News & Features » Cover Story

Hung Out to Dry?

It's been nearly seven months since Shockoe Bottom's disastrous flood. And businesses are slowly recovering — with or without the city's help.



Tales of survival go down better with a pint.

Of course the flood washed out everything: the kitchen equipment, the bar, the mementos from Liverpool that had given O'Brien's Pub its rich ambiance. The English beer handles, the Guinness mugs, the old bobby hats — all of it was lost forever beneath a sea of oily, pungent muck born of sewers and river bottoms.

O'Brien's manager, Tommy Goulding, figured his working days in Shockoe Bottom were over when the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston pummeled the city Aug. 30. He had experienced floods before (a smaller one earlier that summer claimed his 1986 Lincoln Mercury), but this was surreal. He and his wife, Gladys, had the tables set and the buffet prepared for a group of dental students from VCU Medical Center.

They never came. But the water did. It reached 27 feet above sea level in some places. "Basically, it was a shithole in here," Goulding recalls, while sitting in his bar recently, the afternoon sun streaming brilliantly through the stained-glass, Celtic windows. The restaurant was submerged from floor to ceiling. Adding salt to the wound, just weeks earlier, Goulding had agreed to buy the business from the owners, Michael Ripp and Angela Whitley Ripp.

The storm, which dumped more than 10 inches of rain on the Bottom in a few short hours, should have ended Goulding's Shockoe dreams. It seemed a no-brainer. Even before the flood, business at Bottom-area restaurants had seen about a 20 percent dip, according to the River District Alliance, a local merchants association. Reeling from two new high-end malls at Stony Point and Short Pump, which were anchored with a host of upscale restaurants, some owners were contemplating early retirement. A spate of shootings in the Bottom in early spring and summer also had put a damper on restaurant traffic.

Goulding, however, didn't give up. A friend of his, Mike Honsharuk, convinced him to save what he could in case he changed his mind later. So in the days following the flood, Goulding and Honsharuk pitched all that was left — the bobby hats, the picture frames, the beer handles — into a pickup truck.

Goulding did change his mind. Over the next six months, he scrubbed and cleaned, day in and day out. He spent six weeks sanding and restaining the bar. He reupholstered the bench and seat cushions. Every English knickknack in his pub got a complete scrub-down in his garage. He even cleaned the sidewalk.

"I thought I must be nuts doing this," he says. After all, he didn't even own the restaurant, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His agreement to purchase hadn't been finalized — he was waiting on the paperwork from Whitley Ripp, who is also an attorney. So he didn't have to pay for a restaurant full of washed-out equipment.

Goulding spent about $30,000 reopening the restaurant. He considered calling it the Yellow Submarine Pub or the Noah's Ark Pub, but at the urging of his daughter decided to name it after his mother, Rosie Connolly. And a little more than six months after the flood, Goulding opened March 11 to a steady flow of customers without a drop of advertising. "I don't know exactly how everybody found out about it," he says. "I couldn't be happier."

Sitting in his freshly painted, polished and reupholstered pub last week, he was bursting with pride. Outside, a fresh coat of paint — the traditional black-and-gold of Guinness — stand in stark contrast to the shuttered businesses around him and the still-empty 17th Street Farmers' Market across the street.

Goulding's story is equal parts hope and despair. Seven months after the rainwaters of Gaston devastated this gritty restaurant district, Goulding is discovering that there is still life in the Bottom. Like many others, he's betting on its future, hoping there is light at the end of what's been a long, dark tunnel.

Some are still in the dark. Next door, one of the city's grandest restaurants, Havana '59, remains closed, the windows still filled with dust from the dirty floodwaters. Across the street, the former Kitchen Table, one of the Bottom's most celebrated new restaurants, also hasn't reopened. Of the big three anchors in the Bottom — River City Diner, Bottoms Up Pizza and Havana — only River City has come back to life.

While several restaurants have survived and continue to operate, including CafAc Gutenberg and Wildcats, it hasn't been enough to reinvigorate the area.

Some 50 businesses were affected by the flood, with losses estimated at about $8 million, according to the merchants association. More than 35 — over 70 percent — have reopened. But many are still waiting on financial support from the city.

Even those businesses only minimally affected by the flood are struggling.

"We've certainly seen a dip in our sales, and it hasn't changed much since the flood," says Bill Chapman, owner of Tonic martini bar on 18th Street. The flood took out his basement and $15,000 worth of computers and inventory, but Chapman considers himself one of the lucky ones. His restaurant upstairs was dry.

The flood couldn't have come at a worse time, Chapman says. Businesses were already reeling from the bad publicity generated by a string of shootings, the worst in mid-June when five people were shot in a parking lot between the Canal Club and Buffalo Wild Wings. Then there was the change in city government, which has slowed the city's response to the tragedy. Meanwhile, Chapman complains that the Bottom doesn't have good representation on City Council.

Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, whose district includes the Bottom, has other neighborhoods and issues that require her attention, Chapman says. It's a problem that affects not just the Bottom, but all of downtown.

Robertson didn't return phone calls from Style seeking comment.

"There isn't a councilperson that is just in charge of downtown, and it's nobody's priority," Chapman says. "Downtown doesn't have a strong councilperson."

The lack of attention has also affected residents hurt by the flood, says Eric Anderson, president of the Shockoe Neighborhood Committee. City Hall, particularly the former administration under ousted City Manager Calvin D. Jamison, did very little for those displaced by the flood in the Bottom and elsewhere, Anderson says.

While the attention has been on fixing infrastructure, he says, the city has no clue how residents are faring. Anderson served on the task force created by City Council to study the effects of Gaston, but he's been unsuccessful in retrieving information related to human services — how many people were displaced by the flood, for example, and how they're doing. "We don't know whether Mrs. Mabel has a refrigerator," he says, or to what degree residents suffered without heat during the winter.

He says a separate relief fund should be created specifically for the residents.

Some Shockoe Bottom residents have received disaster relief loans from the federal government — about $340,000, says Richmond Economic Development Director John Woodward. But there has been little relief for the businesses affected by flooding. Nearly seven months since the disaster, the only money businesses have received has come from a special enterprise zone grant of $314,000, which was divvied up and doled out to 33 businesses in mid-October. All but one received $9,697.

Other help is on the way. Richmond-area businesses such as Capital One Financial Corp. and Philip Morris USA created a private fund of $576,000, which began making disbursements this week.

But what about the city? In late September, City Council agreed to explore "the feasibility" of creating an additional $2 million fund to assist property and business owners in Shockoe Bottom, most of whom had no flood insurance. To date, no such money has been approved.

The Council-created task force to study how best to spend the money — in the event that funding is approved — completed its report Dec. 13. But City Council hasn't acted. Last week, Woodward again presented the findings of the task force to Council's finance committee — the third such presentation in four months. Again, the issue was deferred.

As the meeting wound to a close, after three and a half hours discussing matters deemed more pressing, Councilman William J. Pantele, the finance committee's chairman, expressed frustration with the task force's recommendations.

The task force is recommending only $300,000 of the $2 million be provided to assist businesses in the Bottom hit hardest by the flood. Generally, the rest would go toward infrastructure improvements to prevent future flooding — repairing the floodgates and fixing the drainage fields.

"There's something wrong here. … We're talking about people who can't buy dinner," Pantele said, suggesting that more should be made available to distressed businesses.

The members of the committee — Pantele, along with Council members E. Martin Jewell and Kathy C. Graziano — deferred, agreeing to take up the issue later.

Vice Mayor G. Manoli Loupassi says City Council is simply waiting to see how the budget works out in early April. "I want to wait and see what the administration comes up with as far as our budget goes — what we can afford," Loupassi says, adding that the bulk of the money probably should go toward infrastructure improvements.

Overall, Loupassi says he's seen progress in the Bottom. "It looks like to me they've done a hell of a lot of cleanup — a lot of work," he says.

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, responsible for creating the next city budget, did not return a phone call seeking comment and was out of town late last week. But spokesman Linwood Norman said, "He's committed to efforts that will restore business and residential normalcy down there."

The Bottom's business owners, however, say the city isn't doing much of anything. It's a familiar refrain, say some: Property owners harp for basic improvements such as new streetlights and sidewalk repairs to no avail.

Dirk Graham, owner of Bottoms Up Pizza, which incurred nearly $1 million in damages from the flood, says evidence of city neglect in the Bottom can be found along 14th Street and farther west in Shockoe Slip. Last year, the city spent $2.2 million to install new sidewalks, period streetlights and traffic signals and to bury utility lines in the Slip to spruce up the place in time for the 2007 Jamestown celebration.

In the wake of the shootings last year, businesses in the Bottom begged the city for similar treatment, especially more streetlights and sidewalk improvements, in the hopes that it would deter crime and make customers feel safer. After the flood, business owners got together to develop a 10-point plan for reinvestment full of such details as which streetlights needed higher-voltage bulbs (on East Grace Street between Ambler and 17th streets) and exactly where to find money to fix the drainage system to prevent seasonal or "nuisance flooding" problems. That report was completed and given to City Council members in mid-January.

No money has surfaced.

Graham says his business generates about $300,000 in tax revenue for the city every year, yet he gets nothing in return. "I don't see any of that coming down to the Bottom, as far as fixing roads and lighting," he says.

To get his business reopened — Graham predicts it will take another month and a half — he needed a $500,000 Small Business Administration loan to pay for damaged equipment and lost inventory. (Graham had flood insurance on the building but not its contents.) But he needed both Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia, to plead his case before the SBA and the Ukrop's-run First Market Bank to approve a $100,000 insurance bridge loan. (Graham says his longtime bank, BB&T, denied his loan requests.)

Despite all of the headaches, including having to put concrete footings 30 feet into the ground to satisfy engineers' concerns over "sketchy soil tests," Graham says he never once considered moving his business out of the Bottom.

"I could just never picture not coming back," Graham says. "My heart and soul is down in the Bottom. It always will be."

Sometimes, though, the city forces a little soul searching. Jennifer Rawlings and Sara Tandy, owners of 17.5 Ethos coffee shop, say the city sent them a $900 utility bill in January, charging them for electricity they supposedly used while the shop was closed and the power off. The SBA denied them a loan because they had a habit of paying cash for everything and had very little debt to prove their existence. They'd been open only a couple of months when the flood hit — and they used $8,000 of the $9,697 check they received from the economic development office to pay the woman who sold them the business.

Oh, and the coffee roaster, their money machine, got washed out. The roaster is in need of about $5,000 to $6,000 in repairs. Once it's up and running, it roasts enough gourmet coffee to bring in $25,000 a month wholesale, says Rawlings, 28, who learned the intricacies of roasting coffee in Richmond nearly a decade ago. She opened her first coffee shop, the Frisky Goat, in Eureka Springs, Ark., at age 20.

After the flood hit, Rawlings recalls having to sneak down to clean out the coffee roaster in the middle of the night because for nearly a week the city wouldn't allow anyone into the Bottom. Each day that passed meant more rust and ruin.

She and her business partner salvaged what they could and decided to stick it out. "Bankruptcy would have been more expensive than moving forward," says Rawlings, adding that the business received a little help from the federal government. "The IRS gave us a break on our taxes," she says. As of last week, they had about $200 in their business bank account.

As business in the Bottom goes, Rawlings and Tandy are symbolic of the struggle: young, dreamy-eyed college-age entrepreneurs who scratch and claw to survive, their futures hanging in the balance with each elusive customer.

They are hinging their hopes on warmer weather and the Farmers' Market next door. Everything should be fine once it opens again in early May. Spring is here. The weather is warming, and more people are venturing out onto the old cobblestoned streets of the Bottom.

The venerable Farmers' Market seems to survive it all. A few "steadfast" vendors returned to the market almost immediately after the flood, says Sally Brown, chairwoman of the Farmers' Market Advisory Council. Still, business has been slow, she says, and there is another, more frustrating problem: All the market tables and benches were ruined in the flood, and the city recently rejected the market's request of $350,000 to fix the vending stalls and build a storage shed to store new chairs and tables. The market has an operating budget of only $10,000, all of which is used for advertising events and festivals.

"It impacts the city as a whole, not just the Shockoe Bottom area," Brown says. "The city goes in and does a little bit, but it never quite does enough to get it over the hump. … The Bottom has just never gotten finished."

Founded as a settlers' outpost in 1679, the Bottom predates Richmond, which was established in 1737 by Captain William Byrd II and stretched from what is now 17th Street to 25th Street. If the businesses here have anything, it is a history of survival — in part, because of their unique character. Havana '59, Bottoms Up, River City Diner and CafAc Gutenberg all are destination establishments, places that don't fit into the retail grid of suburban shopping malls and strip shopping centers.

What of the Richmond Braves' plans for a $330 million ballpark development? Like most of the business owners in the area, Graham, of Bottoms Up, is in favor of the plans. But he scoffs at the notion that it will determine their fate. "If the ballpark doesn't come, we're not going anywhere," he says.

For others, the wrangling over the development only adds to their frustration. The ballpark represents all that the city should be doing, but hasn't. It's why many talk of desperation if the plan gets the short end of the stick by politicians more interested in appeasing anti-ballpark residents in Church Hill. "My feeling is that if this doesn't happen, it's hopeless," says Brown, of the Farmers' Market.

The ballpark proposal does little to help business owners like JaNelle Smith, owner of Wildcats on 17th Street, who within five months of opening last March experienced the negative publicity that followed a bar-fight stabbing in her establishment and lost just about everything in the flood, her car included. She decided to risk it all again, however, reopening her bar and restaurant on a shoestring budget nine weeks ago.

She received $9,697 from the city. She was able to scrounge up $40,000 to $50,000 with a combination of family loans and savings to make repairs and purchase new equipment. At 28, the former event planner from Florida sees the Bottom eventually becoming another Coconut Grove, the funky restaurant and retail district in downtown Miami. But her window of opportunity is shrinking. Sales have steadily improved, but she must see a more dramatic improvement within six months or close shop for good.

The baseball development, she says, would invariably bring a boost to her bottom line — but it won't happen soon enough to be a real determinant. That's several years away, if it happens at all.

"It's been rough," says Smith, who was sitting in her bar last week reading a book, waiting for customers. "We're just trying to see a light at the end of the tunnel." S

Managing Editor Jason Roop contributed to this story.

Letters to the editor may be sent to:

Add a comment