1 of 2
Illustration by Robert Meganck
2 of 2
State Del. Manoli Loupassi says corporate partners are key to regional cooperation, but their place at the table shouldn’t bump government players. Photo by Ash Daniel
Fit, with the sinewy leg muscles of a distance runner, John Emanuel knows a bit about what it takes to pull off a bike race event.
Formerly the vice president of the Virginia Commonwealth University cyclocross club, he's been involved for years in promoting the sport, most recently providing the organizational brains behind the Virginia Series VCU Collegiate Cyclocross Race at City Stadium in November 2011.
So he was surprised to hear that Mayor Dwight C. Jones had secured the privilege of hosting perhaps the biggest international professional bicycling event short of the Tour de France.
"It's going to be really amazing to see the pros of that level coming to Richmond and racing," Emanuel says.
The announcement a year ago that the city had bested localities from around the world to host the 2015 Union Cycliste Internationale Road World Championships astounded area cyclists. But Emanuel says he's worried that Henrico officials might taint the positive nature of the event.
After nearly a year of full-tilt, public excitement over the coming event, Henrico officials abruptly put the brakes on the fun, taking leaders of the race-planning committee to task at a meeting in September. After the committee presented its plans and asked Henrico to pony up $1.4 million over three years to help prepare for the races, they received sharp admonishments for failing to inform Henrico earlier of race details and of the need for financial support.
That very public reaction distresses Emanuel. "I really don't want to see it turning into a pissing match," he says, noting that his awareness of local politics — and of sometimes delicate regional relationships — has been limited until now. "People just need to work together and quit whining about it. Instead of embarrassing ourselves, [we should] show off the best of the United States and the East Coast — and Richmond."
To the world outside of Central Virginia, the Richmond region all rides one bike. Businesses and people looking to locate here, whether that happens to be in Hanover, Henrico County or Church Hill, typically arrive expecting this area they know only as Richmond to pedal in one direction.
But what they find when they get here, as illustrated by the UCI dispute, is a region where our leaders aren't ready to ride tandem because that might mean conceding dollars and control.
UCI is not the only recent example of regional rifts going public with potentially embarrassing consequences. Right around the same time the cycling race entered its newly controversial phase, two other issues of regional divide —control of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and moving baseball to Shockoe Bottom — surfaced again.
"We're not getting along very well," says state Del. Manoli Loupassi, whose General Assembly district includes parts of Chesterfield and Richmond. "I'm in the middle of it, and I hear both sides."
The recent rancor over such high-profile projects is too bad, says John Moeser, a professor emeritus with the Bonner Center at University of Richmond, suggesting that it detracts from some of the successes, not only of the past four years, but of the decade or so prior.
"I have been here since 1970, and I have seen the relationships among the localities go from outright hostility to a much more civil kind of relationship," he says, crediting the election of Dwight Jones with fostering further improvements, in spite of recent tensions over baseball and bikes. "I would say there has been improvement over the past three or four years, but that is not to say that the greater openness … [has] led to major change."
The Rev. Tyrone Nelson's assessment is a little more blunt: "I haven't seen a lot of big-picture working together." The Henrico County Board of Supervisors' newest member from the rural Varina District, Nelson has a broader perspective than many, given that he also represents a substantial interest in the city as pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church. "From cycling races to the Diamond to the RMA board, this year has not been a good year of regional cooperation."
And then there's the Greater Richmond Convention Center, seen by all as a premier example of regional cooperation — but also an example of how the influence of one man has defined regional cooperation, or the lack of it, in Richmond over the past 20 years.
The upcoming Jan. 16 departure of Henrico County Manager Virgil Hazelett, who has held the post for 20 years, is expected to leave a power vacuum with unknown implications.
Jim Ukrop, the former grocery-store magnate and well-known booster for Richmond, noted that the massive facility simply wouldn't have happened without Hazelett's blessing.
"He anointed it," Ukrop says. "He led the effort … to where a certain percentage of the hotel tax went to the convention center. That money gave a funding stream that grew automatically."
The fact that Hazelett's blessing has been necessary drives criticism of his influence over the region's collective progress. Hazelett's efforts to build Short Pump also have some regional observers suspecting that the Henrico leader would prefer to divorce the county from the problems of Richmond by building his own central downtown.
