Let Richmond Be Richmond

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts gallery. Artsy fartsy, it's who we are. Get over it. Embrace it.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts gallery. Artsy fartsy, it’s who we are. Get over it. Embrace it.

I delivered this speech last night to a gathering at the Branch House in an event hosted by the Virginia Center for Architecture. — JAB

Buffalo, N.Y., a metropolitan region about the size of Richmond, is debating how to pay for a new $1 billion stadium complex for the Buffalo Bills National Football League team. The City of Richmond is debating how to pay for a $56 million stadium for the Richmond Squirrels AA baseball team. I don’t know if Buffalo will ever find the money, but it really doesn’t matter. If professional sports is your yardstick of metropolitan prestige, Buffalo is running – maybe I should say stampeding — Richmond into the dirt.

But, objectively speaking – assuming this audience can be objective – where would you rather live? Let’s look at some commonly used metrics:

  • The Richmond metropolitan region has a lower unemployment rate than the Buffalo metro – 4.8% compared to 5.8%.
  • Richmond has a lower poverty rate – 11.6% compared to 14.4%.
  • Richmond has a higher median household income — $55,300 compared to $46,400.

I think we can safely and objectively say that big league sports is no guarantee of metropolitan prosperity.

While Richmond can’t seem to get a minor league baseball stadium off the ground, consider VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art. The community managed to raise $33 million through private philanthropy with no angst whatsoever.

Pro football or contemporary art. What do our choices tell us about the Richmond region? Richmond is an artsy fartsy kind of town. And that’s OK. In fact, I’m going to argue that artsy fartsy is a good thing as we reinvent ourselves for the 21st-century Knowledge Economy.

It is commonplace today to observe that the biggest challenge for any metropolitan region is recruiting and retaining the highly skilled, highly creative citizens – scientists, artists, educators, entrepreneurs – who drive innovation and contribute disproportionately to economic growth. Somewhat more controversially, I would argue, those desirable citizens are more likely to want to live and build a career in a region that has vibrant arts & culture than one that has big league athletics.

If you accept that proposition, then it tells you a lot how we ought to be investing our civic capital. For the billion dollars it would take Buffalo, N.Y., to build a bigger, better stadium for the Buffalo Bills, we could make Richmond the arts capital of the Southeastern U.S.!

The urban geographer Richard Florida made a big splash thirteen years ago when he published the book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.” His argument, boiled down to its essence, is that Americans, young Americans especially, were increasingly likely to choose where to live based on the attributes of the region rather than because that’s where they could find a job. He turned economic development on its head. Instead of recruiting corporations, we should be recruiting the creative class. Corporations will follow the creative in order to gain access to employees with the higher-order skills and aptitudes that are in short supply.

If we embrace that perspective, we need to ask two fundamental questions: (1) What does it take to attract young professionals to RVA? and (2) What does it take to keep them here? In other words, how do we do a better job with recruitment and retention?

Richmond has a relatively stable population. We don’t get a huge flux of people moving in or moving out. Fortunately, we do seem to attract more people than we lose — we experience net in-migration. Between 2013 and 2014, the Internal Revenue Service recorded the influx of nearly 32,000 new “tax returns” into the core Richmond region – by which I mean Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover. During the same period, those four localities experienced an out-migration of 29,000 tax returns. That represented a net gain of about 2,800 tax-paying households in a region with about 300,000 tax returns – or a gain of not quite one percent. That’s not bad. But it could be better: We’re not in the same league as national talent magnets like Austin or Raleigh, much less Silicon Valley.

Interestingly, two-thirds of the in-migration came from other locales in Virginia, only one-third from outside the state. Pending closer analysis of the numbers, I would conjecture that that RVA functions as a regional magnet for talent, as opposed to a national magnet, drawing mainly upon the hinterland of smaller Virginia cities and towns. Many could come from the many fine colleges and universities in the state. But we really don’t know. There’s a lot we still need to learn.

Fortunately, the Richmond’s Future Foundation has been giving a lot of thought to these issues, and it has underwritten some really interesting work by the Southeastern Institute of Research (SIR). In 2013 SIR surveyed college students and young professionals both from Richmond and from peer metros to get an idea of what drove them to locate in a particular region.

