Bonefish or Pearl Raw Bar?
Target or LaDiff ?
CNN or FanoftheFan ?
Bose or Fern and Roby?
Fresh Market or Elwood Thompson’s?
Sam Adams Octoberfest or COTU’s Ray Ray’s?
Ben and Jerry’s or Gelati Celesti?
Buffalo Wild Wings or Capital Ale House?
I think you can tell where I stand…
The Rise of RVA
Without a doubt, my favorite trend in the past decade or so has been the solidification of the pride-based concept of ‘RVA.’ And while Richmond has always supported our own (think former Richmond titans Ukrop’s or Circuit City), the RVA movement seems to have now filtered down to the street level — and not just in the office parks of suburban Richmond. Local restaurants now feature locally grown foods in renovated historic warehouses developed by local developers. Business incubators and ‘collaboratives’ like 804RVA, Gather and Floricane’s 1E are helping sow the seeds of the next generation of local entrepreneur.
It is a Richmond I barely recognize, but one I really like.
The explosion of local business, especially these cool and niche-y businesses no one would have thought possible even a few years ago (audio equipment built from reclaimed lumber by Fern and Roby is one of my favorites) has largely paralleled the resurgence of Richmond’s core. With the year 2000 as a good date to assign to the beginning of Richmond 2.0 (or ‘RVA’ as it were), Jackson Ward, more and more of Church Hill, Shockoe, all around VCU and Manchester become more and more a part of a different (and far better) conversation about living in Richmond.
Why now? What happened? When did it change?
As real estate agent, business owner and lifetime Richmonder, I do get the question quite a bit — and mostly from those who have opinions about Richmond shaped in the 1980’s. Much of Richmond in the early/mid 1980’s was in free fall and urban decay ruled the day with population leaving at a never-before-seen rate. To truly express why/how/when Richmond became RVA in a few paragraphs is hard, but it feels like there are several reasons.
So here goes …
Stop snickering — it is better.
For those who do not remember, the City Hall of the 1980’s was one of rampant corruption and ineptitude. At the center of the dysfunction was a process by which the mayor was selected (not E-lected, but SEL-ected) by City Council. This closed process encouraged back room dealings and cronyism (at best) and bribery or other scandals (at worst.) In 2004, after a massive overhaul of the process, the Mayor of Richmond was popularly elected by the citizens of Richmond and not by City Council for the first time in 50 years. This overhaul of the system returned a long gone voice to the people and encouraged participation in the process of government. While we are still not a model City by any stretch, the differences between 1980 City Hall and today’s City Hall are astounding.
Is there still infighting at City Hall? Yep. Is there still an inherent inefficiency in the process? For sure. But is it better than it was? Light years …
The VCU Impact
With each passing day, those who remember ‘Nickel Beer Night’ at the Newgate Prison (or some of the other ‘less than family-friendly’ offerings along Grace Street) or even VCU as RPI (the old name for VCU) become fewer and fewer.
Much has been written about the explosive growth of VCU from the late 1990’s until present day, but unless you actually remember the way Richmond was, it is hard to appreciate the true impact. In 1990, Dr. Eugene Trani was named VCU’s president and within a few short years he set VCU on a path of growth and development which transformed neighborhoods from Shockoe and Downtown (to the east) to the Fan, Carver and Oregon Hill (to the west). VCU’s investment in infrastructure since 1990 tops $500M (by some estimates, and is still growing) and the amount of private investment in the bordering neighborhoods may be as high as 2-3x during the same period. While VCU’s growth has not always been embraced by the communities it abuts, it has been transformative.
Historic Tax Credits, Architects and Developers
When you combine talented people with powerful incentives and amazing opportunity, you get fabulous results. Go figure.
In the late 1990’s, many Richmond neighborhoods became designated ‘historic’ by the National Park Service and this designation allowed developers to (and I am drastically over-simplifying) begin to redevelop our old properties with almost no cash and at a 50% discount. When you add in the fact that Richmond is a city largely made up of turn-of-the-century warehouses (think – cool bricks, beams and windows), you have an amazing array of perfect targets for creative folks to renovate in fascinating ways. Since 2000, Richmond’s Downtown marketplace has added an astonishing 10,000 new living spaces (or more, by some accounts) with over 1M square feet of commercial space (again, by some estimates) in some of the most architecturally engaging buildings RVA has to offer. Those are really big numbers.
The true beauty of the Historic Tax Credit program is not just the ability to bring a building back to life far less expensively, it is the economic impact created both during and after the process. Where there once was blight, there is now life. Where there once was vacancy, there is now vibrancy. And where there once were no billable hours, there are now plenty.
The Rise of the RVA Entrepreneur
One of the ironies of technology is that while it afforded us connection on a GLOBAL level, it has proven equally adept at connecting us at the LOCAL level. The ability of local businesses to peddle their wares or get the word out about a new product or service (or recipe) has dramatically leveled the playing field. While ad budgets still matter and marketing always makes a difference, the web does an amazing job of identifying those who are best in class, regardless of their promotional budget.
Effectively, the web amplifies the ability of those who create to broadcast their message inexpensively and directly. Ask anyone who runs a successful local business how important the web is in their promotional efforts and they will tell you it is probably the single most important aspect of their marketing platform. With decreased cost (and effort) in promotion, business owners can redirect their energies to innovation, creation and execution. Local successes like LaDiff, Ledbury, Need Supply (to name a few) all have leveraged technology to either launch their business or expand their footprint and impact. The change has been dramatic.
Additionally, the ‘social’ platforms have allowed us all to engage in conversations and collaborate in ways not available to us only a decade ago. Reading the Hodges Partnership blog (The Gong) or getting Floricane’s or Zuula Consulting’s newsletter immediately gives me access to a knowledge base I never had access to before and Richmond BizSense, Style and a host of neighborhood blogs do a great job of keeping us all up to date on the events we need to know.
The ease at which our collective success is broadcast across a multitude of channels helps enhance the sense that RVA really has cool stuff going on. Without it, I doubt the message would be nearly as well received.
Permanently altering the ingrained perception that the problems of yesteryear are systemic and unchangeable is daunting — and make no mistake, the job is not done. Far too many still believe that the Richmond of today is still the Richmond of years past. The still-ingrained disbelief is unfortunate, not only because it is incorrect, but those who feel that way are missing out.
The rise of RVA is unmistakeable. And perhaps even more importantly, the continuing acceptance of DOWNTOWN Richmond by SUBURBAN Richmond provides additional opportunity for us all to change the conversation from an ‘us versus them’ construct to a ‘we.’ That, too, is a positive and maybe, just maybe, it will yield the holy grail of holy grails — REGIONAL COOPERATION (well, I can dream, can’t I?)
While we still face issues (think Public Schools and Ballpark for starters), we now get to engage in the debate with a far more engaged populous and ever increasing levels of tax revenue. As the darkest days of Richmond grow smaller in the rear view mirror, we can hopefully continue to foster a sense of civic pride and build a stronger Richmond for all of us to enjoy.