Did arena developers pay people to hold signs at a Richmond City Council meeting? No one’s denying it.

The existing Richmond coliseum was built in 1971 to seat 13,000, but, as it has aged, officials say it's hard to draw new acts and costs more money to run than it makes. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Activists are accusing the development team behind a major arena proposal of paying people who held signs supporting the controversial $1.5 billion plan at Richmond City Council meeting this week.

And so far, no one’s denying the payments occurred.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, an opponent of the redevelopment proposal, said she was surprised to see members of her extended family at the City Council meeting Tuesday night but then disappointed to learn why they were there.

“They told me in confidence that they were getting paid $25 and that they just showed up to hold a sign and that’s what they were asked to do,” Wise said. “And this is not the first time.”

Wise tweeted out what she’d learned during the meeting, tagging the developer’s consultant she’d heard made the payment, former City Council President Michelle Mosby.

Mosby promptly responded to Wise’s tweet, framing the payments as a reimbursement for gas.

“Hun if anyone got anything it’s because they said they supported the project on their own based on information they had learned.. stop acting as though gas doesn’t cost…and as if the people don’t have their own mind,” Mosby wrote.

Mosby didn’t respond to repeated messages or phone calls seeking additional comment. Efforts to contact members of the audience who allegedly received compensation were also unsuccessful.

A spokesman for NH District Corp., which is the lead developer, confirmed that Mosby was hired to work on “community engagement, workforce development and training.” But asked directly about the allegation people were paid $25 to attend, he said he had no comment.

The development proposal, spearheaded by Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell and backed by Mayor Levar Stoney, calls for a new 17,500 seat arena, 2,000 apartments, a 500-room hotel and dozens of new restaurants.

The developers and its supporters argue it will bring thousands of jobs and reinvigorate a languishing section of downtown marked by surface parking lots and decrepit government buildings. Opponents worry that the financial projections underpinning the project are unrealistic and that it will ultimately prove a drain on other city priorities like public school funding and basic road maintenance.

This is not the first time the developers have drawn scrutiny as they’ve worked to promote the project.

VPM, Virginia’s Home for Public Media, first reported in September that an op-ed published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and signed by Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao was actually drafted by the development group’s spokesman.

The newspaper later said that it was not aware the column had actually been written by the developers and would not have run it had it known.

It is not uncommon for developers behind major projects to hire consultants to launch influence campaigns intended to suggest broad community support – a practice known as astroturfing. It’s less common for groups to offer financial compensation to people who aren’t lobbyists to attend government meetings.

In New Orleans this year, the City Council fined an energy company $5 million for using paid actors to attend meetings in support of a proposed power plant.

Richmond Councilwoman Kim Gray, who opposes the project, said she and other council members are aware of the accusations and found the practice disappointing.

“People need to disclose that and identify themselves as paid operatives,” she said. “I think it taints the public process.”

Update: 24 hours after this story was published, NH District Corp.’s spokesman sent an additional statement saying that they do “not pay people for support” but that Mosby “reimbursed some individuals who needed assistance with childcare or transit.”