Among examples they cite is Henrico's successful push a few years ago to create its own postal designation, which some say effectively creates a separate local identity in an effort to defy the regional identity of Richmond. Chesterfield followed suit soon after, gaining U.S. Postal Service approval for a North Chesterfield postal designation. During the sometimes-bitter public-relations battle that ensued leading up to Henrico's new postal address, then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and his then-second in command, Harry Black, focused their messaging on the divisiveness that such a name change implies.
Through it all, Hazelett was a force, arguing strongly that it was all about more efficient sales-tax collection. The county, he maintains, was losing millions each year to businesses erroneously sending their taxes to the city.
"To me, [Hazelett's] been good, and in some ways he's held things back," says another area community leader, who asked not to be identified because he still works closely with Hazelett. "I would say overall he's done more good than bad. But ... I think that [Chesterfield's county administrator] Jay Stegmaier has much more of a regional approach. I think the Chesterfield board has a much broader outlook and sees the region as a metropolitan area. They've decided they want more business, but they're not looking to build cities."
Even Stegmaier finds it hard to overstate the significance Hazelett has had in regional decisions.
"I heard Doug Wilder say once that ‘there ain't but one strong mayor in the Richmond Region, and his name is Virgil,'" he says with a wry chuckle.
Much of Hazelett's ability to dictate to the region comes simply from the county's indisputable success in economic development and in creating planned communities that draw new residents.
The University of Richmond's Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies at the Jepson School of Leadership, says trends, such as Henrico's population growth — consistently outpacing the city even amid its greatest population resurgence in 50 years — indicated that our metro area could become twin cities, not unlike Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota.
"Unless there's a dramatic trend reversal, the likelihood is that the suburbs will continue to have a greater share of the population base — and the commercial base as well," Williamson says. "You could even envision a scenario where Henrico starts being the first player."
And perceptions of Hazelett's power are certainly not lost on the man himself.
"Lately, I've been criticized for holding back some regional efforts," he says, acknowledging his critics but suggesting that his refusal to bless some projects over the years has prevented the region from getting in over its head financially.
"This is a marriage," Hazelett says of the Richmond region. "We don't always agree. We have different ideas. We can fuss about them, and we can disagree, but at the end of the day, we get along extremely well compared to a lot of people."
Is Conciliation Key?
In this marriage, appeasing Hazelett clearly has figured prominently. When assessing the blowback over projects like the Diamond and the UCI event, Mayor Jones now takes care in detailing the "misunderstanding" that led to Henrico's negative reaction to the signature bike race.
"To be honest with you, we didn't intend to ask for money," says Mayor Jones, who notes that he initially believed the race would be staged within the city limits.
Then he visited Copenhagen in September 2011. The Danish city hosted the event, and after reviewing the race's sprawling footprint in that city, Jones says he quickly realized the UCI race would have to be a regional project. "It was going to be Richmond. It was going to be Fredericksburg. It was going to be Central Virginia," he says. "It was then decided we should extend this thing. Then the businesspeople got involved, and they said, ‘Well, we need to talk to Henrico and Chesterfield.'
"There was never an intent to exclude the counties," Jones says.
And Hanover's receptive reaction shortly after the announcement of Henrico's lack of enthusiasm punctuated further the current unevenness of regional efforts.
"We think the bike race is going to be a great event for the Richmond area, and with our business partners here — King's Dominion in particular — we think Hanover can be a player in the event," Hanover County's administrator Rhu Harris says, though he tempered the earlier enthusiasm projected in headlines. "I don't know that we intended to come off as more positive than Henrico. We haven't committed any specific amount to it."
However, in late October, Henrico's Board of Supervisors voted to contribute something: $300,000 of the requested $1.4 million, which won't be given to the race committee until 2015.
Which means it will be up to another sort of regional cooperation — the business community rallying its forces — to make the race successful, Jones says. Already, city and local race committee leaders say they've raised about 50 percent of needed funding. And, notes Jones, they've not yet pressed to engage potential national or international sponsors.
"We think of regionalism in terms of venues, but we also think about it in terms of government, and government can't do everything that needs to get done, lest I sound too Republican," he says. "The government can open the door — prime the pump — but at the end of the day, it's not going to be the government that gets these things done."
While regional private partners always have been key players — consider the private dollars that went into the renovation of CenterStage — Loupassi says there's reason for concern when one locality begins emphasizing private partnerships ahead of public ones.
"I think that's making it a challenge for regionalism," Loupassi says. "If you want everybody to be at the table, and you want them at the appropriate time to pony in the jack, you've got to give the leadership the cover that they're at least participating in the decision making."
