News & Features » Miscellany

Jim Dunn, Style's Richmonder of the Year for 2001, never runs out of ideas, never stops moving, and never, ever, gives up.

The Optimist

comment
One day 10 years ago, 600 people from around the region gathered to chart Richmond's coming decade. The project raised some eyebrows. Convening another "visioning" session seemed too Pollyannaish, too pie-in-the-sky. "Folks were saying, 'We've done so many studies. We've got reports collecting dust,'" recalls Jim Dunn. And to many watching the process, the ambitious wish list dreamed up by the gathering of local businesspeople, politicians, academics and advocates seemed too much for a second-tier city like Richmond to handle. Among other ideas, the group decided the region needed renewed attention to its riverfront, an expanded convention center, a downtown biotechnology park and an engineering school. The group also said the area needed to create a public/private partnership for economic development and to form a regional water-sharing agreement. The airport needed to get better, and needed more money, and the area's bus and train systems needed to be expanded into the counties. Sound familiar? At that meeting, says Frank Bradley, who led the Hanover County component of what was called Focus on Our Future, "we put together a document that has kind of given us a road map for the last 10 years." If that road map had a draftsman a decade ago, it would have to have been James W. Dunn, the low-key, soft-spoken president of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. And ever since, he's used that map to navigate through thickets of economic, social and political change. The way Dunn, 53, has achieved so much may be the reason he has never previously been named Richmonder of the Year, though he has been nominated for years. Dunn's style is the epitome of quiet, determined diplomacy. Though he's always in the background of any public event involving city development, he takes pains to stay off center stage. That's partly pragmatic: Dunn's effectiveness depends on getting many different groups and egos to get along cheerfully. But it's also part of his personality. He's famously even-keeled. He rarely shows unfettered emotion of any sort, and never shows anger or disappointment in public. As a result, Dunn achieves his goals not by dominating his opponents but by winning them over with persistence, patience and persuasion. "Jim is a very quiet leader with an uncanny ability to listen and to help form a consensus from many different voices and constituencies, as opposed to the real bang-the-table, do-it-my-way sort of leader," says John Sherman, the president and CEO of the brokerage Scott & Stringfellow and the current chairman of the Richmond Chamber's board of directors. "What constantly amazes me, because I have a temper, is Jim's ability to remain calm in all sorts of circumstances. He is by nature an optimist." That style has allowed him to take a handful of elements — a Chamber of Commerce; a board of directors that features some of Richmond's most powerful, swaggering bosses; a fractious and bickering flock of local and state politicians; and a lot of good will — and transform them into the unifying body the area has never had. "There are people around who make a lot of noise — they're visible, they can describe the problem — but they can't ever get anything done," says Jerry Oliver, Richmond's chief of police. "Jim is not someone who makes a lot of noise. But he gets things done." From his modest office on the second floor of the Chamber of Commerce headquarters in downtown Richmond, Dunn commands a staff of 55 who work in a well-ordered hierarchy. They call him Mr. Dunn. From here, Dunn quietly has extended his influence throughout the city. In his own behind-the-scenes way, he has been an integral part of just about every major development built or proposed in Richmond in the past 10 years. To name a few: the Canal Walk; the Biotech Park; the wooing of Motorola; Virginia Commonwealth University's engineering school; the planned downtown train station; Project Exile; and the proposed Grace Street theater complex. Not to mention the Chamber's official works, including such far-flung projects as Youth Matters, a reading-skills program for children; and Workforce One, a workforce-development project. But perhaps Dunn's greatest accomplishment has been to take a city whose confidence had all but collapsed and gently help it to its feet. At the time of the 1991 Focus on Our Future gathering, Dunn had just been hired to run the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce — an ironic name, because there was no Greater Richmond, no sense of a unified region. His mission was to take a chamber of commerce that was a relatively low-key voice for the area's businesses and turn it into a catalyst. "I'm not going to belittle the former leadership" of the Chamber, says state Sen. John Watkins. "But the … business community recognized the need for someone like a Jim Dunn." [image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly) That realization was a shift in attitude. As a result of decades of racially charged