Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

Read More

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

Read More

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

Read More

Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

Read More

Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

Read More

EPA Carbon Rules: Ask the SCC

 

The SCC: An Emerald Palace?

The Emerald Palace or the SCC?

By Peter Galuszka

Last week, State Corporation Commission drew attention when its staff wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the EPA’s request, to respond to one of the biggest proposed steps the nation has seen in cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The report sparked considerable interest and confusion over what the SCC staff actually meant when it predicted that proposed EPA rules to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The staff report, written by William H. Chambliss, SCC general counsel, said that EPA’s proposed limits would cost Virginia ratepayers from $5.5 billion to $6 billion extra. It claims that the state would have to shut down fossil-fuel, predominately coal-fired, plants producing 2,851 megawatts and replace it with only 351 megawatts of land-based wind power. This would badly impact the reliability of the state’s power supply, the staff said.

My immediate question was why so much and where, exactly? Precisely what power stations would have to be shut down? Where did the ratepayer increase numbers come from? Is there is a list of all the coal-fired plants affected? Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility, has long-standing plans to shut down two aging power stations at Yorktown and Chesapeake with about 920 megawatts of power? How does that factor in?

So, I contacted Ken Schrad, the spokesman for the SCC, by phone and email and asked some questions. He kindly provided the following answers (in italics):

Where are the affected plants precisely?

The numbers come directly from the EPA’s own spread sheets and the EPA does not identify the specific units.” 

How many plants are coal-fired?

Of the 2,851 MW, EPA predicts 2,803 MW of coal units and 48 MW of combustion turbines which could be natural gas or oil-fired CTs. Assuming Yorktown and Chesapeake are included in the EPA estimate, SCC staff knows that those planned retirements total approximately 920 MW.  The output of those units varies depending on when operating (summer or winter).”

Where does the 351 megawatt of land-based wind power, the only available replacement source for the lost fossil-fuel power, come from?

“The 351 MW figure is also direct from the EPA’s analysis which does not identify where EPA believes these undeveloped projects would ultimately materialize.  As staff noted in its comments, the SCC has approved the only request the Commission has received for a certificate for a wind project (Highland New Wind).  Approved in December 2007, the project envisioned up to 20 turbines with each turbine capable of producing up to 2MWs.  That project has not been built.   DEQ now has regulatory responsibility for permitting most solar and wind projects in Virginia. “

How do you answer criticism from environmental groups that Virginia has already attained 80 percent of the EPA’s carbon reduction already?

“Staff has no information regarding this assertion, the costs incurred to reach such a figure, how that attainment level was achieved, or the starting point from which such has materialized.”

The SCC staff recommends that the EPA adopt “an alternative carbon emission rate of 1,216 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt hour of power. The EPA is proposing tighter limits of 843 of CO2/MWh for plants to attain by 2020 and levels of 810 pounds of CO2/MWh for plants to comply by 2030 because it would be more affordable. How much more affordable would the SCC’s suggested rate be?

” Staff recognizes there will be a considerable amount of expenditures to achieve the alternative emission rate.  It is a level envisioned in the integrated resource plan (IRP) filed by the utility company and reviewed every two years by the Commission.  The projected cost to achieve that level has not been quantified.  Instead, staff made a conservative analysis of the impact of the EPA proposed standards resulting in its determination that the alternate carbon emission rate would not require an additional expenditure of $5.5 to $6 billion.”

The SCC staff says that attaining EPA goals could cost ratepayers an extra $6 billion. Dominion is considering a third nuclear unit at North Anna that might cost from $10 billion to $14 billion. Wouldn’t the ratepayers have to pay for that, too?

“If built, the costs of another nuclear unit would be recovered over the expected life of the unit which could be 60-80 years.  There is a disconnect between taking a net present value figure (staff comments) and comparing it to something that is not.  Also, the added nuclear unit is envisioned in one of the IRP compliance plans. So, that was factored into the conservative analysis performed by staff which produced the projected additional $5.5 – $6 billion figure.”

I also asked Ken why the SCC did not issue a press release about the SCC reply to the EPA. He said that the SCC does not normally issue a press release when it responds to requests by federal agencies for comment.

Fair enough, but I have a few takeaways on the other answers. I am still not exactly sure where the 2,851 megawatts-to-be-shut-down figure comes from.

Next, the SCC staff complains that when this amount of generation goes offline (assuming it actually does), there will be pitifully little left on the renewable side to replace it. The only plant sited is a 40 megawatt one in Highland County that was approved by the SCC in 2007 (a lifetime in renewable energy terms) and has yet to be built.

What about plants for offshore wind farms, not to mention Dominion’s own plans for an experimental offshore wind station? The answer seems to be that we don’t know because another agency (DEQ) now licenses that sort of thing. If that’s the case, one wonders why the SCC staff didn’t give the DEQ a ring on their phone and ask for a seven-year update on what’s doing in wind and solar? Instead, they used seven-year old figures, apparently to minimize the importance of renewable power in rather sweeping terms.

One reason why Virginia’s renewable percent is a low 6 percent, compared to its neighbors, is that the General Assembly has refused to set mandatory renewable portfolio standards that require 20 percent or so of future generation to come from renewables.

Why so? The first ones to ask are the utilities – Dominion, Appalachian Power and the cooperatives. It seems that they don’t want any threat to their grids that they have poured billions into over the decades. Talk renewable and they’re like babies crying for the base-loaded bottles.

In any event, Virginia is not the only state to question the EPA rules. Oklahoma has as well. Big industry doesn’t like the proposed rules either. And the EPA is asking regulators like the SCC for input. One can’t blame them for responding. Forgive me if I don’t understand their response.

 

 

Student Victimization… Down, Down, Down

victimization

The phenomenon of students arrested for school offenses in Henrico County (addressed in a recent post, “Spotlighting the Wrong Victims“) is national in scope. Nationally, 260,000 students were reported to law enforcement by schools in 2012, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

As in Henrico County, there are concerns that African-American students are arrested at disproportionately higher rates than white students. But there are a myriad of other issues, such as the arrest of students under “zero tolerance” policies for trivial offenses, such as a chemistry experiment gone bad (“discharging a destructive device”) or unwittingly carrying a pen knife to school.

Noted but downplayed in the article is another startling fact. Since the implementation of zero-tolerance policies in the 1990s, the rate of victimization per 1,000 students aged 12-18 fell from 181 to 52 between 1994 and 2012. Supporters of zero-tolerance policies cite those numbers as evidence that the school-yard version of the “broken windows” approach to crime — cracking down on minor offenses before they give rise to more serious ones — has been effective.

Invariably, zero-tolerance policies lead to some absurd actions. We’ve all heard the horror stories of kids suspended from school for bringing toy guns to school, drawing pictures of guns or even making pretend guns with their fingers. Undoubtedly, some kids are punished unfairly. As we all know, the criminal justice system isn’t perfect. But cutting school crimes by more than two-thirds over twenty years is no mean achievement. For every child suspended or arrested for a ludicrous offense, literally hundreds fewer children are victimized by their peers.

While the students receiving the harsh sanctions of suspension or arrest are disproportionately African-American, there is evidence in the Henrico County numbers that the victims of their misdeeds are African-American as well. Last year, 84% of the African-American kids arrested for school offenses attended Henrico, Highland Springs or Varina High Schools, all of which have overwhelmingly black enrollment. There is no way to avoid the conclusion that the victims of disruptive behavior — whether assault, theft or the interruption of teaching in the classroom — were black as well.

That’s not to say that the existing system can’t be improved upon. I’m sure it can. But let’s not go overboard in correcting perceived excesses. The last thing we want is for schools to return to the “blackboard jungle” days of yore. Every kid deserves a chance to get an education from from the disruption and intimidation of their peers.

– JAB

Could Surry Be an 80-Year Nuke?

Surry1By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a new twist on the carbon emission debate: Dominion Virginia Power is considering seeking federal approval run its 40-plus year-old Surry nuclear power station for another 40 or so years.

The arguments in favor are that keeping the two-units at Surry (1,600 megawatts) going would be a lot cheaper than building a brand new plant. Nukes do not contribute much at all to greenhouse gases and climate change compared to coal or natural gas plants.

The huge issue, however, is safety. Can you really expect a nuke whose design dates back to the 1960s to run until 2054? Surry’s plants near Jamestown were once the most heavily fined in the nation because of their repeated safety problems. Constant use can affect any number of crucial components such as making reactor metal brittle, pulverizing concrete and becoming more susceptible to earthquakes and storms.

According to the New York Times, Dominion hasn’t decided whether to apply to extend Surry’s life span. Other possible extended life reactors are Duke’s three Oconee units near Seneca, S.C. and Exelon’s Peach Bottom not that far from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Dominion is also pushing ahead with a third new unit at North Anna, but the price tag for that apparently would be many times what extending Surry would be. But there are no hard figures about the cost of the new nuke ($10 billion to $14 billion, maybe) or how much Surry would cost.

The news is curious coming just as the staff of the State Corporation Commission came out with a curious report slamming proposal EPA rules on cutting carbon emissions. Although the SCC’s opinions are murky and badly-documented, it raises fears that a bunch of coal-fired generation in Virginia will be shut down due to EPA regs. Hot flash: a bunch was going to be shut down anyway because it dates back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I don’t know enough about the current Surry operation to know what and how extending its life would proceed and whether it would be safe.

That said, I refer to my own reporting past – the 1979 when I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Another reporter and I spent weeks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s archives in Bethesda, Md. poring over safety documents. This was back when newspapers had the money to do that kind of reporting.

Our result was a big investigative piece that made banner headlines on the front page one Sunday with two full pages inside. I’d include the cite since it is too old to have one. We found a multitude of issues at Surry ranging from faulty radiation monitoring for workers to faulty snubbers which are rod-like shock absorbers to mitigate earthquake-like movements.

Dominion, then Vepco, hated the story and tried to tear it down. But Vepco was undergoing a corporate sea-change away from its institutional arrogance related to some extent by the former Navy submarine officers were not used to being questioned by outsiders. Vepco was getting hit by Wall Street because its sloppy nuclear program resulted in extended outages. They ended up hiring a ringer engineer who cleaned up their act and later the company transformed into something more modern.

Even so, a decade after we did our story, there were still plenty of concerns about safety at Surry.

The big question is how can you keep a car designed in the 1960s going strong nearly 100 years later? Maybe they have the answers in Havana.

More Coal Industry Propaganda

coal woman By Peter Galuszka

If you read a blog posting just below this (the one with the coal miner with an intense look on his grit-covered face), you will see how hyperbole, confusion, misunderstanding, ignorance and one-sided arguments twist something very important to all Virginians – how to deal with carbon dioxide and climate change – into a swamp of disinformation..

The news is that the State Corporation Commission has responded to the federal government’s proposed rules that carbon emissions be cut 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by complaining that it would cost ratepayers up to $6 billion.

This is because Virginia utilities may have to shut down 2,851 megawatts worth of electrical generation with only 351 megawatts (at present) of “unreliable” wind power to replace it.

The image one gets from the presentation of the blog post is that it is “The EPA’s War on Virginia” with the haggard-looking miner thrown in, we are given the impression that it is more of the “War on Coal” that the coal industry has been promoting in recent years to blunt much-needed mine safety laws and moves to police highly destructive mountaintop removal practices.

The author does not address any of this. But since he’s handing us the “War on Coal” propaganda line, let’s take his arguments apart. This won’t take too long.

  • The author fails to note part of the Richmond Times Dispatch story upon which he bases his opinions. There is a very important comment: “It appears the staff has misread the rule,” said Cale Jaffe, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office. “Analyses that we have reviewed show that Virginia is already 80 percent of the way to meeting Virginia’s carbon pollution target under the Clean Power Plan. “Almost all of those reductions are coming from coal plant retirements and natural gas conversions that the utilities put in place long before the Clean Power Plan was even released,” Jaffe said.
  • That said, let’s take a look at coal-fired plants in the state which are the biggest carbon offenders. For starters let’s look at Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. It has already converted three coal-fired plants – Altavista, Southampton and Bremo Bluff – to biomass. The 50-plus-year-old Yorktown plant (335 megawatts) is due to retire in 2015. Another aging plant – Chesapeake (609) megawatts — is also due to retire by 2015. The point here is that these plants are being closed because Dominion realizes that it is just too hard to keep 50 or 60 year plants operating efficiently and cheaply. It would be like keeping that 1960 Corvair because you don’t want to put oil workers out of work.
  • Dominion’s biggest problem and the biggest single air polluter in the state is the Chesterfield station with 1380 megawatts. Yes, it does need more controls. Then there’s Clover (882 megawatts) and Mecklenburg (138 megawatts). That brings us up to 2400 megawatts that might need upgrades. Let’s see. The two nuclear units at North Anna put out a little more than 1,700 megawatts just so we get some scale here. Dominon also has Virginia City (585 megawatts) which just opened, uses coal and biomass and has advanced fluidized bed burning methods.
  • Out west, Appalachian Power has 705 megawatts at Clinch River and 430 megawatts at Glen Lyn. Two of those three units there were built in (my God!) 1944 so I guess the blog author wants to keep those great granddaddies running to save miners’ jobs. Actually they are so unneeded that they have been on extended startups.Besides these Cogentrix has a couple small, modern plants in Portsmouth and Hopewell.
  • One reason there so little renewable generation (6 percent) is that the utilities do not have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force them into wind and solar, etc. Virginia’s neighbors do.

All of this gets back to Jaffe’s point that the blog author so easily ignores. A lot of the carbon cuts are going to come from plants that are aging and are going to be closed anyway.

The SCC may complain about the $6 billion but guess what, you beleaguered electricity users? If Dominion puts a third nuke at North Anna, that’s easily $10 billion. Is that going to raise rates sky high? Where’s the outcry? It’s almost double what helping save the planet from carbon dioxide will cost.

The blog author’s hyperbole about the poor coal industry shows his ignorance of the topic. Virginia’s rather small coal industry (No. 12 in production) reached its peak in 1991. Natural gas has displaced a lot of expensive coal. Gas prices would have to triple to make Central Appalachian coal competitive again. There’s lots of metallurgical coal for steel, but the Asian economic slump has dropped prices maybe 60 percent.

I won’t comment on the author’s lame and misunderstood point about climate change not happening.

The blog author may want to blame that on Obama and the EPA but that would be almost as ridiculous as his blog post. I decline to name him because I don’t want to embarrass him.

The EPA’s War on Virginia

How to have it both ways: Destroy coal mining jobs with environmental  regulations.... and then blame "capitalism" for growing income inequality.

How to have it both ways: Destroy coal mining jobs with environmental regulations…. and then blame “capitalism” for growing income inequality.

James A. Bacon

Complying with proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules on carbon emissions would cost Dominion Virginia Power customers an extra $5.5 billion to $6 billion, according to the State Corporation Commission staff — and that doesn’t include the cost to Virginia’s smaller utilities, which are even more reliant than Dominion upon coal.

The EPA plan calls for cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 in an effort to fight climate change, improve public health and provide “affordable energy,” reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Writes Peter Bacque:

The EPA’s own model predicts that Virginia utilities will have to shut down fossil-fuel power plants reliably producing 2,851 megawatts of electricity, and replace that generation with just 351 megawatts of unreliable land-based wind power. This raises alarming regional reliability concerns, the staff said.

The power plants involved today ensure reliable service to Virginia customers, have years of useful life remaining, and cannot be replaced overnight or without regard for impacts on the electric systems. …

Even if the operational concerns of replacing dependable fossil-fuel generation with variable, intermittent and “nondispatchable” — unreliable — wind and solar energy could be managed, the staff said, “there is still zero probability that wind and solar resources can be developed in the time and on the scale necessary to accommodate the zero-carbon generation levels needed” to meet the EPA’s mandatory carbon-reduction goal for 2020.

This massive and expensive transformation of Virginia’s electrical generation system is a huge, huge issue. Once upon a time, Virginians could reconcile themselves to tighter environmental regulations on the grounds that they got cleaner air in return. There was a tangible payoff to air cleansed of particulates, sulfur dioxide and mercury. There is no tangible payoff (except to the alternate fuels industry) from the EPA rules. The whole purpose is to reduce CO2 emissions in order to save the globe from the catastrophic consequences of global warming.

The administration seeks to transform America’s energy economy despite the fact that, even as CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased dramatically, global temperatures have remained stable for 18 years now — contradicting the forecasts of virtually every major climate model ever cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the Global Warming hysterics maintain their prattle that the “science is settled” and “97% of all climate scientists agree,” the science is most assuredly unsettled. Warmist scientists who pay attention to the reality that temperatures are not rising are desperately concocting ex-post-facto explanations of why their predictions went wrong and why, despite all appearances to the contrary, the world is still doomed unless we abandon fossil fuels now.