Without that ‘cover,' he says, their suburban constituents wonder why they have to pay equally for projects that often end up inside the city limits.
"We need to work on that — and when I say we, I mean the city," he says, also worrying that if those suburban localities turn tail because they weren't part of the process, it leaves city taxpayers holding the bag. "That's not in my best interest."
And yet, increasingly, corporate partnerships seem to be a strategy more and more central to Jones' marquee projects, the kind of efforts over which the localities have wrestled in the past. Earlier this year, the Landmark Theater became the Altria Theater.
By cooperating with private money, Jones and Richmond leaders have pressed ahead with projects like the UCI and, more recently, the bulk of the $10 million needed to construct a Washington Redskins football summer training camp behind the Science Museum of Virginia — the result of a partnership with Bon Secours Health System.
Although the Redskins deal may sow even more doubt about a Shockoe ballpark idea, city officials, including Downey, have repeated in recent months that the city remains willing to listen.
In August, Jack Berry, executive director of Venture Richmond, and Kim Scheeler, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, wrote an op-ed endorsing a Shockoe Bottom ballpark concept and the idea that the city may well be coming into its own with an ability to advance such projects.
"Increasingly, I think the city is going to be better able to do [projects] on its own," says Berry, who once served as county administrator in Hanover County, and who says that because recent economic pressures have meant belt tightening in the counties, regional cooperation isn't always the path to getting projects done. "The city is much stronger than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The tax base is growing. We have strong political leadership in the city now. I think that you're going to find that the city is in a stronger position to exert leadership and to solve its own problems, and it's not going to be looking to the counties for a handout."
"If the city of Richmond decides it wants to do something and build that stadium on its own, so be it," Hazelett says. "That's a choice they have to make based on where we are in time and what their priorities are. But it's very difficult for me sitting in Henrico County to say I'll divert X amount of dollars right now to a regional project that might affect public safety, education — I can't do that."
Stegmaier agrees: "We think baseball is a great thing for the region, and if this were 2002, and the state's pension plan were fully funded, and if we were seeing real estate values going up 4 or 5 percent every year instead of going down 4 or 5 percent, then we probably would be interested in doing a new Diamond." He adds, "I think Chesterfield's position has always been that if there's going to be a baseball stadium in the city, the location of that ought to be something that the city is the primary voice. I've heard a number of our board members say ultimately the city needs to be comfortable with a location."
The RMA Wrangling
Another cause for concern in the regional cooperation debate is the recent flurry of power plays within the Richmond Metropolitan Authority.
Charged with ownership and or management of such regional assets as the Diamond, Main Street Station and various toll roads like the Powhite Parkway, the authority had creaked along as a singular example of regional governance.
Though Richmond holds six seats on the board, to the two each allocated to Chesterfield and Henrico (a final slot belongs to the Commonwealth Transportation Board), the chairmanship had been held by Henrico's James L. Jenkins for nearly three decades.
That changed abruptly in June, when Richmond's representatives, reacting perhaps in part to the previous General Assembly session during which Del. Loupassi proposed legislation to even out representation between the localities, voted to replace Jenkins as chairman with Richmond representative Carlos Brown.
The move, which Loupassi calls "astounding," came shortly on the heels of a deal that had the city receiving about $60 million to compensate for its far greater investment in resources back in 1966 to the RMA's first project, the Downtown Expressway.
Richmond's perceived coup — county officials have reacted variously with disappointment and dismay — has caused its share of lamentations among regional partners.
Sadly, Stegmaier says, something like the RMA should have been given the opportunity to assume greater prominence as an inclusive regional body rather than another example of polarizing turf claims.
"My sense is when you're talking about things that get beyond your basic services like public safety, the issue isn't regional cooperation. It's building agreement around what the highest priorities are, and that should be a regional process," he says. "To do that we need some sort of regional structure. Today we don't have a regional structure for having those discussions — truly meaningful open discussions about what the priorities for the region are."
"We were led to believe that once the city got its debt repaid, then we would have the opportunity to make the RMA an inclusive operation that would fill the void that we have [for a regional body]," Stegmaier says, bemoaning a decision by the city "that leaves us again with the question of how are we going to create the process ... that includes everyone's interests and ideas."
A former Richmond City Council president, Loupassi still lives in the city, and he feels strongly that the city is in the best position it can possibly be in when it has everybody working together. "We can ill afford to go it alone on these projects like the Diamond. It's not like the regional partners don't want to participate. All they've said is, ‘Hey, we're in the most difficult time we've been in since the Great Depression.' The city is kind of taking this attitude that nobody wants to do anything."