In partial contradiction to Richard Florida, the single most important thing to young people when deciding where to live is getting a job. Fifty-seven percent said that finding a job was the first consideration. However, 24% said location was the top consideration, and 19% cited people.

This doesn’t totally invalidate the Creative Class theory, but it does modify it. The data reflect the different circumstances of 2014 compared to 2001 when Florida wrote his book using data from the Internet boom. Back then, the national economy was incredibly robust, unemployment was low and people had a lot more job choices than they do today. Back then, people could afford to be choosey. Today, they can’t. In hard times, jobs will tend to come first. So, quality of life is less decisive than it was before the Great Recession – but it’s still a factor and it could be a bigger one if the job market strengthens.

Also, I’d note, quality of life seems to be a more important consideration for people living in the Richmond area. Among the Richmond college kids surveyed, the importance attached to location was significantly higher than for college kids outside the region. Clearly, Richmond as a place exerts a strong pull on the people who live here. That’s something we can build on.

SIR’s survey also detailed what young professionals like about the region. Here’s a list of regional attributes and the percentage of respondents who gave positive ratings to them:

  • Food scene — 83% positive rating
  • Outdoor recreation — 83%
  • Arts scene — 78%
  • Urban living environment — 65%
  • Music scene — 64%

We need to bear these findings in mind as we allocate community resources. While Richmond’s Future, the Chamber of Commerce and others have made a lot of progress thinking about what it takes to build a creative, innovative community, we haven’t thought as much about what kinds of investments we need to make. Let me offer some preliminary thoughts to foster that conversation.

First, it’s helpful to draw a distinction between hard infrastructure and soft infrastructure. Hard infrastructure refers to the built environment –utilities, roads, highways, bike lanes, and so on.

As it happens, the Richmond region is the least traffic congested of the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the country. That’s good news for those of us who live in the suburbs and commute to work by car. But does that kudo win us national recognition? Sadly no. No one seems to compile lists of the Top 10 Least Congested Metros in the country. Building more roads and shaving a minute off the length of the average commute will not affect the way young people perceive RVA.

By contrast, building more bicycle lanes and more walkable streets very well might make a difference in how the region is perceived. When young people think about mobility and access, they think about bicycle lanes, sidewalks  and mass transit – not how congested the local streets are.

By those metrics, the Richmond region wouldn’t score in the Top 10 of anything good. I looked up the walk scores for local jurisdictions, and this is what I found:

Downtown Richmond – 87 walk score on a one to one-hundred scale  — “very walkable”

Short Pump, Henrico – 28 walk score — “car dependent”

Meadowbrook, Chesterfield – 12 walk score — really “car dependent”

If we  want bicycle lanes, if we want walkability, if we want financially self-sustaining mass transit (as to money-draining mass transit), then we need to pay close attention to the pattern and density of land use. We need to embrace some version of “smart growth” or “New Urbanism,” which pays close attention to walkability. The physical design of our communities is a critical component in making RVA an inviting place for young professionals to live. Architects, designers and urban planners have a crucial role to play. Indeed, this topic is so important that the Virginia Center for Architecture will host a panel discussion on it next month. (Mark your calendars for February 12!)

What do I mean by soft infrastructure? We can get an idea by going through the list of community assets identified by SIR as being important to young professionals. A common thread, in contrast to hard infrastructure, is that there is only a limited role for government. For the most part, these assets need to grow organically from the community.

Great food scene. A foodie scene is a huge asset in recruiting young professionals to RVA, although it’s not an area where government and civic leaders can help directly. Outside of enforcing health standards and building codes, the last thing we want is for government to get involved in the restaurant business! Richmonders developed a highly regarded food scene while the movers and shakers weren’t paying any attention. One day, we woke up and realized, holy moly, this is a great restaurant town! Turn the foodie entrepreneurs loose, and they’ll do the rest.

Outdoor recreation. Richmond has great outdoor recreation. We’ve got white water kayaking, dirt bike trails, river swimming, 1OK races and much, much more. Richmond is for doers, not watchers. Young professionals would rather go out and play sports themselves rather than watch other people playing sports. In that regard, the Richmond Sports Backers is arguably a much more important civic institution than the Richmond Squirrels. Sports Backers acts as a catalyst for participative sports and, in doing so, it creates the kind of events that young professionals like to participate in.

With one exception, there is little useful that government can do in this sphere. However, that one exception is pretty darn important – only government can take the lead in creating a world-class park system along the James River. All Richmonders recognize what an incredible asset the river is. We need to invest in that asset. While the philanthropic sector can help, only government has the resources to make it happen.

The Arts scene. For a region our size, Richmond is blessed. The VCU arts school has 3,100 students, making it one of the largest in the country. Thirty percent of those art students stay in Richmond, providing a talent stream for the important advertising-marketing business cluster. We also have the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, of course, and art galleries galore. What kind of soft infrastructure can we build to support arts & culture? Well, the Institute for Contemporary Art is a great example – among other things, the ICT will host rotating displays of artistic work coming out of VCU and the Richmond region. And here, I would be remiss not to put in a plug for the Virginia Architecture Center, which aspires to become a force for elevating the level of architecture and design throughout the Mid-Atlantic. As a community, we should rally around institutions like ICT and the Virginia Architecture Center. If we can put Richmond on the arts map nationally, we can change perceptions about the region among people who really matter.

Let me draw another sports analogy. Green Bay, Wisconsin, home to the Green Bay Packers, punches way above its weight in the football world. Richmond should aspire to punch above its weight in the arts world. If we mobilized around our artistic institutions like Green Bay does around the Packers, we could compete with the likes of Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., for artistically inclined members of the creative class.

Music scene. Young professionals regard Richmond’s music scene as adequate, not awesome. That’s inevitable, given the economics of the music industry. L.A., New York and Nashville suck up most of the top talent, making it difficult for anyone else to compete at the same level. Insofar as musicians like participating in a larger artistic community, however, supporting the arts here may improve the quality of the local music scene. Meanwhile, we can make Richmond a more attractive market for big-name bands and musicians to come play. I suspect that’s the motivation behind Venture Richmond’s push to expand the number of concerts and variety of concert venues in the city. Again, government really doesn’t have a role here – except to mediate with the community. While concerts are loads of fun for music goers, they may not be so fun for people living nearby who may or may not have a taste for loud music at late hours of the evening.

Drawing this strands of thought together… We should follow our instincts and let Richmond be Richmond. We shouldn’t model ourselves after anyone else. If we do look to other places for inspiration, we should learn from cities like Philadelphia and Austin, which are known for their artistic communities. Our emphasis on arts & culture didn’t make an especially good fit with the old Industrial Economy, but it is perfectly compatible with economic development in the Knowledge Economy. Following our hearts won’t make us the next boom town –but, then, we don’t want to become the next boom town, with all the instability and dislocation that entails. We can become a place where creative people want to live and work, and that will fuel the rise of an entrepreneurial economy that carries us to the next level of prosperity and well being.

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23 responses to “Let Richmond Be Richmond

  1. I thought Richmond’s poverty was much higher at 27 percent.

  2. I wasn’t precise — I was comparing metropolitan regions, not cities. I’ll update the post to make it clear.

  3. I give you a lot of crap, but this was really well done. It was thoughtful, researched and logically consistent. More like this, please.

    You’re right about the limited role government can play when it comes to soft infrastructure and the policies that support it, but I would expand it by a couple points.

    1) Ensure a decent amount of affordable housing options. This isn’t a problem the city has right now, but as the population grows – and especially as it reaches the number it was at its peak – that’s going to change. Food, art and music are all ventures that can live and die on the margins, and if people who pursue these endeavors can’t find places to live on those margins those scenes are going to dry up. Food especially requires a lot of staff – wait staff, host staff, cooks, cleaners – that aren’t necessarily high paid positions. As much as I personally don’t like incentives for businesses and developers the city has done a really good job of helping companies that want to rehab the old warehouses into loft apartments, and that should probably continue. I think a similar program that would help renovate some of the houses in the city’s inner ring suburbs (Northside, Southside, East End) could reap some similar benefits.

    2) A fully funded education program in the city that includes arts and music learning. It’s great that VCU draws in a lot of artistic types from outside the city, but fostering artistic creativity and development inside our schools would double down on that. Public school music education, especially, has played a large part in the foundation of previous generations of American musicians (Pharrell comes most readily to mind).