That’s not to say that alternate fuels are a bad thing. At some point, the technologies will improve to the point where they will be competitive with fossil fuels and it will be prudent to add them to the fuel mix. Energy conservation is always a good idea. Building automation offers a high economic return on investment. More compact, walkable human settlement patterns can save energy and offer tangible health and lifestyle benefits in the bargain. There are lots of ways to reduce CO2 emissions (if that’s a goal you really care about) without saddling Virginia’s economy with an unnecessary burden of $6 billion or more.

This is bad, bad policy, and Virginians need to fight back. Voters need to ask Virginia’s congressional candidates — most prominently Senatorial candidates Mark Warmer and Ed Gillespie — what they think of the EPA mandates and what they, as congressmen, can do to mitigate the impact on Virginia ratepayers.

Women Flex their Biking Muscles

amy_george

Amy George

by Amy George

Riding a bicycle can be transformative to physical and mental well being, to families, to neighborhoods, and beyond. As cycling becomes more popular, more women and girls are enjoying its effects. However, representation among cyclists still tips male — 76% as measured per-ride in the U.S. Yet recent surveys show women overwhelmingly have a positive view of cycling. What is keeping so many women from taking to the streets on two wheels? Furthermore, why should we care, and what can be done about it?

Since 2010, Richmond as a community has taken several big steps in bicycle advocacy. RideRichmond formed that year, as did Mayor Dwight Jones’ Bike, Trail, and Pedestrian Commission. We have seen the creation of the dedicated, professional action and advocacy groups such as  Sportsbackers’ BikeWalkRVA and the VCU RamBikes program. In this landscape of growing bike-positivity, RideRichmond realized that women’s representation still is an underserved aspect of cycling advocacy. As believers in the bicycle, we could not stand by and watch the benefits of cycling distributed unequally to Richmonders. In order to begin this conversation, RideRichmond is hosting the first Richmond Women’s Cycling Summit on October 23 at the Virginia War memorial.

Fortunately, we’re riding a wave of good research and Women’s Cycling efforts across the nation. The long-held line on women’s resistance to cycling was one of “fear and fashion”. (“The cars! The helmet hair!”) It turns out, when you really ask women how they feel about cycling, the answers are much more practical.

The League of American Bicyclists’ excellent Women On A Roll report proposes five C’s that will get more women biking. These address the eight major issues that most surveys report as the barriers to women and cycling. Some highlights:

Convenience. It should be easy to park your bike wherever you go: work, shopping, entertainment destinations. Bike-friendly retail makes good business sense, and women statistically make more shopping trips and control more of their household’s disposable income. At work, access to lockers and showers alleviates concerns about storing clean clothes and grooming. Transit connections, especially express buses, can “multiply mobility” by traversing high-speed arterials and highways, with the bike as a means of transport for the first/last mile. (Biking to the current GRTC Park-and-Ride locations is a daunting prospect.)  Plus, there are other, less tangible needs such as more flexible working hours for parents (both moms and dads), and more walkable neighborhoods that safely allow children to transport themselves to school and after-school activities.

Confidence. Aggressive and distracted drivers threaten everyone, but women are more likely to admit fear. Bike education can begin at school, first in Phys. Ed. and continuing through driver’s education.  One day in a Traffic Skills 101 class can equip young cyclists and their parents with knowledge of skills like proper lane positioning (to prevent “dooring”) and simple, safe evasive maneuvers. Parents can teach basic maintenance techniques like changing a flat tire and secure locking in an afternoon. Even the students that don’t take to cycling will become drivers who know “Share the Road” as a practice, not just a pithy slogan.

Consumer Products. Sixty percent of bicycle owners 17 to 28 are women. Bicycle riding ranked 9th of 47 popular sports for total female participation in 2011, surpassing yoga, tennis, and softball. But many adult bike models don’t include a size small enough to fit a rider under 5’4”. A woman who can find a bike to fit her must then contend with frames and apparel mostly in pink, lavender, powder blue, and florals. These designs might stand on their own, but can you imagine tennis or softball gear selling in these “soft” presentations?

Community. The fun of riding a bicycle is amplified when you ride with others. Whether for enjoyment, fitness, or as transportation, it’s important to frame bicycling as an everyday activity. Invite a friend to go for a ride. Have a destination or reward. Lead no-drop rides. Help your daughters understand that bicycles are fun, but not merely toys. Incorporate cycling into family’s activities.

