Richmond’s Wine-and-Brie Path to Community Revitalization

by James A. Bacon

First Fridays Art Walk in downtown Richmond has a long way to go before it reaches the iconic status of, say, Miami’s South Beach or San Antonio’s canal walk, but it is increasingly defining the City of Richmond and, by extension, the Richmond metropolitan area. The art walk arose spontaneously a decade ago from the initiative of several art gallery owners to drum up business by instituting an art-world parallel to a Friday night pub crawl. People came in trickles, then in streams and now in droves. The monthly event has expanded to theaters and performing arts, restaurants and boutiques along the once-moribund Broad Street corridor, drawing from all walks of life. There’s so much activity that the city has had to get involved to regulate sidewalk vendors, enforce noise ordinances and clamp down on petty street crime.

The idea for First Fridays Art Walk didn’t emerge from some consultant’s study,  Chamber of Commerce brain storming session or an idea-seeking delegation to another city. It arose from ground-up civic entrepreneurship and the unique tastes and sensibilities of the region.

Richmond is one of the few Top 50 cities in the country without a major league sports team. We do have a AA team baseball team, the Flying Squirrels, and people do seem to like them. But we couldn’t get our act together to keep the AAA Richmond Braves, much less attract a big-league team. And if we don’t figure out how to finance renovation of the Diamond baseball stadium, we could lose the Squirrels. But we have one heck of an arts scene. In the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, we can boast of the finest regional art museums in the country. At Virginia Commonwealth University, we have one of the highest ranked university art programs in the country. If we can’t aspire to being big league in the sports world, perhaps we can aspire to become big league in the arts world.

In that spirit, City Councilman Charles R. Samuels has introduced an ordinance to create the Historic Broad Streets Arts District spanning 27 blocks in downtown. The proposal would qualify theaters, galleries, museums, dance studios, music halls and historical sites for special benefits such as participation in the city’s revolving loan program, tax exemptions and marketing/promotion dollars, according to the Times-Dispatch. The councilman’s heart is in the right place — better for the city to provide modest support to the arts than to spend multi-millions renovating a baseball stadium. But, as much as I love the idea of a turbo-charged arts district, I think he may be going overboard.

Permit me to draw a distinction between different types of assistance that a city can offer. The most important assistance is enforcing ordinances to maintain public order and tranquility. Street vendors are getting out of hand? Fine, license them. Bands and boom boxes are too loud? Fine, enforce the noise ordinance. Petty thieves are picking pockets? Fine, assign a few police to patrol the streets. The city can do things like enforce parking ordinances, chase off the prostitutes and clean up the trash the next day. That’s the basic function of government, and the City of Richmond appears to be doing a good job.

The second thing a city can do is get out of the way. For example, it can relax zoning codes that prevent artists or business owners from living in loft space above studios, galleries, shops and restaurants. It can prioritize building permit applications and inspections for entrepreneurs who are renovating old buildings. Both of ideas are part of Samuels’ package.

The third thing a city can do is to actively help. Samuels proposes subsidies both direct (city appropriations for marketing) and indirect (reduced or waived fees from the city’s revolving loan program, a non-profit exemption from the city’s 7% admissions tax, and a temporary exemption of the business-license tax for arts-related businesses).

That’s where I get nervous. I believe that government’s job is to create a level playing field for everyone, not to pick winners and losers. What if the city had favored some other use of downtown ten years ago? Would the Arts Walk ever have taken off? On the other hand, none of Samuels’ ideas should be terribly expensive and they can be easily reversed if they get out of hand — not like issuing $50 million in municipal bonds, say, to rebuild the baseball stadium, an action that cannot be undone.

Whatever the final fate of the ordinance, it places the city’s priorities in the right place. The Arts Walk makes a fine fit with other grass roots institutions like the James River Writers Festival and the VCU French Film Festival. I’m a wine-and-brie kind of guy, and I’m happy for Richmond to carve out its defining niche as a wine-and-brie kind of town.

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14 responses to “Richmond’s Wine-and-Brie Path to Community Revitalization”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    The problem in Richmond is that many things rise up organically and then the city’s self-appointed “leaders” (Leadership Metro Richmond and similar ilk) suddenly rush up and try to start leading the parade. The Chamber of Commerce spends thousands on yet another trip to Austin or Raleigh or wherever. At the same time, a lot of nonsense of a “noise” ordinance means that Richmond wants to kill its creative young. Plus there are problems with sustaining the organic. First Friday was a hit — back a few years ago. It’s not as vibrant as before. Other night hotspot such as the Slip and Bottom are in turmoil because of shootings in parking lots. Richmond can’t seem to deal with as other cities do — they manage to have exciting evening destinations without the Kevlar vests. Sports are equally problematic. The Double A Flying Squirrels are a huge hit and a much better experience that the Atlanta Braves which is like rooting for an insurance company. But the ame old problem is untouched. The Diamond is crap. It has always been crap. Little has ben done to fix it and given Richmond’s dysfunctional city politics it probably never will be. Amazing that the place has one tiny elevator for the elderly and people in wheelchairs.

    Unless Richmond can get its politics straight, let the organic bloom and get rid of after-the-fact boosters like the ego maniac publisher of the local newspaper and his confederates, the city is doomed.

  2. just desserts for a town run by the clown

  3. Groveton Avatar


    Tell the Chamber of Commerce to save their money. Just buy USNews and World Report’s Ultimate College Guide.

    Look up Duke, UNC and NC State. Then, look up the University of Texas.

    Now, look up ODU.

    If you really want Richmond to be a top tier innovation city, the Clown Show will need to significantly increase the funding for ODU. Or, establish Virginia Tech, Richmond Campus.

    It will take about 10 – 15 years but it will work. Look at UMd.

    The sports are absurd. Bowie, Md has the Bowie Baysox. Great Stadium, great fun. Prince William County, VA has the Potomac Nationals ( Same thing. And that’s in a metropolitan area with two MLB major league teams.

    As far as the crime – what’s up with that? It seems like Richmond just can’t get it together. DC used to stand for Dodge City. That was in the 70s and 80s. It still has its moments but it’s much improved. Get a new police chief. And add patrols to the places where people congregate on weekends.

    Richmond is bigger than Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Salt Lake City. Richmond is just a wee bit smaller than Jacksonville, Nashville, Milwaukee and Memphis.

    Let’s see … pro basketball, pro football, pro basketball, pro football, pro football and hockey, pro baseball – football and hockey and pro basketball.

    Then there’s Richmond … without a Triple A Baseball team? Tell me you at least have a minor league hockey team.

  4. Groveton – my man… are you advocating raising taxes on Virginians for higher ed in Va which is already a sucking black-hole scam?

  5. Groveton Avatar

    I was hoping that one of the many, world famous Decendants of Pocohontas who live in Richmond might endow VCU with a sizable chunk of change.

    UVA has an endowment of $5.24B. VCU is at $280.7M. Time for someone to pass the hat at the Country Club of Virginia.

    Yes, George Mason only has an endowment of $50M or so. But there is no need for hat passing in NoVa. Luckily for us, we live close to the Maryland border. So, we can “borrow” graduates from a university not mismanaged by the Clown Show in Richmond – namely the University of Maryland, College Park.

    Remind me to send a thank you note to Annapolis.

  6. Re: Pro sports in Richmond…..

    Ain’t gonna happen. How many of the teams/cities you mentioned above play in a publicly financed stadium/arena? I just don’t see Richmond having the willpower to pull something like that off and honestly I wouldn’t blame them.

    Minor league sports – maybe.

    Build a world class university and in time the rest will follow…..take better advantage of MCV….partner with drug companies on research, etc. I am sure they are already doing a lot of this but people just don’t hear about it.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Point taken but ODU is in Norfolk.

  8. Groveton Avatar


    Lost focus while typing. Definitely, VCU instead of ODU. However, the real shame in the Commonwealth of Virginia is not really NoVa or Richmond. It is the absolute squandering of potential in Tidewater.

    Tidewater has all the natural attributes of a great place to live. Sadly, it is under the yoke of the Clown Show. Hence, the inattention to ODU and/or Christopher Newport.

  9. it occurs to me that most of the states that Groveton has said have superior STEM universities are…high tax states….like California and also high debt states.

    but at the same time, Groveton decries the libtards who want to raise taxes for things like higher ed….

    methinks Groveton has put himself in an untenable position because he talks like a fiscal conservative but he walks like a … OH NO.. A LIBTARD!

    tell me it ain’t true !

