RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - A controversial plan to build a minor league baseball stadium near the historic site of a slave marketplace and burial ground in Virginia's capital cleared another hurdle on Monday night as the Richmond City Council gave the project tentative support.
The council approved a resolution, on 6-3 vote, allowing city officials to continue negotiations on a $200 million development proposed by Mayor Dwight Jones, a black minister, to help revitalize Richmond's Shockoe Bottom district.
Besides the 7,200-seat stadium, the project would include a hotel, 750 apartments, a supermarket and a heritage site to commemorate the area's slave trade history.
If the council gives final approval to the stadium's construction, the goal would be to have it completed by 2016.
The stadium proposal has sharply divided the African-American community and public opinion as a whole in Richmond, once major hub of the Southern slave trade and the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865.
Supporters of the plan view the ball park - the centerpiece of the proposed development - as a key to downtown economic renewal and a way to keep the Flying Squirrels baseball team, a minor league affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, from relocating.
Critics regard it as an affront to black history and the cultural, historic significance of a place where untold human suffering occurred. The cemetery is believed to be the burial site of Gabriel Prosser, who led an unsuccessful slave rebellion in 1800.
Scores of protesters against the project rallied outside city hall prior to the start of the council meeting. Inside the council chambers, dozens of speakers testified on each side of the issue, and hundreds more turned out to watch and listen.
Martha Rollins, a businesswoman and social activist in the community, delivered an impassioned plea to keep the stadium out of Shockoe Bottom, an area of the city that was once the site of the nation's second-most active slave market.
"We have put band-aids on the wound of slavery all these years," Rollins said. "I ask you not to put in a ballpark ... and end the chance to heal a national wound."
Marlon Haskell, another black clergyman who is president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Richmond and Vicinity, said his group favored the stadium proposal.
"We believe the vision of revitalizing Richmond. It is an opportunity ... for the city to be transformed into an oasis of hope" by incorporating its slave history into its future, Haskell said.
The city administration is expected to return to council by the end of March with a more fully developed plan for the stadium and its financing.
City Council President Charles Samuels voted against the plan, expressing concern about the need for archeological and traffic studies before any work starts.
He cited research by the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper showing that three slave-trading sites lay beneath the proposed baseball stadium and argued that the city's archeological heritage needs to be preserved.
Reporting by Gary Robertson; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker