Kerry P. Talbott illlustration
The offices of French Consulting Co. in Shockoe Slip are quiet, except for the gentle spin of two ultra-modern, single-blade ceiling fans. Pamphlets explaining the ins and outs of historic restoration are fanned out on end tables. The third-floor conference room is empty except for a conference table, on which sits a three-dimensional model of 1610 Altamont Ave., one of the historic tax-credit projects that may have helped end Justin French's run as one of Richmond's most intriguing developers.
On Aug. 5, agents from the FBI and IRS raided the offices, dragging away computers and more than 100 boxes of files. A week later, French was arrested at Richmond International Airport on four counts of forging a public document, four counts of knowingly presenting a forged document and a bad check charge. He is scheduled to appear in federal court Nov. 2.
Committed to urban renewal, green-building techniques and a seemingly community-focused approach to reinvesting in long-neglected areas of the city, French, 39, was perhaps Richmond's most prolific renovator.
"In my opinion, he's one of those guys who is really trying to ... find dynamic ways to make things work — and either just got ahead of himself or had a little looser grasp on how some of the stuff works," says Peter Fraser, who almost decided to partner with French in the West Broad Street building that houses his architecture firm, Fraser Design Associates. "I've known him for a little while, and he always seems to be interested in entrepreneurs and people with vision and pushing hard into uncomfortable territory."
Even along the trail of now-tattered partnerships that French forged, few of his former tenants and business partners can muster anything but kind words for the man accused of defaulting on millions of dollars in loans. French's attorney, John Honey, said that while discussions have occurred regarding the businesses with ties to his client, "I don't know if there is a whole lot to be said at this point."
"At least my experience with Justin is, he was trying to be a sharp businessman for his own benefit," Fraser says, "but he really was trying to help me salvage my building and keep me alive — and he helped these other businesses salvage themselves."
Fraser ended up restructuring his own debt without French's help, and most affected businesses seem to be saving themselves yet again in the wake of the still-unfolding French saga.
Melissa Barlow looked fragile standing on the steps of Richmond's John Marshall Courts Building in the muggy morning air of Aug. 31. A few feet from her were a circle of well-tanned businessmen in expensive suits.
Barlow and her partner, Carly Herring, could well have been the first casualty amid businesses that French rented to or partnered with. Their fledgling restaurant, the Empress, is at 2043 W. Broad St., a building that one of French's many creditors rushed to auction less than 30 days after his legal saga began.
Less than 10 nail-biting minutes after the sale began, Barlow drew a tearful sigh of relief. Herring's father, Dennis, and his wife, Connie, mortgaged two houses to piece together $280,500 to rescue their daughter, who is the restaurant's chef, and Barlow.
"We were so worried someone was going to outbid us," Barlow says. And it would have happened if the price had gone up just a few thousand more. "The thing is, [the Herrings] only had $290,000 to work with."
Kevin McFadden, a developer with Rebkee Co., was one of several developers present at the auction who had toured the Empress property the day before to size up its potential as an investment. "[The Herrings] were the right people to get it," he said. "It seems like [Barlow and Herring] put their heart and soul into that building."
Other businesses can only hope for similar deference, says Ellie Basch, who co-owns Savor, a restaurant in the Corrugated Box building in Manchester where French was one of more than a dozen partner owners.
"I really don't know what the future will hold for Savor," Basch says. "We just operate as usual, and so far it seems like everything is OK."
Hers may well have been the most extensive partnership with the Frenches. French's wife, Tanya, is listed as a 70 percent owner of Savor.
"I do the sweat equity," she says. Since her partnership is with Tanya French rather than with Justin, she hopes that she will be insulated from creditors seeking to recover assets. "I was really taken by surprise by the downturn in the development, so I really don't know what to say."
What she will say — again sharing the view of many French partners — is that French has "really been fair and generous to me and my staff."
Not that French doesn't have detractors.
"Justin promised you a lot — almost everything, it seemed," says Gary York, owner of Coast restaurant near the corner of Grove and Libbie avenues. "It seemed almost too good to be true, and it turned out that it was to be too good to be true."
York's other restaurant, Enoteca Sogno, was rendered homeless after French ended York's lease in the space now occupied by the Empress. Though their relationship went sour, it wasn't before French spent months wooing York with promises of a veritable restaurant empire in French's growing roster of swanky apartment and condominium developments, mostly in Scott's Addition.
With each promise, York says, "somehow it was always twisting toward [French's] advantage. If he could get something out of you, it made him happy — and it made him money."
A start-up restaurant, especially a creative one, is an expensive proposition, he says, and restaurateurs are often short on capital, which made them particularly vulnerable to investment offers like French's.
"You're almost to the point where you're desperate — you're trying to make the thing work, and someone walks in and offers you exactly what you need," recalls York. "Then the details start to get fuzzy."
Melissa Barlow at Empress, who still swears by French's generosity, luckily spotted a clause in the property lease she was about to sign for her building. That clause was never among terms she or Herring had discussed with French, and would have ceded a 10-percent ownership stake in Empress to French.
"I said no," she said, after catching the clause. "I didn't know him." He took out the clause with no argument.
It seems few knew him beyond his very public veneer he maintained as the life of the party at Richmond social events and as life giver to some of the more innovative and creative restaurants that have opened here in the past decade.
"It's all so convoluted to me, I wouldn't know where to start," says Rick Lyons, who partnered with French and a French associate, Matthew Appelget, to open the Republic in November 2009. "All those tax credits and stuff. Up till about three weeks ago, he came in here with a smile on his face and shook my hand."
But while French may have been committed to green and sustainable design, others in the development community now — seemingly rightly — question whether French was committed to the same sort of sustainability in his broader business plan.
Nearly all of French's tenant-partners say they were given generous terms on their leases, often paying well below market rate, and Kevin McFadden with Rebkee Co. says the auction of the Empress building may have provided insight into how French convinced banks to lend more money.
The figures provided by Paragon Investment Bank indicated he could expect a higher leasing income than what Barlow told him she was paying.
That higher value as an income-generating rental "equates to a higher loan value" from the bank, McFadden said. "But how long before the money coming in just can't pay for the loans?"