    3) We need to diversify our art grants so we’re not just giving $1.75 M to Center Stage (which was built using public funds to begin with) to pay its property taxes. There’s no problem with handing out grants to foster the arts community, but imagine the artistic ROI the city would have reaped had it given that $1.75 M to a multitude of artists and musicians across the spectrum instead of just one organization.

    4) Repeal the noise ordinance for the Shockoe Slip/Bottom area. If people don’t want loud noise to invade their apartments then don’t move into the city’s bar/nightclub district. If you can afford to live within walking distance of Tobacco Company, you can afford to live in the West End (which is where you’re going to eventually move anyway). You can’t have a music scene without somewhere people can play music. In the 80s/90s Richmond was number three on the East Coast punk scene behind New York and D.C. The Dave Matthews Band played the Flood Zone. This is the city that birthed GWAR, Avail, Lamb of God and D’Angelo.

    • Affordable housing is one of RVA’s less desirable attributes , according to the SIR survey. The solution for this segment of the market (as opposed to affordable housing for the poor) is fairly simple — allow developers to build at higher density. The market may not be interested providing in low-income housing (in the absence of subsidies), but it’s more than willing to provide middle-class and professional-class housing.

      The latest proposal for garden apartments on Kensington Ave. is a case in point. That project would convert an aging, one-story medical office building into three-story apartment buildings (with parking inside the block). Predictably, the project will meet resistance from neighbors. I’m not saying the proposal can’t be improved upon, but that’s the kind of project we need to encourage.

      • one of these things that has a profound impact on affordable housing is that people in higher-end housing do not want “affordable” housing near their home.

        and it’s really a direct outcome of the “market” because at least some folks who own their own homes see those homes as nest egg/investments that can have their value – damaged – by other kinds of land uses.. including lower-priced housing.

        this, in turn, affects the zoning policies of a given jurisdiction – and the accompanying planning philosophy that seeks to classify uses and characterize them as incompatible with other uses.

        so I would posit – that planner policies are not as much top-down “govt-knows-best” – as much as they are – actually in response to market conditions.

        It would be entirely interesting when studies are done to assert that restrictive development policies affect density and mixed-use.. that they differentiate between what are seemingly arbitrary and immutable down-down govt policies and what are reactions to existing residents wants and desires.

        I find Richmond an interesting and inviting place from the Science Museum to Shockoe Slip but there are more than a few places where I’d not be comfortable once the daytime visitors have departed. Maybe, it’s just me and I’m overly sensitive but even parking my car one block over from the Farmer’s Market left me with concern about some of the characters I saw
        loitering in the area.

        I’m quite sure the folks who are frequent visitors just “know” where to be and where to not be depending on the hour but less frequent visitors don’t have that knowledge and so despite the interesting things that places like Richmond offer – it still has some of the less wonderful trappings of cities that I find troubling at times.

      • I’m fairly shocked to hear that affordable housing is a problem in Richmond. Is it that there is a dearth of affordable housing, a paucity in desirable locations or a lack of affordable rental opportunities?

        And I agree with your second point. That area of the Fan is prime for more housing choices, and a nice, three-story apartment building would fit in with the general scheme of what already exists in that area. Has opposition manifested already?

    • Diversified funding for the arts… I agree. Richard Florida refers to the SOB sisters — Symphony, Opera and Ballet — that garner an outsized share of philanthropic dollars in so many cities. I’ve got nothing against any of them. But it would be nice to see more money stimulating contemporary art forms. It would be nice to have an endowment to give up-and-comers a boost. A little money could go a long way in Richmond, I suspect.

    • “We need to diversify our art grants so we’re not just giving $1.75 M to Center Stage (which was built using public funds to begin with) to pay its property taxes. There’s no problem with handing out grants to foster the arts community, but imagine the artistic ROI the city would have reaped had it given that $1.75 M to a multitude of artists and musicians across the spectrum instead of just one organization.”

      Pretty strongly agree. IMHO Richmond, as a metro region, needs to do more to enable growth from the bottom up, and many many fewer huge top-down mega-projects.

