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Defunct dot-coms leave a trail of unpaid bills … You're right: Potholes are everywhere … T-D offers 1-cent-an-hour raise … Black History Museum braces for cash crunch.

Street Talk

Dot-Com Deaths Leave Vendors ScramblingPotholes Plague City and Work CrewsBlack History Museum Braces for CutsPaper Offers Penny for Workers' Thoughts

Dot-Com Deaths Leave Vendors Scrambling

As has been the case with other Richmond technology firms that have hit the skids, the closing of last week leaves some local vendors with questions — and unpaid bills.

Even before the online real-estate startup decided to pull its plug, office-furniture company Creative Office Environments had filed a suit in Richmond Circuit Court, alleging that Homebytes owes it $45,677.71 for furniture the company ordered but never paid for. According to the March filing, Homebytes stopped payment on a check to the furniture seller in December.

Local tech firm Xperts Inc. that has worked for Homebytes for 18 months, hasn't decided what to do about unpaid work the company performed for Homebytes. "It's not like they're leaving us with a whole bunch of [bills]," says Xperts Chief Technology Officer Rob Simms, "but on the other hand they still do owe us."

But Simms harbors some hope. "I think we're just hoping that they're going to work it out," he says.

The defunct company has laid off most of its workers, leaving a few in place to work out final details. And a recorded message on the company's main telephone line informs callers that Homebytes "has discontinued its business operations."

Until Homebytes' end last week, Martin Public Relations had served as the public relations agency for Homebytes, after winning the account in January 2000. But spokesman Dean Jarrett declines to say whether Homebytes owes Martin any money.

But Homebytes' closing affects Martin either way, Jarrett acknowledges. "Obviously," he says, "if you have a client, and the client goes away, that's always a bad thing."

Homebytes' creditors have company. Vendors throughout Richmond are waiting to find out how they'll fare after a string of dot-com and technology failures left them high and dry.

Advertising and public-relations firm Carter Ryley Thomas claims it's out $471,823.94 for services it provided to Experient Technologies and its sister, Cybertainment, from November 1999 to December 2000. Fortunately, says Mike Mulvihill, Carter Ryley's executive vice president and chief operating officer, the company keeps a substantial cash balance on hand to weather such storms. "So this in no way endangers our business."

Still, Mulvihill says, it makes things difficult — especially when paying the employee-owners of the firm. "We have about a half-million less to pay out," he says.

Technology trade-show company eMarketWorld faces a string of suits over unpaid bills. Independent consultant Lucyann Berry has filed suit for $38,434.45 she says the company owes her. Local consulting company ETP Richmond Inc. is asking for $22,302. A string of other local firms also have filed suits against eMarketWorld.

Such vendors typically end up in bankruptcy court. But sometimes they receive a fraction of what they're owed.

Apparently, as Homebytes President David P. Clark said last week, the money just ran out.

Jason Roop

Potholes Plague City and Work Crews

This spring, the surface of many of the city's streets is about as broken, chipped, caved-in and crumbled as it's ever been.

Just ask Mike West, roadway maintenance manager for the city of Richmond. He's been patching holes here for 30 years. And every year the potholes have gotten worse, he says, and made his job more of a challenge.

Fortunately, West seems to like the assignment. "We try to catch all potholes within 48 hours," he says.

But with a budget of $6.5 million for all city road repairs — "including sidewalks," he notes — and a crew of 45, that's not easy.

'Tis the season for potholes. In February, 220 people called the city to report some kind of pavement problem. In March, the number jumped to 509. Figures from April aren't tallied yet, but May is certain to usher in a flood of calls, says West. In all, the city has received 2,000 complaints since July.

The increase in potholes and other road damage is caused by all kinds of factors like heavier vehicles and traffic, combined with day-to-day exposure to rain, snow and heat and, especially, says West, utility contractors digging for lines just about everywhere.

By the way, the deeper holes — "where it looks like the street's falling into the hole," he says — are called cave-ins.

Just last week, West's team began the annual chip-seal program, in which a layer of emulsified tar is applied to the road's surface to help seal and protect it.