Consider for yourself whether it’s better to look fat on a bike, working toward your fitness, or in a car, making zero gains to your health. We are all busy, and making the time to dedicate to fitness is a challenge, but cycling is an easy way to workout while also being social, doing errands, or commuting.

On a larger scale, focus on local advocacy with an eye to equity and connecting lower income neighborhoods with access to jobs, food, and services. Vote for candidates that support high levels of funding for alternative transportation and infrastructure.

If the idea of encouraging a healthier, happier, region for all sounds appealing, it is our hope that you  join us on the 23rd to become a part of this growing effort.

Amy George is the Women’s Cycling Summit Coordinator.

Redefining Richmond: Arts! Culture! Food!

ICTby James A. Bacon

Richmonders berate themselves (and outsiders mock them) for their inability to decide where and how to build a baseball stadium for a AA baseball team. If the region’s political and civic leadership can’t pull off this most basic of regional tasks, one might legitimately wonder if they can accomplish anything useful at all. But it turns out that Richmonders can mobilize behind civic projects — it just has to be the right kind.

A case in point is Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art, which has raised $33 million of its $37 million funding goal. Construction of the facility, designed by an award-winning New York architect, is located at Belvidere and Broad, one of the region’s busiest intersections and a gateway to downtown. This project, which will showcase art from VCU, one of the nation’s leading art schools, has not been controversial at all. Funds were raised through contributions by local philanthropists. With help from a construction loan from the VCU Foundation, construction began in June.

A city and region define themselves by the long-term investments they make in civic infrastructure. To pick a very different example: Buffalo, N.Y., a region of comparable size to Richmond, has poured money into a pro football complex downtown more magnificent than anything than Richmonders could conceive of erecting in their own city — and locals still aren’t satisfied. Buffalo groups are exploring an even more grandiose facility. Richmond has nothing to compare. But it does have arts and culture out the wazoo. And we locals like it that way.

Speaking to the Richmond chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women, Institute Director Lisa Freiman outlined the vision. As reported by Virginia Business, the institute will  showcase a changing array of exhibitions not only by VCU artists “but the best of contemporary art from around the world.” Freiman predicts that the facility “will create opportunities for cultural tourism and community revitalization.”

The tie-in between contemporary art and economic development is stronger in Richmond than it would be in many other regions. The advertising industry is remarkably vibrant for a region Richmond’s size. Local companies serve national clients, and they employ artists, graphic artists, videographers and the like. There is a easy, natural cross-over between the art world and the advertising world. Supporting one supports the other.

rappahannock

Travis Croxton (left) and Ryan Croxton, owners of the Rappahannock restaurant. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

Meanwhile Richmond — and Virginia as a whole — is developing the reputation as an up-and-coming foodie region. Esquire Magazine has just named Virginia “The Food Region of 2014″ in its 2014 Food and Drink Awards. “The Old Dominion has seemingly overnight exploded into one of the country’s greatest gastro regions,” writes the magazine, as reported in the Times-Dispatch. While the recognition goes to Virginia as a whole, Richmond is a vibrant part of the state’s foodie scene. Rappahannock restaurant won recognition as one of the 12 “Best New Restaurants” in the country.

The article cited Virginia’s diverse geography and the ability to source fresh, locally grown produce and artisinal food products from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay as a big plus for restaurants aspiring to national quality. I’m sure that’s a factor, but I think the story is bigger than that. Richmond and Virginia produce great restaurants because the local marketplace supports them. People are willing to pay premium prices that restaurants must charge in order to recruit and pay chefs of national caliber.

New Yorkers and Washingtonians may laugh at Richmond’s pretensions in the worlds of art and cuisine — to many we’re still a hicksville backwater still fighting the Civil War. What they don’t see is how the region is steadily reinventing itself. Once the city prided itself on being a regional center of corporate headquarters. That prop to the economy suffered heavy damage during the recession of 2007-2008 and has been slow to recover. But there has been tremendous activity beneath the surface. Redevelopment along the downtown canal. The Richmond Folk Festival. Converting the James River into the region’s “Central Park.” The boom in downtown living. The French Film Festival. The gentrification of Church Hill and Scotts Addition. The creation of a fantastic network of mountain biking trails. The rise of the foodie movement and the renaissance of locally grown food.