      Bottom up growth has advantages of creativity and flexibility that you just don’t get in big top down projects. This includes business growth – small business growth versus paying one big employer to come to town.

  4. Oh, and though I can hardly blame you since it usually gets 0 coverage unless Firehouse is doing something stupid, you left out our theater scene! It’s a shame that it doesn’t get more coverage because there are a lot of really talented people doing really good work, too. I don’t know why it can’t seem to break through into the local popular consciousness. I blame Guardians of the Galaxy.

  5. maybe this is a good time to add this:

    ” You need to make $108,092 a year to live comfortably in D.C., report says”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/01/29/you-need-to-make-108092-a-year-to-live-comfortably-in-d-c-report-says/

    made me wonder what that number was for Richmond. My perception is that Richmond is quite a bit less expensive.

  6. “I would argue, those desirable citizens are more likely to want to live and build a career in a region that has vibrant arts & culture than one that has big league athletics.”

    Arguing facts not in evidence. You should attend a Los Angeles Lakers game in LA someday.

    • He said desirable citizens, not Lakers fans.

      • Ha ha. Point well taken. Maybe a Saints game then. When the Saints play the Redskins in Maryland I prefer to hang out with the Saints fans. Those folks are having a high old time at the game.

        Jim’s an elitist. A lovable elitist but an elitist nonetheless. His mistake is assuming everybody else is an elitist too.

        Jim – I assume Richmond’s plan to host the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame isn’t in line with your idea of civic achievement?

    • Look at Austin – has become a significant tech center, and I’d argue that growth has come largely from arts and culture making it a great place to live.

      • VA Gal – really? I think you have to start with the University of Texas. Then, add the state capital of one of the most populous states in the US. Next, good weather. Then, Sixth Street. Personally, I am a country music and (especially) bluegrass fan. So, Sixth Street is good by me. Add an excellent, new airport and you start to get the picture.

        Richmond is the capital of a much smaller state. It has no university in league with UT. Don’t get me wrong – lots of good colleges and universities in the Richmond area but none that approach the technology strength of the University of Texas. The weather is, at best, OK. The music scene is nothing like Austin. The airport is decrepit.

        Richmond could become another Austin but it would take some work. One of the local colleges or universities would have to be persuaded to get very serious about some growing technical area – maybe data science, maybe cognitive processing. Local civic leaders and businesses would have to donate enough money to get the ball rolling. The state would have to chip in too. Richmond should pick a street downtown and suspend the noise curfew on Thurs, Fri and Sat nights until 4 am. Close the street to traffic during the evenings. Make liquor licenses easy to get for establishments which focus on live music. Think a mini French Quarter or Beale St in Memphis. The airport needs to be remodeled and expanded. Then, Richmond needs to start recruiting companies to locate some of their tech development in Richmond. These companies don’t have to be startups nor do they have to relocate their headquarters to Richmond. They just need to agree to do some of their product development in River City.

        It’s going to take more than art museums.

        I’d be happy to swing some development work to Richmond if I thought there was critical mass of affordable talent there. There certainly are some smart technologists but not enough.

        At least, that’s my take.

        • Hi Don –

          Your original question was if art and culture can help a city more than big time sports. I do think that art and culture have helped Austin become a tech powerhouse, more than a big sports team would.

          I totally agree, University of Texas helps Austin as a tech center, starting with that you have graduates that are familiar with the city. That works both ways, IMHO – being such a desirable place to live attracts entrepreneurs and makes graduates want to stay – their presence makes the school stronger, too – a good positive feedback loop. Austin being the state capital helps with overall economic viability, but tech, IMHO not as much.

          Music, entertainment, and history, to me, are part of culture. Richmond has a music scene, which hasn’t been particularly targeted as a potential source of growth; a pretty strong local arts scene, ditto; some theater and performing arts; and some visual arts and film. Also a number of local arts and cultural and regional festivals and some quirky/creative shops and shopping districts, especially in areas like the Fan and Carytown. And history – OMG – we are not short of history. Plus a beautiful river with urban whitewater.

          When I talk to fellow computer people about great places to live, Austin is mentioned because it’s fun, and cool, and the reasons it’s fun and cool are tied to culture – great food, lot to do, quirky cool people.

