Illustration by Jon Krause
Let us now appreciate irony.
During early 2013 along Interstate 95, a compelling billboard encouraged quick getaway tourism in Washington, D.C. A smiling male and female engaged in a post-dinner lateral tango atop a restaurant table. The sign encouraged the couple to "Get A Room." In July 2012, at the exact highway spot, a colorful rendition of cars lined up at an exit urged them to "Get Off! In Richmond." This campaign was a byproduct of Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce's i.e. initiative, designed to apply imagination to promotional efforts. Someone chose to take a salacious inference from the "Get Off!" and the sign went down as quickly as it went up, accompanied by a profuse public apology for the alleged effrontery.
Segue to February at a tourist information desk within the Greater Richmond Convention Center during the sold-out LEGO KidsFest.
Andre and Frances Goodfriend, who reside in Washington, D.C., wandered into the downtown visitors center without a mania for LEGOs. Their ultimate destination: Edenton, N.C. "We were only passing through and decided to stop for a bit more of a view," Andre says. "[Richmond] doesn't provide a persuasive appearance from the highway. And I consider Richmond a medium-sized city; it's not huge, but it's still a little intimidating if you don't know the streets. We're not exactly sure where to go."
Here are five questions with answers that, in part, address our poetically named Goodfriend's issues with Richmond.
1. How do we find our way?
Richmond experiences confusion about how best to show people where to go. A proliferation of markers, created both by city departments and nonprofit groups, through the past 20 years, has caused some puzzlement.
Blue-and-white attraction signs, installed prior to 1996 by the defunct Downtown Richmond Incorporated (which eventually morphed into Venture Richmond), provided the most visible guideposts. They've since faded and a few point to places that don't exist anymore, such as the Marine Raiders Museum once on West Grace Street.
In Richmond magazine's August 2012 issue, Don Harrison reported that "no one knew whose responsibility it was to replace and renew city markers."
Studies were undertaken, a city task force appointed, plans made and rejected and done over. Norman Burns, Maymont Park's executive director, said then, "This has been part of the ongoing struggle for Richmond to gain an identity for itself. … In the end, we had to stay very basic with the design of the signs because no one could agree on the [Richmond] brand." The city had planned to install new signs in August 2012, but the contract for sign manufacturing expired and required a re-bidding process, which is going on now. City spokeswoman Tammy Hawley says the first new signs will go up along the Boulevard, part of the approximate $3 million project to overhaul Richmond's signage designed by the New York City-based Two Twelve group. The first phase will address vehicular signage, followed by pedestrian markers.
2. How Can we Get Around Town Easily?
Throughout the past 10 years, various reports and plans, generated either by the city or the Greater Richmond Transit Corporation that runs the city's buses, have advocated a limited circulator, either steel or rubber-wheeled, operating at the very least up and down Broad Street between Shockoe and the Boulevard.
Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, says what's been said many times, and in many ways, "A circulator is a must — every day, not just on weekends."
The nonprofit, free-fare To The Bottom & Back Bus was inaugurated in 2009 to curb drinking and driving between the Fan and Shockoe. The big green buses displayed restaurant sponsorship.
From February through May 2011, private underwriting expanded the role of the bus and allowed for the free ferrying of tourists around the city on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' blockbuster Picasso exhibition.
The city, the museums on the Boulevard and Maymont combined forces to keep the bus moving again from April through August 2012 on Saturdays and Sundays. Norman, Maymont's executive director and RMCVB board member, Burns recalls, "Unfortunately, with little or no advertising, the ridership was extremely low because locals and tourists likely did not even know about it."
Since March, a Bottom & Back bus has transported visitors from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays to spots along the Richmond Slave Trail that include Ancarrow's Landing, Lumpkin's Jail and the top of Church Hill, says Bottom & Back founder Jim Porter, who is running the route on his own dime.