political battles, many of the downtown powers, who once had ruled from Main Street's financial district, essentially had turned their backs on the city's troubles. In the late 1980s that was beginning to change. Dunn acknowledges that he was brought in to shake things up. "When I was recruited in 1990, I was told that the business community felt it had abdicated some of its responsibility to the community," Dunn recalls. He leans forward in his office chair, his elbows on his knees, his fingers gathered together. His voice is a soothing murmur. "The business community said, 'Shame on us.'" Richmond had clear problems. Crime was high — Richmond was better known as a murder capital than as the former Confederate capital. The city's flagship retailers were bleeding to death - that year, Miller & Rhoads closed and Thalhimers was sold. Out-of-state banks and brokerages were beginning the raids that eventually would kill Richmond's homegrown financial institutions. Meanwhile, cities that Richmond had dominated 50 years earlier — cities such as Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta and Dallas and Houston — were streaking past like comets. Richmond looked as if it was becoming another sleepy Southern backwater, with nothing to look to but its history. "We, for years, looked at places like Charlotte and Jacksonville and Portland, and kept asking, 'What is it that they have that we don't?'" Watkins recalls. Nothing, Dunn says: "This is a good community and a good product. … I don't think a lot of people think of it that way, but communities that are trying to grow are competing for the same things, from Tokyo to Raleigh to Frankfurt. We have a good product here. But when you lose your momentum it takes a long time to get up and get moving again. " So Dunn went to work. One of his first efforts was to pull together Focus on Our Future. Then he took the blueprint that came from that and started following it. One of Dunn's biggest and earliest efforts was to overhaul the area's entire economic-development system. At the time, the job of recruiting business to the area belonged to the Metropolitan Economic Development Council, a government organization. MEDC — pronounced like the word wounded soldiers yell on the battlefield — was an earlier attempt to coordinate the region's economic-development efforts. It was a real improvement over the previous, haphazard way businesses would try to recruit companies to the area. But it still was an underfunded, unwieldy operation that many people felt was holding back the area's economic potential. Dunn led the charge to change that. His method was to use a carrot and, well, a carrot. Dunn made the rounds of economic-development officials and MEDC representatives and made a simple offer: If MEDC became a public/private partnership and, in the process, added a healthy number of businesspeople to its leadership, the chamber and its supporters would double its annual budget to $2.4 million. "There was sure reluctance from the front end," says Frank Bradley, a developer and the former president of Fas Mart Convenience Stores. "We were at the table with elected officials, [and] the reluctance was, 'Hey, you guys want to come in here and run things.' We had to break down the barriers. We had to convince them it had to be equal representation. … How did he do that? He just continued the dialogue. He just kept going back and talking to them. "That's his strength," Bradley continues. "He's a very straight shooter. He doesn't throw land mines out there — everything's above board. So I guess there's a level of confidence [in him] that enhances what he's saying." In the end, Dunn's quiet diplomacy won out. The new entity was named the Greater Richmond Partnership, and it was jointly funded by the Chamber, Richmond and the counties of Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield. Its board would be half from the private sector, half from government. The partnership is quintessential Dunn. Like all the Chamber's projects, the partnership emphasizes business's mantra of accountability — all its projects must achieve its goals or face scrutiny by its board. But even more typical of Dunn, the partnership requires a number of different groups to cooperate — business and government, bureaucrats and bosses. "Folks in this region work well together," Dunn says. "The Boulevard museums work together. Performing arts groups work together. That makes a huge difference. We are blessed to have that." Dunn also notes that in a decade of a shrinking government and a booming economy, business has been stepping into the role government once played — particularly in the Richmond area, which has few institutions that stretch across county lines. "We live in an age of collaborations and cooperation," he says. "There are many things that require public-private cooperation — seldom can you find one organization, one person that can take on these projects. Part of it may be that we don't have a strong mayor or political leader. So it makes it even more important that we try to do things in a cooperative fashion." Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2

Add a comment