said, “We don’t make unsolicited bids for a project like this. When we are ready to develop it then we will put out a request for proposals and let everyone participate.”
Smith, in front of 50 to 75 supporters, agreed with the need to a “fair playing field” for all in getting contracts at the beach.
“I’m with you,” one of his supporters said quietly.
Smith said about his supporters, “We will pay for half of the disparity study to show Virginia Beach is a great place for all not just the entitled few.”
Standing on a riser at a podium, towering over all those gathered, Smith said Monday, “This is an anti- establishment movement… This is an issue of cronyism that exists here at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.”
WAVY’s Andy Fox reports Smith used a line Donald Trump used during his presidential campaign.
“The establishment has got to be challenged. The only way we can do it is to do it together,” Smith said. We can’t do it alone. We have to do it together, the swamp has to be drained by all of us.”
That was a rallying cry during the Trump campaign, to “drain the swamp.” The lines got applause, and you could hear people chiming in, saying, “that’s right.”
In a letter to Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms on November 18, Smith made the following claims: that we are “under the implicit mandate of the old South,” “economic empowerment is reserved for whites only,” and that an “exclusionary club remains forever closed to minorities.”
WAVY News 10 spoke to Mayor Sessoms last week. He said, in part, “I welcome Bruce Smith with open arms to bring forward proposals to Virginia Beach and to do business.”
Calling himself a “David” against Goliath — “the establishment” — Smith said, “We the people have to stand up to the establishment that has gone on way too long… People say to me, ‘Mr. Smith, you can do business wherever you want.’ But I can’t just do it at the Oceanfront, because the establishment will not allow it.”
Smith is speaking to people like Architect Wendell Green, of Chesapeake, who owns WTG Design Architects, LLC, and who says the disadvantages are clear to him every day.
“The proposals [we fill in for minority contract work] have a criteria. They have already set it up for the ‘good old boys’ to get that job. I see it as a minority architect. We don’t get anything from Virginia Beach. I got this tiny job,” Green said, holding his fingers less than an inch apart. “That job from Virginia Beach, that tiny job, I did it on time, and I haven’t heard anything from them since.”
In 2008, city council set a goal to offer 10 percent to minority contracts. Smith noted that.
“If you have been working hard and these are the results, then we have a very serious problem.”
According to city numbers, there is improvement. Last fiscal year, minority-owned expenditures from the city were $17.4 million, and that is up 23 percent over the previous year. It should be noted the city’s minority-owned business expenditures accounted for a larger percentage than the Commonwealth’s percentage as part of its budget.
However, Councilman Uhrin says the city is on the right track and doesn’t support the disparity study Bruce Smith is calling for.
Councilman Uhrin adds, “There is a lot more to do, but we are doing it. We are moving in the right direction. Do we have all the right tools today? No. Do we have all the right solutions today? No. But we are heading in the right direction, and I think we are going to make some big strides here.”
Smith continues to say race plays a role in Oceanfront development
During the news conference, Smith called out by name Councilman Uhrin, Mayor Will Sessoms and former Councilman Linwood Branch, who is on the Virginia Beach Development Authority.
10 On Your Side met with Branch in front of Smith’s 27th Street hotel now under construction.
“Standing behind me, this hotel Mr. Smith is currently developing at the Oceanfront. Across the street is another property where he will put his next hotel, and behind there, another property that he will be developing at the Oceanfront.”
Smith blamed Councilman Uhrin for killing his old Dome site proposal. Andy Fox asked Uhrin about that.
“The committee I served on with six others took a look, and it was primarily a hotel and restaurant, which what we stated in the request for proposal we are not interested in.”
That deal fell through, but Smith failed to bid on the Dome site in 2014. He claims he spent two years planning the Dome site plan, so why not just resubmit that proposal again? WAVY asked about that at his news conference. His answer: “When John Uhrin killed that deal in 2007, there was no turning back… it was dead on arrival.”
10 On Your Side asked Linwood Branch about Smith’s failure to resubmit a bid, even if he did lose the first time.
“I don’t think that is a very successful philosophy a businessman should employ.”
Smith said at the podium, “This is about a level playing field. It is about a fairness, and we have to do something about it. Enough is enough.”
Smith has been careful to distinguish between the role of an investor, and the role of the developer. Smith says the developer calls the shots, meets with council and makes the big decisions, while the investor is more silent.
On April 15, 2008, Armada Hoffler presented its plan for the Convention Center Headquarters Hotel. It was presented to the Virginia Beach Development Authority, and Smith’s group won the bid. Under “Development Team” on a document related to the hotel, it reads: “Developer: Armada Hoffler & Bruce Smith.” The hotel would later fall through, but it should be clear that Smith was listed as “developer.”