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The Quarterback

After 42 months as city manager, Calvin Jamison is trying at last to prove that he's the best man for the job.

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So how close is Richmond to becoming the "gem on the James" that Jamison promised? How much strength has the city manager mustered by now to make it happen?

The answers, say some city officials, are predictably simple: The city is closer to greatness and Jamison could possess the might to accomplish it.

That is new. When Jamison was selected by a City Council led by then-mayor and now Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, he was derided by some as a municipal neophyte. While Jamison was praised for his congenial style and his ties to corporate Richmond, critics pointed out that his background — stints as an administrator at Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University, followed by a job in human resources at Ethyl Corp. — did not predict greatness as a city manager.

But now even City Councilwoman Reva Trammell credits Jamison for much of Richmond's recent success. In the past she has been one of Jamison's harshest critics, often complaining that he lacks the confidence and accountability to perform the job. But today, she says, he's changed.

Trammell says that's largely because Tim Kaine is out of City Hall and Jerry Oliver is out of Richmond. With these two powerful figureheads out of the picture, she says, Jamison has become comfortable and increasingly vocal in his role with City Council and the community. And he knows how fragile such a role can be.

"He is working hard to woo nine council members, not just five who could vote him out," she says. "Sometimes I think, 'Doesn't he look stressed out?' But he's gotten a lot softer in terms of people understanding him and that's made him more effective."

Some council members and City Hall observers may not share Trammell's analysis. Some predict more boondoggles like 6th Street Marketplace. Others bemoan a leadership vacuum.

More than ever the variables that could make or break Richmond's future are converging on Jamison's watch. It's an election year. And, for the first time since Jamison took office, there is no well-liked mayor to support him or forceful police chief to eclipse his authority.

City Council is in the process of conducting its annual evaluations of appointed municipal posts — including city manager. The relationships — good and bad — that Jamison has fostered with City Council and the School Board will be tested and realigned.

There's a lot going on in the city, good and bad. Violent crime is up 9 percent compared with last year. School truancy rates are high; SOL scores are low. The search is on for a new police chief and school superintendent. The city has invested $165 million in a new convention and visitors center, and even more combined on other projects around town.

"We've gotten what we were looking for," Mayor Rudy McCollum says of Jamison. McCollum points out that he and Councilman Joe Brooks are the only current members of City Council "still around from the transition" from Robert Bobb as city manager to Jamison's appointment in 1998. "We wanted a style of management that would be responsive to City Council. And we wanted someone outside the typical government structure," says McCollum. "He's done much of what we had hoped he'd do."

"Calvin's had his difficulties," acknowledges Councilman Manoli Loupassi. "And he's done what he always says and 'stayed the course.' The city's well-run." Loupassi says any shift in Jamison's attitude or management style is coincidental. "Some people's opinions have changed, that's all."

"Calvin displays strong leadership," Councilwoman Gwen Hedgepeth says. "Seriously, he's developed and grown and trained himself to really dig deep." But she says City Council deserves accolades, too. She praises the city's ability to land such deals as Lowe's, Wal-Mart and the Stony Point mall, and for its initiative to "diversify population growth." She also cites the city's decision to commit $1.5 million, finally, to a family center in her 9th District. "I don't award growth just to Calvin," Hedgepeth says. "Any time you hone your skills it's expected you lead a better team."

Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin declines to comment on Jamison's management style, citing a desire to speak with Jamison first before publicly airing his thoughts on his performance.

Jamison, meanwhile, sees only success. He touts his commitment to "stay the course" and not let criticism derail him. Yet recently there have been indications that the course could, and most likely will, change.

So what will Jamison do?

More of the same, he promises — and better.

"We've kept our eyes on the prize from day one," Jamison says. "There's a running joke … [at City Hall] — leave us alone and we'll sell a truckload of air conditioners to Eskimos." For Jamison this means running the city like a municipal corporation, like a "business with a heart."

Jamison still talks in total-quality-management jargon. For example, he recalls how the city has undergone "process and product development" or an "internal culture change." He still punctuates the jargon with happy aphorisms like "People don't care what you know until they know that you care."

But listen closer to Jamison and you hear a cadence that wasn't present before now. A newfound self-confidence seems to have pervaded his management style and his plan for the city. "In 24 to 36 months you won't know Richmond the way it has been," Jamison says happily, resolutely.

And between optimistic platitudes there are, perhaps for the first time, specifics to back them up.

He says he envisions curbing blight and poverty by initiating more programs like the city's Neighborhoods in Bloom and Blackwell's $27 million HOPE VI project. He wants to establish more model middle schools like Fischer. He pledges to encourage and focus on Hispanic and Asian growth in the city. He vows to stay tough on crime, saying that he's committed foremost to public safety.

And recently he's adopted a new campaign for regionalization. It's a city slogan with the pitch "One City, Our City." "I don't care if you live in Powhatan, Chesterfield, Henrico or Hanover," he says. "Richmond is your city."

He cites the Stony Point mall development as a symbol of the city's innovative pursuit of development. "It had basically fallen off the table," Jamison says of the mall deal. "This is the first major mall for the city. Once it's 70 percent occupied the city will pay out $13.5 million for it. But its anticipated revenue for the city is $4 million annually. The way we're structuring deals is totally different than in the past. There is no up-front money. We're using a three- to five-year window for return on our investment. This time around we've said the deals we're going to do must make good sense."

It has taken a commitment to urban growth to pry Richmond out of a state of indifference and into a position of embracing enterprise, says John Woodward, the city's director of economic development.

"This administration has more of an understanding of the significance of economic development," he says. "In years past it was an afterthought."

But will Jamison's and the city's approval ratings climb upward?

Jamison says that change is already in place. And it's in the form of a team. "What I feel better about today is that no one person does anything independently," Jamison says. "I've never questioned my abilities and confidence. I'm a former quarterback, and I know if success is going to happen then I have to make sure that everyone in that huddle has the tools they need to score."

Jamison clutches his city-manager philosophy as if he were that quarterback of long ago, going back for a pass, sizing up his team and hurling his best. He can't resist the analogy out loud: "People want to be part of a winner," he says. "Richmond is a winner." S

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