  10. Groveton Avatar

    God LarryG, you just don’t get it.

    There’s plenty of money collected in taxes by Virginia for things the state should legitimately do. Virginia’s nanny state just tries to do too much.

    As I’ve mentioned before, UVA and William & Mary should be sold to their boards of visitors using the endowment and a percentage of future tuitions as payment. The resulting funds should be spent on GMU, VCU and ODU.

    That’s gets rid of the universities who don’t think they should play a part in Virginia’s economy and funds universities located in the three economic engines of the state.

    Then, Virginia should dilute Dillon’s Rule and let localities decide how much to tax and how much to spend. My guess is that a number of localities will follow the example of Austin, TX and have fairly high taxes in a generally low tax state.

    Anybody who doesn’t care to live in a high tax jurisdiction need only “vote with their feet”.

    I have no problem with higher taxes as long as the benefits turn into above average economic gains for the citizens. I do object to reckless government spending designed to buy votes without the first thought of economic benefit. Obama’s first three stimuli for example.

    Or, pretty much anything the Clown Show has ever done.

    If you want an example of high taxes competently applied to the benefit of the citizens – go to Germany.

    Porr LarryG, spouting one sided liberal arguments in a world where Saul Alinsky is dead and gone and Gooogle and the rest of the internet is here to stay.

    We don’t need looney lefties or raging righties anymore LarryG. You are a dying breed.

  11. Groveton my man.. I am MORE fiscally conservative than you!

    I do not support tax&spending types… but I see a huge double standard when comparing Obama to your other …clearly libtard tendencies at the local level.

    What I support is local referenda for taxing… let people decide… if they want to pay more/higher taxes AND for what.

    I doubt seriously that most people in Fairfax would agree to fund a University from local property taxes.

    If Obama proposed that – you’d go berserk!

    Fess up Mr. Groveton. You talk like a conservative but you walk like a lefty looney….

    you’re worse than Romney! you’re flip-flopping all over the map on taxing…

  12. Groveton Avatar

    “Fess up Mr. Groveton. You talk like a conservative but you walk like a lefty looney….”.

    Unlike you, I am not one of the sheeple who have been pre-programmed by the two political parties to always take one side or another.

    Unlike you, I do not believe that an organizational structure conceived 235 years ago is perfect and never in need of change.

    Unlike you, I believe that neither America nor Virginia should be a homogenized blob where all people are centrally governed by an all powerful, all knowing nanny state.

    Unlike you, I believe that America stands for equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

    Unlike you, I do not repeat the childish belief that taxes are divorced from the benefits of what they accomplish.

    Unlike you, I believe that free enterprise will prove a better method of allocating scarce resources than government mandate.

    Unlike you, I see Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as the three Americans who have done the most to create the horrible situation in which we now find ourselves.

    Unlike you, I can be opposed to the death penalty and opposed to abortion.

    Unlike you, I know that “wall of separation between church and state” is simply a phrase once used by Thomas Jefferson in one of the thousands of letters he wrote over the course of his life.

    Unlike you, I can see the absurdity of claims that the Tea Party is racist in that group’s defense of Clarence Thomas, quoting of Thomas Sowell and support for Herman Cain.

    Unlike you, I am neither liberal nor conservative; neither Republican nor Democrat.

    Now, go back to your sheeple herd and do as Nancy Pelosi tells you.

  13. I was speaking with regard to fiscal conservatism, local governance, and the ability of local citizens to decide how much they want to be taxed and for what purpose and not have higher taxes imposed on them by others to fund Universities …METRO and other “goodies” …..

    That’s not your classic Nancy Pelosi concept…

    but unfortunately the Republicans don’t cotton to citizens making that decision either.

    but it’s hard to reconcile your stated position that we should be more individually responsible with your position that we need to tax MORE to pay for things that you say we need.

    Those two positions do not seem to be congruent… me at least.

  14. if you want Home Rule – you should support citizen-initiated referenda.

    the Clown show actually tried to do it this way.

    they offered Fairfax the ability to tax income but they required Fairfax to ask citizens via referenda for approval. Fairfax has never gone forward on this because other than Groveton .. there probably would be few other votes.


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