The irony is so thick you can cut it with a broken guitar string: The Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce announces the destination of the organization's annual trip — Austin, Texas — hours before Richmond's controversial noise ordinance is ruled unconstitutional by a circuit court judge.
Yes, you heard that right: Representatives from a city that has declared war on its music and nightlife intend to take a junket to study the success of one of the top cities in America for music and nightlife.
And what are they looking for? A hundred road-tripping civic boosters and government officials hope to study what Austin is doing right, chamber officials say. They want to bring those winning ideas home to Richmond.
Of course, this would seem comical — surreal, even — except that the travails of this annual busload of bigwigs are never a laughing matter.
Because out there on the open road — at $1,625 a head — is where our brightest lights have grabbed some of their most notorious ideas. A previous busload of junket takers stole the idea of a canal walk from San Antonio, and another one brainstormed the convention center's pricey expansion after visiting Pittsburgh. Those were borrowed initiatives that taxpayers paid big bucks for — ideas that still haven't paid off for Richmond.
If the annual excursion is valuable at all, it is as an insight into those who run things around here. For example, the junketeers took a trip to Nashville in 2006 but forgot to study how that city built its successful performing arts center; instead, they came back with the revolutionary idea that Richmond needed to better market itself. Weirdly, they traveled to Oklahoma City a year later and studied a downtown arts center that was failing miserably, and returned with the brilliant idea to raise the regional sales tax to fund big development projects. Never mind that Oklahoma City's approach had turned their city center into an immaculate ghost town, and that the regional tax idea was nearly identical to a failed plan the junketeers came up with a decade earlier.
Truth is, our travelers could learn a lot from visiting Austin, a city self-billed as the Live Music Capital of the nation. A fellow state capital and university town, the Violet Crown has a reputation for tolerance and diversity (any city that can claim the Butthole Surfers and Willie Nelson as hometown heroes is a place that surely values such things). If one ever wanted to study Richard Florida's theory of the creative class — especially the notion that street-level arts and music scenes should be encouraged because they have a trickle-up effect on a region's entire economic system — this would be the place.
While Austin was encouraging new sounds, it was concurrently building itself up as a sort of high-tech southwestern Silicon Valley. And this is not a happy coincidence — diversity and new ideas bring businesses, jobs and opportunities, while cities stuck in the past have to rely on an aging gene pool of business and civic leaders to go crib ideas from other places.
But Austin isn't some wild no man's land. Not by any stretch. Yes, even the nation's Live Music Capital has a noise ordinance.
Austin's noise law, first proposed in 2008, created quite a stir — this is, after all, the place that birthed the unofficial town motto, “Keep Austin weird.” But after a series of contentious, but ultimately productive, public meetings including musicians, club owners and community leaders, the city eventually adopted an ordinance that manages to balance peace and quiet with the realities of urban living and the Austin ethos.
Contrast that approach with Richmond's. Over the objections of local lawyers, musicians, venue owners and civil libertarians, City Council unanimously approved the noise law in February, effectively outlawing all discernable sound save for church bells after 11 p.m. It's a law both outrageously punitive and susceptible to selective enforcement. Should it surprise that, in sharp contrast to Austin's procedure, there was no open dialogue, or consideration of Richmond's own formidable music scene?
Even Richmond's commonwealth's attorney, who agreed with a judge that the noise law is unconstitutional, says that he was never consulted by the city as it drafted the ordinance.
It gets worse. As Style Weekly reported last month, the mayor's office and City Council have made an equally controversial dance-hall ordinance impossible for club owners to comply with. This new law was adopted in response to recent incidents of nightclub-related violence. But what appeared at first to be an honest-if-overzealous attempt to protect young people is starting to look more like a scheme to selectively shutter certain black-owned nightclubs, especially in Shockoe Bottom.
But forget musicians and to heck with club owners. What about those out-of-town visitors who patronize Richmond's nightlife, those money-spending outsiders who wish to frequent the cultural attractions trumpeted so loudly in our welcome-to-Richmond brochures?
Tourist tip No. 1: Don't get towed. City Hall has recently welcomed visitors (and everyone else) by allowing jacked-up towing fees in excess of stated legal limits. Since this was uncovered, City Council has been debating whether or not these illegal charges should be even refunded to the scammed. I'm sorry — someone said we wanted to attract visitors to Richmond?
Forget road trips to find facts — there's a war raging. The chamber is a body that normally has no problem lobbying elected officials on behalf of what it thinks is good for the region — and yet it remains strangely mute during City Hall's conspicuous (and unconstitutional) assault on music, nightlife and, now, tourism.
One can only hope that it will be a topic of discussion on the annual jaunt. Otherwise, I have no idea what this city's civic leaders hope to gain from visiting a place like Austin. I do know what they'd find if they paid more attention to what's happening in their own city.
Don Harrison is Style Weekly's arts editor.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.