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Courthouse Plan Evicts Penny Lane

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And with good reason. Business owners nearby bemoan the city's plans to push them out, uncompensated, to make way for the recently announced $80 million downtown revitalization plan. But O'Neill will get money from the federal government when he leaves because a federal building is going up where his pub now stands. The Government Services Administration will pay for O'Neill to move Penny Lane, plus up to $10,000 in re-establishment costs, says GSA spokesman Jim Williams. It's standard procedure, Williams says. "It helps to get 'em up and running."

The city is offering no money but wants to be involved in helping O'Neill find a new home for the venerable pub. "We are in discussion with him over different spots," says Edwin Gaskin, deputy director of special programs in the city's department of economic development. He would not name any potential sites, however.

One place O'Neill says the city has encouraged him to consider is the downtown Grace Street corridor. Gaskin won't confirm that, but says, "Grace Street is a spot that will be well-positioned with all the development that's going on."

One thing is certain — forget the suburbs. "I'm part of the city," O'Neill says. "I've stayed here through thick and thin."

Penny Lane has always been a maverick among Richmond bars. While Fan hangouts boast high ceilings, O'Neill purposely lowered his "to make it into a cozy pub." The wood-and-plaster walls are hung with old beer signs, soccer team banners, paintings and mementos as densely as in a T.G.I. Friday's — but at Penny Lane, everything is authentic. And while many bars attract a homogenous crowd, you never know who will show up for the pub's Monday-night karaoke.

For Richmonders, it's the closest thing to England, O'Neill says. People flooded in like pilgrims when Princess Di and George Harrison died, he says, despite his protests that Penny Lane is not the British Embassy.

Longtime regulars need not fear that the move will erase Penny Lane's identity. The new place will be "a bit bigger," he says, "but you won't lose the atmosphere."

Much of the atmosphere, of course, comes from O'Neill himself. "Y'all come back, y'hear," he shouts at some departing lunchers. "I'm from the south part of Liverpool," he explains with a grin.

— M.S.S.

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