According to city spokeswoman Tammy Hawley, the city's economic and community development department staff has been exploring for the past year "operating a tourism circulator and/or transportation source geared to the visitor," with an emphasis on the peak season — late spring through the fall. No commitments have been made with any business as of March 13.
Larry Hagin, planning and scheduling director for the Greater Richmond Transit Company, says that in 2007 an "exhaustive study" was undertaken to create a free circulator using up to five vans. Called City Navigate, the proposal made it to Richmond City Council, which rejected it "because [council] thought it would benefit hotels and restaurants but were dismayed that the hotels and restaurants didn't want to help pay for it," Hagin says. Then, the service would have required a start-up cost of $1 million, much of which would have gone toward new vans.
The circulator plan still makes sense.
"We're always waiting for the perfect plan," says John Baliles, now city councilman for the First District, who served as assistant to the city's planning director from 2009 to 2011. "We're afraid it'll fail, but entrepreneurs may try and fail several times before their concept works."
3. Where can we go for info?
Judy Arenstein, who for 20 years has provided information to visitors at various outposts of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, recalls the days of the center on Robin Hood Road by The Diamond. It was housed in the old Westham Station, a railroad depot moved to that location as part of Travel Land, which included a locomotive, caboose and a jet fighter. These stranded objects provided something for the kids to play on while parents sorted out the plans. "It was right there by the interstate," Arenstein says, "easy off and easy on. We'd get 500 people a day there."
Today the station building sits neglected, and visitor information is dispensed at the convention center with satellite sites at Richmond International Airport and the Bass Pro Shops in Hanover County, as well as a mobile visitors center that travels to events. Last year, the downtown center received 15,170 guests and the airport desk, 22,549 people, while the Hanover location greeted 5,046.
There are plans to add more visitors centers with an eye toward the influx of expected guests who will attend the 2015 UCI World Road Cycling Championships.
The state-run Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is proceeding with plans to utilize its Robinson House that stands amid the Boulevard entry drive and park. "We have engaged an architect to do the planning and architectural work," says VMFA director Alex Nyerges. "This is already paid for. The General Assembly has approved construction funding up to $2.5 million for the Robinson House. We hope to be up and running by the time of the bike race in 2015. The plan is simple — a visitor center staffed just like the museum, 365 days a year."
The cupola-topped building possesses street visibility between the VMFA and the Virginia Historical Society. Both are free admission institutions. By the Robinson House, there's tumbling water to lower travel-raised blood pressure and a sculpture garden.
The center will operate under VMFA auspices in conjunction with the RMCVB, using a mixture of private funding and partly staffed by volunteers. The upper floors will house the VMFA Foundation offices, thus keeping down operational cost. "It is a great example of smart spending through collaboration and economies of scale," Nyerges says.
Meanwhile, the city contemplates revamping the Main Street Station train shed using retail (which was done there, not well, in the mid-1980s), a visitor attraction of some sort and an information center. The attraction may be a slavery history museum in the former Seaboard Building on the station's west side.
In February, bids were advertised for the approximately $25 million Main Street Station train shed rehabilitation for construction to begin this summer. The massive train shed structure tantalizes with the prospect of what might go inside. "We have pre-qualified five general contractors for this project," says city spokeswoman Tammy Hawley. Those bids are due April 17. The plan, first announced in 2011, was for the most part paid by federal funds. The city projects a spring 2015 completion date.
Spring 2015 will also mark the grand opening of a Welcome/Transit & Travel Center at the Main Street Station train shed, which will not, the city says, replace the visitor center at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
This visitor center is to be complemented with touch-screen devices to provide tourist information.
Perhaps the machines will resemble those presently in use by the Charleston (S.C.) Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which in early 2012 began placing refrigerator-sized "interactive concierge service" machines in member hotels and welcome centers. The device prints attraction tickets, with directions, and informs when a tour boat is sold out or a dinner reservation is available. The touch-screen kiosks cost $14,000 a piece, and the Charleston Visitors Bureau sells attraction and restaurant inclusion.