West says the city's road maintenance team is looking at some new ways of doing things. Just what changes to pothole-prevention the city might embrace have not been determined. It's cheaper to preserve than to restore, says West. Still, it may be a while before the new technology comes. And that's OK with West, too.

After all, he says, "it takes some time for holes to become holes."

Brandon Walters

Black History Museum Braces for Cuts

Richmond's only black-history museum is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but the budget bickering at the State Capitol may dampen the party.

The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, which received $140,000 from the state last Senate can't agree on how much to fund the state's car-tax phaseout.

That's no shocker. As the legislature continued to debate last week, cultural and arts attractions around Virginia faced similar fears about their funding.

But potential cuts to smaller and younger institutions such as the Black History Museum are especially significant because those museums tend to have smaller endowments, fewer established sources of revenue and smaller budgets to begin with.

Considering the percentage of the museum's budget that comes from the state, says Executive Director Charles E. Bethea, getting nothing would be "detrimental."

The museum's operating budget is $300,000, about 40 percent of which comes from the state. Typically, the state has funded about $100,000, but last year increased that amount to $140,000. Now, the amount is up in the air.

A state Senate version of the budget includes $50,000 for the museum; a House bill on the floor last week also set aside $50,000.

That should help because the museum got additional funds last year, says Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III, a member of the Senate Finance Committee: "If they get the $50,000, they can basically make it — they should. But the more you get, the better it is."

Bethea says the museum would be able to deal with a $50,000 allocation, though it wouldn't be easy. "We'd have to do some strategic, internal moves," he says, "as well as aggressively go after some corporate support, and general operating support through grants."

In the meantime, the museum is showing an exhibit that opened last week, "A Century of Contribution: The Christiansburg Institute and Educational Change in Virginia." It runs through Aug. 5, and tells the story of a Virginia school established after the Civil War for people of African descent.


Paper Offers Penny for Workers' Thoughts

Imagine making another penny an hour. You'd be banking almost another roll of pennies each week. Forty cents, to be exact. Or $20.80 a year.

That's the pay increase Richmond Times-Dispatch management offered two weeks ago in the latest round of contract talks troubling the Media General company.

"Your worth, the company's one cent," says the union's notice to employees explaining the move.

"It's disheartening," says Michael Paul Williams, president of the Richmond Newspapers Professional Association, the collective bargaining unit that represents 190 reporters, photographers, artists, copy editors and other newsroom employees.

According to a memo sent out by the union's five-member executive committee, chief negotiator for management Frank McDonald made the offer to speed up the contract process. McDonald's offer was contingent on the union agreeing to certain contract terms initiated by management.

The union balked at the offer.

"We want a contract," says Williams, a reporter and columnist for the paper. But "we want serious proposals to move us in that direction, not ones used as a joke designed to insult."

McDonald promptly returned Style's call but politely declined to comment on negotiations.

The RNPA has been fighting to get more than the half-percent in pay and half-percent in merit-wage increases offered in December.

But times are tight at the Times-Dispatch, senior executives say in internal memos. Frugality is in order. Recently, some of the paper's top editors asked employees to "lend a hand" by manning sales counters to helping stuff mailing tubes after the paper's special printing of Dale Earnhardt posters.

Meanwhile, a line item in the company's annual proxy statement is exacerbating the sting felt by some union members: Last year Media General Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer J. Stewart Bryan III earned $830,000 in salary plus $346,894 in bonus pay. Media General's annual stockholders' meeting is May 18.

Money is not the only matter riling contract negotiations. The union also seeks provisions for job security, dismissal pay and arbitration, limits on management rights, and changes to the no-strike, no-lockout proposal drafted by management.

The RNPA concedes that management has taken at least two proposals relating to privacy and employee disloyalty off the table. But those withdrawals do little to convince the RNPA that a contract is forthcoming.

The paper's management and its labor union have been in bitter negotiations over pay and policy for more than eight months.

Union members rallied last fall at the Times-Dispatch's 150th anniversary celebration. Others boycotted the Virginia Press Association awards in March. And the group's former president, Jon Pope, even quit his job at the paper because of the impasse.

Still, RNPA president Williams says he's hopeful for a mutual resolution. "We're focused and we're professionals," he says. He adds: "No one's thinking about a contract when there's a story to be done."


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