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What Partnership? It's Me, Wilder

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It's a well-worn page from Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's playbook: Pat your enemy on the back with one hand while stabbing him in the kidney with the other.

He turned to it again last week during his grand announcement that a Missouri-based paper-products company would expand operations here, creating 190 new jobs at a plant on Jefferson Davis Highway in Richmond's economically strapped 8th District.

Wilder held the press conference at Main Street Station Feb. 22 announcing the $12 million deal. Even as he touted the arrival of Aspen Products Inc., he took pains to tell reporters after the event that the Greater Richmond Partnership played no particular role in bringing the company here.

Sound familiar? It should. Wilder made similar claims about Philip Morris USA's $350 million research facility downtown, announced just two months into his first year in office. (Others involved in that deal say Wilder had next to no real hand in landing the project, which was all but sealed before he was sworn into office.)

So far Wilder's assault on the partnership, the region's leading economic-development agency, has gotten more attention than his Aspen Products speech. While Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties each pay a portion of the partnership's annual budget, the city is behind $293,000 on its quarterly payments. By April, when the final payment is due, the city will owe $390,000.

"We have been funded for 14 years by our local government partners," says Greg Wingfield, president and chief executive of the partnership. "We continue to serve the city of Richmond even though we haven't been paid."

"The mayor didn't have us in the budget," Wingfield says, adding that he's been assured by the city's chief financial officer, Harry Black, that the city plans to pay. Wingfield declines to talk more about Wilder's apparent dissatisfaction with the work of the partnership. "I don't know his issue," he says.

Neither does Shannon Walls, plant manager of Aspen's East Coast division. He calls the Greater Richmond Partnership "instrumental" in securing Aspen's move to Richmond. During his podium speech, Walls mentioned the partnership's Bob Murphy as especially helpful.

"They … orchestrated the groups that worked together to bring us here," Walls says, apparently blissfully unaware of the sparring between Wilder and the partnership that Style Weekly first reported in December

"I think the city is going to make its payment," says Jim Dunn, head of the Greater Richmond Chamber. "What the holdup is, I certainly don't know."

Dunn says Wilder has repeatedly been asked how the partnership is failing the city's needs. Wilder has remained mute other than to suggest that the city could do better on its own.

Wilder waves off the credit that Aspen executives shower on the Greater Richmond Partnership. "I heard [Shannon Walls] tick off a whole bunch of people," Wilder says. "He was cordial to them. You'd expect no more, no less."

For good measure, Wilder casts further doubt on Black's promises to Dunn and Wingfield. "We'll see what we can afford," he says. "There are some people who have no idea about spending money that's not there."



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