4. Where's the restroom along the Canal Walk?
In 2011, riders of Venture Richmond's boats along the Canal Walk, which run April through November, totaled 16,377, without charters. Last year, that figure came to 21,586, without charters. "This was a smash record," says Alex Dahm, program director for Venture Richmond.
Those people on the boats, though, sometime require the pause that refreshes.
The need for restrooms near the canal cruises is well known to Dahm. No solution is yet perfected. For most of the summer, there are portable toilets on the west side of Brown's Island, which is a hike. Dahm says that the cruises are fortunate with gracious partners along the route, including the Canal Bistro at Off The Hookah.
This extends to food, too. A new pizza place is coming to the former deli space in the Southern Railway building just beyond the Turning Basin. "It's unlikely we'd add a concession in order not to compete with all the restaurants nearby," Dahm says.
Venture Richmond considered a more permanent restroom solution at Vistas On The James, but Dahm says, the installation for plumbing and electricity proved cost prohibitive. Development along the canal may resolve the issue, particularly with retail and residential spaces going into the former Reynolds Metals factory along the canal.
Dahm says, "We're almost at the point to where public restrooms can be most effectively integrated into current planning. The conversation is ongoing, but there are no hard and fast plans for the immediate future."
5. What will be done by the time this bike race arrives on Sept. 19, 2015?
Tim Miller, the director of Richmond 2015, explains that Richmond made the cut for the World Road Cycling Championships in part because of what Richmond is not. "In New York City, L.A., Chicago, this event would get lost. It'd be one thing among many," Miller says.
The Worlds in recent years have been in cool, wet places. Miller says that the head of the U.S. cycling team, was pleased during a recent visit. Quoting him, Miller says, " ‘Finally, we'll be someplace where we can wear shorts.' "
This aspect should also provide some attraction for the estimated 450,000 visitors during the nine-day series of races, in addition to the millions who'll watch on television. Lee Kallman, the 2015 marketing director, explains that the 450,000 estimate could be low. Richmond, as is often touted, is within a day's drive of half the country's population. And professional bike racing enthusiasts really like watching people they champion in competition. Kallman says, "If you're a day's drive, you have to go, at least for a day, to say that you went. "
The 2015 organizers regard the Worlds as an opportunity for transformational change. This isn't just a bike race, but a time for Richmond to shine in the international spotlight and put in paths, trails and support structure to make Richmond a cycling haven.
For example, the Virginia Capital Trail, when completed in late 2014, will run more than 50 miles from near Jamestown High School to 17th and Dock streets in Richmond. It is entering its final construction phase through Henrico County's Varina District.
Miller and Kallman are busy with fundraising and putting together a media plan for Richmond 2015. Traffic will be rerouted and roads closed for nine days.
Kallman says that the estimated operating budget for the event is $21 million. The upside of seeking support for a world-level event is that reliance on local sources, while desired, isn't the only funding stream. While speeding bicycles careen through Richmond streets, they'll flash by corporate logos on signs and banners from international concerns. "There'll be opportunity for promotion through all media platforms," Kallman says.
When Kallman went to the 2012 Worlds in The Netherlands, Limburg wasn't a place he'd have visited on his own. But, since he experienced the region, he'd like to return. A similar effect is sought for the Richmond region. "Our plan is to promote not just the championships but everything the visitor can do besides see the races."
As for the city, a variety of bike-centric city initiatives have been announced, ranging from hiring a staff person dedicated to bike and pedestrian matters to establishing recognized bike routes. The Riverfront Development Plan also factors in with its use of trails and paths along Brown's Island and Chapel Island by Great Ship Lock Park. The city's plan hedges somewhat, stating that the "bike-friendly roads" can be subjective, but that by 2015, the city intends to have a total of 140 miles of bicycle-friendly road improvements. There are at present 11 lane miles for bicycles.