VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Smith was front and center in 2017 when an independent probe concluded the business playing field in Virginia Beach was not level for minorities, women and handicapped veterans.
Five years later, in a mid-October town hall meeting, Smith decried what he believes to be cronyism before a crowd of about 40 people at a Virginia Beach restaurant off Holland Road.
“This is where we the people have to do something about this,” Smith said in an appearance that was recorded and shared on Facebook.
Smith was renowned during his NFL playing days, sacking quarterbacks 200 times – a record that still stands.
But, when it comes to securing deals as a developer in Virginia Beach — the city he calls home — Smith said his offers, including a plan to redevelop the Dome site and his plans for Rudee Loop, have been rebuffed.
“There are a lot of people that are afraid to bring this issue up for fear of retribution,” Smith said in an interview on the Rudee Loop site.
At Rudee Loop, what the city calls one of the most desirable undeveloped plots on the East Coast, Smith reflected on his call to action just weeks away from local elections.
“This [forum] was the first time that Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians all came together for one cause, and that’s to stop cronyism,” Smith said. “It doesn’t make a difference who you are when there is cronyism involved. All they care about is protecting the monopoly.”
The former NFL standout claims the so-called monopoly includes two former council members, along with Bruce Thompson, CEO of Gold Key/PHR HOTELS. Thompson is the developer, and in some cases, also the owner of several high-profile properties in Virginia Beach and Norfolk.
Smith is the developer of Smith’s Landing at Virginia Tech, and this year he secured a deal in Norfolk to build an apartment complex, 78 at St. Paul’s, named for his jersey number.
He has served as a partner in seven projects, including a Boynton Beach, Florida strip mall, the Mandarin Hotel in Washington D.C., The Embassy of Sweden in Washington D.C., Cosmopolitan Apartments at Town Center, and 27th St. Hyatt House Hotel on the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.
Thompson was not available for an interview, but he provided a statement to 10 On Your Side:
“Unlike Bruce Smith, I don’t get the front page of the newspaper to voice my objections – or yell “cronyism” and “racism” – when I don’t win a competitive bid on a project. Over my company’s 30 years, we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars competing with highly qualified developers for municipal projects. We’ve lost far more than we’ve won. We submitted competitive bids for the first Dome site, the Virginia Beach Arena, Military Circle and the Virginia Beach fishing pier. We lost them all. Like Bruce Smith, we even submitted an earlier bid for Rudee Loop. We were both disqualified. Reviewers said they had better options, and that’s part of our business. We risk time and money in hopes of being selected, and know going in there will be winners and losers. Bruce Smith just blames racism and cronyism for his losses – a slap in the face to both the development community and cities committed to fair and open proposal evaluations. I’m not sure Bruce Smith has an office or employees, but he should understand the importance of fielding a strong team better than anyone. While he was honing his craft in the NFL, I did the same as a developer. I built a team and started modestly to prove my abilities. We became successful and started to win competitive bids. We proved we could finance and deliver projects that were at-once extremely difficult … and market makers. Bruce Smith suggests we did otherwise. That’s just disingenuous, unfair and not true.” –Bruce Thompson
Smith, Thompson and two other organizations are vying for the Rudee Loop project, which could include a park and the redevelopment of a privately owned hotel. Smith has alleged that a backroom deal is on the horizon.
“The wasteful spending of taxpayers’ dollars to enrich your inner circle and your buddy friends has gotta stop,” Smith said.
Smith said he will continue to fight for a level playing field.
“My father would always tell me whatever you do in life, don’t ever give up,” Smith said.
Late this year or early next year, city officials will gather input from the public on the future of Rudee Loop.
In a brief interview Mayor Bobby Dyer told 10 On Your Side there are some misperceptions regarding development in the resort city.
“Over the decades there have been a number of proposals that did not see the light of day for a number of reasons,” Dyer said. “Be assured that cronyism and racism are not part of any process that I’ve been a part of.”
Dyer also provided a response to the Virginian Pilot, in this opinion piece.