Loupassi details something akin to a regional betrayal during the last General Assembly session, where he once again had sponsored legislation that would have provided each of the localities with an equal number of seats on the RMA board. He has carried similar legislation for a number of years in the belief that the RMA's function would be better served by what he says is really a symbolic equality, since the appointed board members have no power to initiate projects not previously agreed to by the localities.
"Last year I had the votes," says Loupassi, recounting a seemingly amicable impromptu conference between himself, Mayor Dwight Jones and Chesterfield officials in the hallway outside a General Assembly committee room. Both city and county officials asked Loupassi to once again table his bill with the promise that they could reach regional consensus on an RMA power-sharing agreement.
"I said, "All I want you doing is to work it out,' " he says. "The mayor said, ‘Give us some time.' "
Loupassi agrees with Stegmaier that though the RMA can never act as anything but an implementer and administrator of regional projects, the RMA holds a great deal of potential as a regional body that could well be key to a future where regional cooperation is not an exception but the norm.
"You could fold GRTC [transit system] in it; you could make it a regional transit authority," he says, acknowledging that someday — in a far-off future — it might even offer a means of administering regional educational assets. "It's been a good administrator, and there are all kinds of things you could do with it."
Stegmaier's sense of sadness and Loupassi's frustration both fill the Rev. Tyrone Nelson's thoughts.
"I still don't know all the ins and outs of the RMA board, but when we talk about regional projects, I think it's easier when you have everybody in the room, and they have equal representation," he says. "I think we're at a real sensitive place in the way we approach some of these conversations going forward."
He cautions the need to "take care" in how the region proceeds on the RMA issue.
"I think if every group has their own cookie jar and is only focusing on their own stuff, we may have seen our best days as far as regionalism is concerned," he says. "That's the way I feel sometimes."
A way to resolve that feeling of every man for himself, Stegmaier says, is finding stronger mechanisms to promote regionalism. The RMA, he says, might provide part of an answer, as would partnerships among government, residents, nonprofits and business leadership like the Capital Region Collaborative.
The Collaborative began its work just about the time Mayor Jones took office and was created as a means of fostering meaningful regional discussions. Founded by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, it employs a consensus-building approach. Over the course of months, residents from across the region were asked what they wanted from their community. As the next phase of the process begins, government and business leaders are now being asked to brainstorm solutions to various regional issues. Government follow-through and cooperation, the logic goes, is more likely when the proposed solution is your idea.
Mentioning the city's shift toward going it alone, Stegmaier says, "There needs to be a legitimate and inclusive process for having those arguments made if we're going to move the region forward. It's not helpful having one person making all the judgments and then asking every corporate and governmental entity in the region to step up and make that dream happen."
Short of "General Assembly action," Stegmaier says he's at a loss for how that process will come about in lieu of a regional government or authority with true teeth to take action. "We're kind of stuck in a chicken-or-egg situation. It's almost like you need a regional vehicle to agree on what a regional vehicle would be."
Loupassi firmly believes the time is now — especially now, with so little cooperation on marquee projects — to force the issue, at least as it relates to the RMA's board representation.
"You have a Band-Aid, and sometimes you've got to rip it [off] before it'll get better," he says of the regional divide that will never mend if it's not exposed to some fresh medicine of the sort he'd like to inject into the RMA issue. "This is one of those things that's got to get ripped off. That's where ultimately we need to be sitting at the table on equal footing. Otherwise you're going to keep doing what we're doing now, which is not getting along very well."
But will Tyrone Nelson's fears that the best years of regionalism are over prove true? Ukrop points again to the hopeful signs of urban renewal, of reinvestment in downtown both by businesses and young people as signs that perhaps unified government isn't the only path to progress.
And Hazelett sees it, too.
"I don't see that there's that much wrong with the urban center when you compare it to other cities in the United States," he says, also less concerned with Stegmaier's assessment of the need for more structured regional governance. "We have what we have [as government], and that's what we have to work with."
It's a view that neatly summarizes the Richmond area's version of regional cooperation. As long as we all get to steer the bike, we're all on board. But that's not to say that if we fall off, we don't keep on trying to learn to ride together.
"My philosophy [on regional projects] is if it's a win-win, that's great," Hazelett says. "Win-lose? Everybody around that table needs to know you're not saying no, you're simply trying to make it work. It will work sooner or later."