The Visual Arts Center of Richmond on Main Street seemed an ideal neutral setting for a meeting between Richmond's arts community and the city's Community Assisted Public Safety program.
The pristine, nonprofit facility was newly renovated with modern, brushed-metal interior architecture. It's a friendly place for local gallery owners, and had passed its recent city construction and occupancy inspections with flying colors.
So it was no surprise to see the shudder that went through the meeting's organizer, Curated Culture director Christina Newton, when one of the city officials in attendance stood up to call attention to a lack of marked exits in the second-floor conference room where the July 9 meeting was held.
“Tomorrow I'm going to send my inspector over,” said A.R. Abbasi, the city's acting building commissioner — a half-serious joke that earned uneasy laughs from the already-nervous assembly of about a dozen and a half arts community leaders.
The group was gathered to seek answers about what many people perceive as a crackdown on code enforcement targeting the city's arts and culture venues, including the Broad Street galleries that make First Fridays happen each month.
Also not laughing is Mayor Dwight C. Jones. He didn't attend the meeting, but CAPS, the acronym by which the program is known, has come to his attention of late.
“We're going to take a look at it and see what's going on with CAPS,” Jones tells Style Weekly. “I'm thinking there are some more serious issues that might [need] our attention.”
Richmond City Council created the enforcement program, giving it a combination of tools to target city tax collection, building code enforcement and fire codes. The idea was to crack down on drugs and violence in neighborhoods — overwhelming offending property owners with so many fines that crime literally would not pay.
That mission has morphed, but not the tools, program manager Cindy Moser told the people gathered last week. Now, she said, it's “the public safety aspect is really what drives CAPS.”
Moser, who joined the program two years ago, acknowledges that she doesn't know when the mission changed. But she and other representatives defend the program's operations that also focus on legitimate business locations. Those enforcements help business owners to improve their facilities, she says.
That seemed lost on the crowd, many of whom repeatedly cited the example of Rumors, a clothing boutique that had played host to local bands.
CAPS busted Rumors in May for a variety of tax and code violations. The store's co-owner, Casey Longyear, received a suspended fine for being overdue in renewing her business license.
To the arts community, the officials harassed Rumors. To the authorities, they did her a favor — and because Longyear still has not applied for a revised business license to allow for staged concerts, the raid is vindicated. “Rumors was a major public safety problem,” Moser told the meeting attendees.
Far from it, says Longyear, who'd never been cited for code violations, and who says a visiting police officer previously had told her that her shows were not illegal.
“It spread rumors that we were shutting down,” she says of the enforcement. “If they were really trying to help, you'd think they'd have come by before just to check in.”
No plans have been set for future meetings with program officials, though Newton plans to meet with the mayor. “This is good,” the program's Moser says. “It's a dialogue that's needed.