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Junket Dreamers



It's a dangerous time of year when the junketeers return home from their feastings.

For 15 years, area businesspeople and politicians have taken an annual field trip to a different small or mid-sized city -- a fact-finding excursion that allows Richmond-area community leaders to learn what other community leaders across the country are doing.

You could call this tradition a Chamber of Commerce Magical Mystery Tour, hallucinations included. "Coming here is more about how they dreamed, not how they funded it," one high-ranking junket-taker was quoted as saying in the Richmond Times-Dispatch after last year's trip to Oklahoma City. I guess when you dream with other people's money, you can say that kind of stuff.

In the Wilder era, these annual visioning jaunts, sponsored by the Greater Richmond Chamber, have lost a bit of cachet. Hizzonner is not much for group hugs on faraway field trips, after all, so for the past few years these pilgrimages have seemed like little more than quaint reminders of the Calvin Jamison era — part public-relations ploy, part free vacation, part corporate smoker.

The recent excursion to Charleston, S.C., however, was stamped with renewed importance following the release of a critical report from consultant James Crupi last fall — one that canvassed business leaders mostly, not the rest of us — that urged local bigwigs to start flexing their muscles more. Which is another way to say: Keep your wallet on a chain.

To some, these out-of-town trips are all about playing catch-up with buddies who live, oh, 15 miles away. "I had a wonderful opportunity to have conversations with Chesterfield supervisors and administration staff about some fundamental regional issues that I would never have an opportunity to talk with in that depth in [the] course of a year," Councilman Bill Pantele told the T-D before last year's visit. The implication, of course, is that somehow the rest of us — the voters, the "funders" — are in the way of getting all of this important business done. Shame on us.

Only problem is: This important business has normally been a carefully scripted mishmash of previously failed plans and the same old booster platitudes. Leaders came back from Oklahoma City last year extolling the virtues of a temporary sales-tax increase to pay for regional Richmond projects. But what was it about Oklahoma City's accomplishments that galvanized our junketeers? T-D editorial writer Todd Culbertson was along for the trip and wondered, too.

Culbertson described downtown Oklahoma City this way: "It boasts a large convention center, an NBA-quality arena, an impressive library and high-rises of various degrees of aesthetic distinction and insult. The missing ingredients are human beings. Where are the people? In the tunnels that connect the buildings (and provide shelter from persistent gusts and summer's dusty heat), we are informed. Inspections found no one underground. There is scant life on the streets or beneath them."

A sterile downtown filled with impressive buildings and no human beings.

Something to get inspired by, surely.

And, yes, this is a flashback. Ten years ago, the junketeers dreamed up an almost-identical tax plan in order to pay for a motley crew of initiatives of their exclusive choosing. Originally, this bundled mess of higher taxes went over like a lead zeppelin. The only ideas to eventually find favor — pushed through with a hammer, actually — were a city-only meals-tax increase to pay for the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation's arts center and a transient-occupancy tax to fund the convention center expansion. Just peruse the public record and you'll find that these projects have hardly been raging economic successes or ideal examples of prudent public money management.

But it's all in the dreaming, right? The seeds of initiatives like these were planted and carefully cultivated on past intercity trips. Visits to Cincinnati and Indianapolis had earlier convinced our biggest wigs that we needed that new convention center; Pittsburgh was where it was determined that Richmond must have a downtown arts center; a jaunt to San Antonio spurred our area movers and shakers to champion a canal walk. See: It's all been chewed for you.

As for the "facts" to be found in these thriving sister cities, it's all in what our junket-takers care to discover. After millions had been tossed down the hole of Richmond's arts center, the annual hometown contingent found itself studying Nashville, Tenn., but failing to muster even slight curiosity as to how that city built its thriving (and inclusive) new Schermerhorn Symphony Center. But the group did come back with a plan that year: Richmond needed more community boosters!

A few weeks ago, after our junket-takers returned from Charleston, they raved about the optimistic attitude of that city's mayor (ahem!) and were reportedly galvanized by the way that he and his community had changed with the times instead of letting their formidable history — and tired old ideas — limit their growth and potential.

Among his accomplishments, Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has championed downtown public space, specifically a place called Waterfront Park along Charleston's Cooper River. "No one can imagine Charleston without this park," Riley told the junketeers. The nine-term mayor's fight for the project sounds eerily reminiscent of the controversy surrounding Richmond's projected new downtown master plan — green-lighted by hundreds of everyday citizens, not just corporate junketeers — which seeks to protect critical sections of the James River for public space instead of more planned high-rise condos.

Riley's cheerleading struck a chord with the Richmond bigwigs — he's a booster! — but they seemed to remember the cheers and not the message after his routine was over. After taking in Riley's inspirational words about cultivating "democratic space" and "changing attitudes," Richmond-area leaders had little to say about public parks. Or altering Richmond's stodgy image. Or how it might be a good idea to stay home and talk to the rest of us about our dreams. No, they announced the formation of yet another commission/committee/booster group to "help the region address issues such as transportation, tourism and education."

So the lesson brought back from this year's intercity junket is that Richmond needs yet another quasi-governmental entity of business leaders talking to itself, making decisions for the rest of us, dreaming.

See you next year. S

Don Harrison is a Richmond-based freelance writer and the co-founder of SaveRichmond.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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