          For universities – VCU is one of the top arts schools in the country – really notably good. For tech, it’s not as strong, but not bad. It’s not Stanford, but it’s not embarassing, either. Look at the region, though – within about an hours drive in each direction, you have VCU (CS, MIS, and engineering), UVA (CS, MIS, and engineering), UR, UMW, and a fairly plentiful scattering of smaller schools that offer degrees in CS, MIS, and/or math.

          I was thinking more in the context of organic growth and startups (SnagAJob, that company that makes the software for IOT that Jim profiled, etc) and hadn’t thought as much of it as a potential site for branch offices – I can’t speak to the depth of the job market here and I suspect it would largely depend on which skills you were looking for, and at what experience level. New graduates are one thing, mid career professionals another.

          My impression is that you have had a decent number of well trained people in the area, but with local companies closing down and downsizing (eg Capital One), I don’t know how many people who don’t want to start a business have left for NoVa and better job prospects. I do think that Richmond, with its charm and lower cost of living has the potential to appeal to people tired of NoVa traffic and cost of living, if it could get started.

          For how to encourage it, I think you make a lot of good points.

          Attention to data science, machine learning – those would be useful in making the schools stand out. I know UVA has set big data as one of their primary initiatives, with cross disciplinary teams using big data and with related classes, and they have some interesting things like “maker” seminars (non-credit) open to the public.

          The idea of a mini French Quarter – perhaps in Shockoe Bottom? – has a lot of appeal. We have really talented artists, actors, writers, musicians – it’s not just that they deserve recognition – recognizing them and giving them a showcase actually helps the rest of us.

          One other thought – if there are enough people in Richmond to meet your specific technical needs – and as I mentioned above, for that I can’t say yeah or nay – the affordable part comes into play. Tech talent in Richmond is less expensive than equivalent talent in NoVa – lower cost of living, and less pressure from the market.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments–great write up!

  8. Jim- very nice article. Being in Lynchburg, I’m often surprised at how few here realize what a gem Richmond is. I spend several weekends a year, usually at Linden Row. For me, RVA has more to offer than any other metro it’s size… Raleigh, CLT included.

  9. “Interestingly, two-thirds of the in-migration came from other locales in Virginia, only one-third from outside the state. Pending closer analysis of the numbers, I would conjecture that that RVA functions as a regional magnet for talent, as opposed to a national magnet, drawing mainly upon the hinterland of smaller Virginia cities and towns.”

    Flag this for future research and discussion.

    Look at, say, the struggles facing Roanoke: http://www.baconsrebellion.com/2015/01/back-to-big-lick.html

    And what we’ve seen with Southwest and Southside crashing in population: http://www.baconsrebellion.com/2015/01/nova-still-drives-virginias-population-growth.html

    And you can even throw in questions about how Northern Virginia will grow outside of Alexandria and Arlington: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/digger/wp/2015/01/28/is-northern-virginia-becoming-two-different-places/

    I don’t have a good link handy, but I can just put out there that Hampton Roads (or Pentagon South) is also facing challenges, and that’s not even bringing up rising sea levels.

    I was talking to a Fairfax County official a few months ago about how the new developments along the Silver Line are “cannibalizing” the rest of the county, doing little to bring new business in but mostly pulling in companies and people already located in Fairfax.

    Could Richmond end up doing the same in Virginia? If you want to live in a major megapolis linked up to New York, go to Northern Virginia (and probably just the dense metro area). But if you’re a Virginian and looking for opportunity, head to Richmond.

    • “… the Silver Line are “cannibalizing” the rest of the county”

      I think that – and the other things you are saying are entirely relevant and overlooked in discussions about economic development sometimes.

      I separate out – businesses that “feed” off the existing rooftops in the area and entirely new businesses that are selling goods/services with a wider scope markets than the existing bounded jurisdiction/region – ( OR providing something in the region not already provided – which will also come at the expense of other rooftop sales – like a new Wegmans or other “new” brand.

      you can see this graphically when you look at what happens to existing businesses when a WalMart or other big box moves into an area.. and causes mass closings of existing smaller mom/pop places.

      that’s not NET economic development … but it’s often perceived as such.

      so what the Silver line (and sometimes other projects) is doing is – rearranging or consolidating – rather than expanding.

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