Unconsciously, Richmond has been building the foundations of the “creative class” economy. It’s becoming the kind of place where creatives want to live, work and play. When creatives settle here, they start new businesses. In time, some of those businesses become success stories and economic dynamos that will propel regional growth. VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art symbolizes how Richmond is redefining itself as something very different and very new.

The Forbidden City Comes to Virginia

forbidden cityBy Peter Galuszka

The Forbidden City has come to Virginia and it’s definitely worth a look.

Rarely-seen works from the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the imperial residence of Chinese emperors from the Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty (roughly from about 1406 to 1912) go on display tomorrow at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond.

Putting the exhibits together took lots of work and diplomacy, VMFA Alex Nygeres told guests and the news media Wednesday at a morning event. There were plenty of visits back and forth and there are plans for the VMFA to reciprocate by sending its famed Faberge Egg exhibit from the Russian Romanov era to China. The Ambassador from the People’s Republic of China to the U.S. attended a gala, $10,000 a table event the evening of Oct. 14.

I’m no expert of Chinese art, but the exhibit was highly impressive. The many works included court paintings, religious artifacts and costumes, including an early form of body armor for soldiers which consisted of layers of tough cloth protecting vital organs and appendages.

The exhibit opens at a time of unsettled relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic. China has been torn by pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Workers’ expectations are rising as China’s economy is slowing. Beijing is becoming more aggressive as a regional military power and its efforts to censor Web-based information and launch cyber spying are worrisome.

Another issue is that given the tough, expansionist diplomacy of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the negative reaction from the West, Moscow is looking for more links with China. Relations between the two have always been up and down. Not that long ago, experts believed that if there were a nuclear weapons attacks, it might occur between those two countries. Now, peace has returned and both may be able to exploit their close geography and relative strengths in energy and population in a way based on economics and not Communist ideology.

On the bright side, China does have money and is fast developing expertise. China’s Shandong Tranlin paper company is investing $2 billion in a modern paper plant in eastern Chesterfield County that will employ 2,000. It won’t use trees, but leftovers from farm fields and is supposed to be less polluting than paper mills most Americans are familiar with. What’s more, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is off on a trade mission to China in a few days.

In any event, the Forbidden City is worth a look. It runs until Jan. 11.

Woo hoo! Giving Money to Rich, Out-of-State Capitalists Is Fun!

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones (left) and Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Capitalist benefactors: Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones (left) and Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Richmond is home to numerous craft brewers: Legend Brewing, Triple Crossing, Richbrau, Strangeways and Hardywood Park, just to name five that show up on the first page of a Google search. But when it comes to rolling out the red carpet, state and local government is lavishing its favors upon Stone Brewing, of Escondido, Calif. — $23 million in City of Richmond bonds to build the brewery, $8 million to build a restaurant, $5 million from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund and potentially $250,000 from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund.

Admittedly, none of the local brewers have achieved the scale of Stone Brewing, which announced last week that it would invest $74 million in Richmond, creating 300 jobs. In a state economy struggling for traction, Stone’s announcement is the fifth largest economic development deal (ranked by investment) so far this year.

But the massive loans and subsidies raise a number of issues of equity and fairness, as Bart Hinkle noted one such issue in his Times-Dispatch op-ed this morning:

Stone executive Steve Wagner says other factors determined its final decision: water supply, wastewater capacity and proximity to suppliers. If that’s true, then Richmond should have been able to land the brewery without the handouts. It’s bad enough to think officials felt they had no choice but to offer Stone public inducements. It’s even worse to think the inducements were necessary.

Hinkle also wonders, as I do, how the home-grown brewers feel about the special treatment accorded their potential competitor. While the Stone Brewing brewery will serve a wider East Coast market, its restaurant will compete more directly with local brew-pubs. And, really, how many brew pubs can a city Richmond’s size support? Will Stone Brewing’s presence crowd out local players? Nobody knows but it’s a risk worth pondering.

There’s one other issue: Richmond apparently will be issuing $31 million in municipal bonds to help finance construction of the brewery and the restaurant. The city has finite borrowing capacity. If it borrows $31 million to back the Stone project, that’s $31 million it cannot spend elsewhere without endangering its AA+ (Standard & Poors) bond rating. This is a city, mind you, that wants to issue bonds for an $80 million baseball stadium and redevelopment project in Shockoe Bottom, $8 million to create a Bus Rapid Transit system along Broad Street, spend millions more to the city bicycle-ready for an international bike race in 2015, push ambitious housing-redevelopment and neighborhood-revitalization goals the city’s East End, support a new children’s hospital, and presumably pursue other capital improvement projects and economic development opportunities as opportunities arise.

