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What is your vision, Richmond?

The concept of developing a citywide process that is open to all throughout the community can be very threatening here in Richmond.

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(You could read about each embarrassing detail in most major newspapers coast to coast.) They ranged from the debacle of the painfully sad argument about the statue on Monument Avenue dedicated to Arthur Ashe, one our community's finest ambassadors, to the divisive incident about the mural that's a part of our slumbering riverfront project.

But I wasn't prepared for the far-reaching social, political and economic impacts that are testimony to consistent public indifference and shortsightedness. From the slow demise of Richmond's movie theaters and live theater, to its retail migration of new megamalls to the bland, ever-spreading suburbs. And while public parks across America celebrate the joy of life, our city's Byrd Park is all but abandoned. Where did everyone go? This can be answered by the countless, "No dogs allowed" and "No parking" signs that dot that barren landscape — another testimony to the decisions of the City Council.

Richmond's cultural and arts community has always been its truly quintessential amenity. Yet today's public policy has abandoned the Shockoe Bottom Arts Center to Petersburg of all places, even as the community labors ahead with its ridiculous, ill-planned decision to develop a $100 million arts initiative in downtown's urban core. This project, operating without a market- driven, research- based approach, will surely fail.

What will the future bring besides further reduction in the taxable base, rapidly escalating tax rates, resulting declines in government services and a less attractive and livable environment for all residents?

Does it really have to be this way?

Ten years ago, while serving as president of the New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau, I was invited to come and meet here with the board of Richmond Renaissance. They'd been putting resources into bricks and mortar and were considering new directions, I was told. I'd had some success providing strategic planning counsel to several international destinations and national agencies, including the U.S. Department of Commerce, so I was happy to offer some gratis advice here at home, if anyone cared to listen.

I also brought with me two of the brightest minds in America's destination-marketing business who had lived and worked in Richmond and throughout Virginia before moving on to other destination assignments in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas and New York.

As I'd suspected, the Renaissance board was principally made up of successful homegrown white businessmen. Our recommendation to them was simple and direct: Be the catalyst for coalescing community interests. Use the resources of Richmond Renaissance to prepare this city for tomorrow's success.

But you cannot do this without a citywide visioning process that brings people together, we urged. People of diverse backgrounds, each sharing his or her own aspirations, opinions and dreams for an exciting, better tomorrow. (Incidentally, it's this type of community approach of openness, applied on the front end by a nonpartisan committee, that would have prevented all the controversy about the Arthur Ashe statue and Riverfront Mural for example).

The process works like this: Hundreds of key community constituents, government officials and agency employees, other stakeholders and neighborhood associations would be invited to participate.

Throughout the process, which sometimes takes several months to a year, community strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities are laid out. A series of solutions are recommended and prioritized, from racial harmony to public safety to social and economic development opportunities for everyone.

Then tactics for success and related financial/manpower resources are assigned to public agencies, associations, institutions and individuals for their action, tracking and follow-up.

The results of this public visioning process provide the foundation for a community master plan. It has worked in so many places before, I said. Give it a try in Richmond.

Think about it: a master plan that provides a road map for resulting success, built with everyone's input, that lets this community's future be as bright as we all want it to be.

After our presentation, members of the Richmond Renaissance Board politely thanked us, but said they had already "undertaken enough studies."

My opinion to this day is that the concept of developing a citywide process that is open to all throughout the community can be very threatening here in Richmond.

So today, 10 years later, I urge everyone to ask this question: What is your vision, Richmond? And how will it ever be manifested? S



Marshall Murdaugh was commissioner of tourism under four Virginia governors, developed the marketing campaign for "Virginia is for Lovers" and is former president and CEO of convention and visitor bureaus in New York, Memphis, Tenn. and Atlantic City, N.J. Today, he lives in Richmond and provides strategic tourism planning services for more than two-dozen destinations throughout North America.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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