RICHMOND — At 1:30 a.m. Thursday, a few fans were already lining up to get in and watch a workout at the new Washington Redskins training facility.
Never mind that the first workout of the day wasn’t scheduled to begin for another 8 1/2 hours, or that some on the team’s staff hadn’t gone to bed too much earlier.
The Redskins are in town. The headline in Wednesday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch was short and to the point. “They’ll be the ‘Richskins’ for three weeks,” it read. And from the looks of it, Richmonders will get in line early and get ready to claim full ownership.
“This is a huge deal for Richmond for a lot of different reasons,” said Greg Burton, a longtime area television and radio personality. “Richmond has always been Redskins country and to have them here for training camp is probably something people never thought was possible. They’ve talked about it for years. I’ve been here 15 years and it has been talked about ever since then.
“I don’t know if people here thought it was possible, but now it is a reality and people can’t wait.”
The team is working out at a new $10 million facility just up the road from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center. The team is headquartered at a downtown hotel for three weeks and visitors are coming in from all over the region. One couple from Crofton, Md., packed up their twin 4-month-old daughters and left home Thursday at 6 a.m. to see the day’s two workouts before heading home.
Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones said studies have shown the training camp will have an $8.8 million economic impact, though the actual figure is hard to quantify.
“There are studies that have been produced, but until we see what happens you would just be guessing,” said Jon Lugbill, executive director of the Metropolitan Richmond Sports Backers. “I do think the economic impact will be millions of dollars a year, but it is just a matter of how much. Are people staying overnight or only coming for the day? There is a big difference on the economic impact.”
More important, perhaps, than economic impact is what might be called prestige impact. Having the Redskins training camp in town is a big deal. That makes Richmond a big deal, which is something it has sought to become for a long time.
The city has always had a bit of an inferiority complex. One of its best traits was its proximity to so many other cool places. It is about two hours from Washington with all its history (and major league sports). It is about two hours from the beach, about two hours from the hills of the Shenandoah Valley.
The truth is, it has always had a lot to offer in terms of culture and, yes, sports. Lugbill’s organization conducts a number of participatory events each year, including the wildly popular Monument Avenue 10K that drew 38,000 runners in April.
College sports are strong. Virginia Union University has won Division II men’s basketball championships. The University of Richmond has won a national football championship in Division I-AA. VCU made it to the men’s basketball Final Four in 2011.
Pro sports-wise, it has had a spotty history with a number of minor league franchises. Several hockey teams have come and gone. Heel dragging over a new stadium cost the city the Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A affiliate after 43 years in town.
But that is changing. The Richmond Kickers soccer team does well, as does the fairly new baseball team — the Flying Squirrels, Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
And now they have the Redskins’ training camp, which doesn’t exactly make Richmond a major league town but lets it feel like one for a while and lets it dream about maybe becoming one.
For three weeks, charismatic VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart won’t be the biggest name in area sports. That will be RG3, who drew loud applause just for showing up in the field Thursday along with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and pretty much anybody else wearing a burgundy-and-gold uniform.
The Redskins are already popular in town. The team said 5 percent of its season-ticket base has a Richmond-area ZIP code. Now they’re in town.
“The Redskins have a huge fan base in the area and that’s only going to increase by having the training camp here,” Jones, the mayor, said. “The first-hand encounters with the players are really going to be huge.”
Jones is a bit of a dreamer, probably a good trait to have in a mayor. He sees training camp as not the end of a quest but the beginning. Who had Oklahoma City as a pro town a dozen or so years ago? While Oklahoma City is more than twice as big as Richmond in terms of population in the city, the metropolitan areas are similar in size at about 1.2 million.
“I think it is kind of like a coming-out party,” Jones said. “If we can do this, maybe we can do something else. It is whetting people’s appetites. It is an opportunity to say we can compete. If Oklahoma City can do it, we can do it, too. To me, Oklahoma City seems kind of like a miracle with what they’ve been able to accomplish. They had the will to get it done.
“Richmond, being on the East Coast with good population and demographics, should be able to get it done. You really have to be thinking of the next levels: Where do we go from here? Are we going to be satisfied or are we going to push the envelope on sports?”
Richmond still needs a new coliseum to replace the 41-year-old relic that sits downtown. It needs a new baseball stadium, lest it lose another team. Those projects will be bigger and much more expensive than a training camp facility.
“Vision is something everybody likes to talk about. At some point, you have to move on all those visions,” Burton said. “I think Richmond is starting to do that. I look at the 15-year snapshot since I’ve been here and this is a different town.
“We need a new coliseum. We need a new stadium for the Flying Squirrels. The better your facilities, the more legit you become. This was a huge first step. Can Richmond ever support a [major] pro sports team? I don’t know if it can for 52 weeks, or for a full season. We can for three weeks.”