Its good that Mayor Dwight Jones has a can-do attitude. But the city needs to pick its projects wisely. It needs to leverage its public investment to the max. And it needs to keep some powder dry for other opportunities that may appear. The best criteria to adopt when investment public dollars is this: Would I invest this money if it belonged to me? Am I maximizing  risk-adjusted Return on Investment? I have seen no evidence that the Stone Brewing deal would pass that test.

– JAB

Virginia Tech: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Tech_robotics_lab

Virginia Tech robotics lab

It’s probably been a decade since I’ve been to Virginia Tech. I spent a year living in Blacksburg about 30 years ago and I visited with some frequency during my tenure as editor and then publisher of Virginia Business magazine, but I haven’t had much cause to return to Hokieland recently until this weekend when the Bacon family visited to expose the Bacon male progeny, who has expressed an interest in pursuing an engineering career, to the top engineering school program in Virginia. (Sorry, Wahoos, but it’s true, Tech engineering is No. 1 in Virginia.)

It is remarkable what has transpired in Blacksburg in a mere decade — both in Virginia Tech and the surrounding town. Slowly but surely Virginia Tech continues to gain ground against other engineering schools in the hyper-intense competition for resources, cutting-edge programs and prestige. Tech ranks in the top 50 nationally for total R&D expenditures but the College of Engineering ranks among the Top 10 undergraduate engineering programs in the country.

The College of Engineering also has generated considerable spin-off economic activity. We’re not talking Boston or San Francisco-style impact, but Tech’s Corporate Research Center — in essence, a corporate park for companies interacting with the university — has grown to 31 buildings employing 2,700 employees. That’s small potatoes compared to, say, Northern Virginia, but it’s pretty darned impressive for Southwest Virginia. Indeed, the performance is all the more impressive considering the fact that Tech is not situated in a major labor market, is geographically remote and has lousy airline service.

One benefit of Tech’s isolated location is that the physical setting of the New River Valley is stunningly beautiful. And I’ll say this about Tech’s campus: It may not have the world-heritage quality of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda and Lawn of the University of Virginia, my alma mater, but university leadership has done a superb job of maintaining architectural continuity over the years — all buildings are built of Hokiestone. I hesitate to say so but the Virginia Tech campus overall is more aesthetically pleasing than the hodge-podge of UVa outside of the Rotunda-Lawn core. Furthermore, the Hokies have paid close attention to the art of “place making” over the past couple of decades. The campus is much more inviting in many small ways than it was when I saw it last.

Another virtue is that the town of Blacksburg has been evolving in a positive way. County planners have permitted developers to increase the density of buildings around the perimeter of the campus. Far more apartments and commercial establishments are within walking and biking distance of the Virginia Tech campus than there were when I last visited. The town has replaced two busy signalized intersections with roundabouts, and I spotted a couple of tandem buses rolling through town.

My main concern is that Blacksburg’s prosperity is built upon a mountain of student indebtedness. But rising tuition is hardly unique to Virginia Tech.  Indeed, the College of Engineering probably could do just fine catering to out-of-state students willing to pay significantly more than in-state students do. The College of Engineering does not charge what the market would bear, to the benefit of thousands of Virginia students. All things considered, I’d be delighted if the Little Porker ended up at Virginia Tech.

Update: The densification of downtown Blacksburg continues apace. Town Council approved 4 to 3 yesterday (Oct. 15) construction of a 37-bedroom, four-story condominium on the edge of downtown. The project had stirred controversy because it bordered a neighborhood of single-family houses. The developer argued that the condo would be located within walking distance of Virginia Tech and downtown.

There’s plenty more room for Blacksburg to densify without impinging upon old neighborhoods — just up-zone the Main Strip commercial strip. Vast acreage there is dedicated to parking lots and low-rise shopping centers. If the town council encourages mixed use and runs those tandem buses down Main Street, it can accommodate the town’s population growth for many years to come.

– JAB

Virginia Tech campus -- very bike friendly

Virginia Tech campus — very bike friendly