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Richmond's techies await the man who invented "Ginger" … Barksdale begs for some badly needed cash … Manchester gets historic … Virginia Museum's signs of the (cold, slippery) times … Community courts might come to Richmond.

Street Talk

Local Techies Await Man Behind "Ginger"Barksdale Facing Financial CrisisCommunity Courts Proposed for RichmondManchester Gains Historic Designation Tread Lightly, Museum Advises Local Techies Await Man Behind "Ginger" It's not every day you see engineers get giddy. After all, when J.C. Stafford took over as chairman of the Richmond Joint Engineers Council last summer, he approached the job with a scientific mind. But some things you just can't plan. In the past few months the guest speaker the council booked for next week's speech, inventor and engineer Dean Kamen, has turned into a tech-world superstar. He won the country's highest honor for technical achievement, the 2000 National Medal of Technology, and last week drew top ratings as the subject of a "60 Minutes II" story. Mostly, Kamen is the object of a media feeding frenzy about a mysterious invention, something code-named "Ginger," otherwise known as IT. Members of the engineering council are thrilled that Kamen's coming to town, says Stafford, a utilities engineer for the city's Department of Public Utilities. "They can't wait for this," he says. Kamenmania came to a head last month, when Web site leaked portions of a book proposal about one of Kamen's creations. Harvard Business School Press paid $250,000 for rights to the book. In the proposal, one person who has seen Kamen's secret invention calls it "more important than the World Wide Web"; others suggest it will cause cities to be designed differently. A flurry of media coverage ensued. Kamen, 49, was everywhere, though he has remained tight-lipped. Web sites dedicated to uncovering the mystery product popped up. And tech-heads began piecing together clues. Stafford has his theories. "I would say it's a cross between the space shuttle and, let's say, [an] inertial gravity machine," he suggests. "An anti-gravity skateboard." But the product itself remains a secret. Kamen, for his part, has sought to quell expectations. He prefers to push his nonprofit FIRST organization, which promotes science and technology. That's what brought Kamen to Richmond last year for the high-school robot-building contest called "The NASA Langley VCU School of Engineering FIRST Robotics Competition Regionals." (This year's contest, by the way, kicks off in Richmond March 8.) Kamen's Feb. 22 speech on robotics at The Jefferson Hotel is open to the public. Banquet tickets are $50, at (804) 794-3974. But don't expect to learn about IT, Stafford says. "I'll put it this way," he adds: "He will not say what IT is." Jason Roop

What is IT? Post a message in our forum and tell us what you think inventor Dean Kamen's super-secret invention could be. Barksdale Facing Financial Crisis Barksdale Theatre is in financial trouble — again. "The Barksdale Theater may not be here tomorrow," writes Artistic Director Randy Strawderman in a fund-raising letter sent to the theater's supporters last week. "I am not being an alarmist. We are having a hard time making payroll for the very actors who are giving some of the finest performances this city has seen in along time." The theater started the year with a $100,000 deficit. Strawderman blames the shortfall mostly on the lukewarm reception to the theater's 2000 Christmas musical "Carousel." The theater spent nearly $97,000 to mount the production, including $14,000 in royalties. (The average budget for a Barksdale production is $34,000.) "I take the responsibility for choosing the production," Strawderman says. "I'm proud of the production artistically, but in hindsight, it was big for us." Barksdale's annual budget is about $850,000 a year. About 82 percent of that total comes from ticket sales, Strawderman says. "It's always a delicate balance in terms of picking a season that both satisfies you artistically and yet is commercially viable enough o keep you in the black," he adds. Financial woes are nothing new for the theater, which, if it makes it, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2003. Barksdale nearly had to close its doors in 1997 after moving its stage from the historic Hanover Tavern to its current location at the Shops at Willow Lawn. Board members Neil and Sara Belle November and Carrie Galeski stepped in then to raise half a million dollars to get the theater out of debt through the "Barksdale Forever" campaign. While no drastic measures have been taken yet, Strawderman says he and the theater's board are assessing the financial situation almost daily and that some downscaling may occur. He hopes that once this $100,000 shortfall is made up the theater can again focus its sights on the future. "Our goal as we head toward our 50th anniversary is to get ourselves in good shape, have a development person and long-range planning and build an endowment so we can have some security," he says. Jessica Ronky Haddad Community Courts Proposed for Richmond If 9th District Councilwoman the Rev. Gwen C. Hedgepeth has her way, offenders who commit some minor crimes may have to repay the neighborhood they damage. After attending a recent National League of Cities conference in Boston, Hedgepeth decided to investigate whether a community-courts program might work in Richmond. Proponents say the courts can slow urban crime. "I'm frustrated because, as a teacher, I see students do little crimes and they're not punished for them, and then they escalate," Hedgepeth says. Under the current system, Hedgepeth says, law enforcement officers and city and court officials don't have the time or resources to pursue all petty crimes. Community courts, which address "environmental" offenses such as vandalism that degrade the neighborhood, could lead to more arrests, she says. "It would send a very strong message to our children," she says. "Should they be in jail? No. But they should learn [the consequences] early on." What Hedgepeth sees as a means to curb adolescent crime, however, has been expanded in some communities to cover a wider range of offenders. Most often, community courts are special dockets of the local courts. They aim to put nonviolent offenses — such as low-level drug dealing and use, prostitution, public intoxication and petty vandalism — into a court setting that produces quick, community-based results rather than typical fines or jail time. The idea was pioneered in New York and Austin, Texas, with a focus on quality-of-life offenses that make neighborhoods more hostile, unattractive or hazardous. Recently, community courts have sprung up in Mississippi and Alabama. A letter to Hedgepeth from Assistant City Attorney Haskell C. Brown III says Richmond must first overcome certain challenges before a community courts system can work here. The General Assembly would first have to give localities the right to create a community court, and funding for a special judge, prosecutor, public defender and other court costs would have to be allocated and maintained. Still, Hedgepeth says she's committed to exploring the idea. Already, she's had support from City Council. Her next step is to get local judges on board. "I talked with them, and they didn't feel comfortable with it at this point," she says. She's not discouraged. Talks will continue throughout the year. "Even if we just pilot a program, let's look at it and see if it can make a difference," Hedgepeth says. - Brandon Walters Manchester Gains Historic Designation After nearly 10 years of trying to get the Manchester neighborhood recognized as a historic district, researchers for Virginia's Department of Historic Resources — the group that reviews and edits proposals — will get their wish. On March 15, the Virginia Landmark Register will bestow the same historic designation on the beleaguered South Side neighborhood that helped revive the Fan and the Museum District, and currently is aiding neighborhoods like Carver. The meeting will be held at 10 a.m. at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A state review board will then recommend the proposal to the National Register of Historic Places, which almost always approves such proposals for national historic recognition. Manchester once served as the city's principal manufacturing and residential area. Many of its structures date to the 18th century: The late-Georgian-style Archibald Freeland House at 1015 Bainbridge St. was built in 1797. The historic designation applies to the residential and commercial part of Manchester. That, says Mark Wagner with the state's Department of Historic Resources, roughly includes the Hull Street business corridor and several blocks to the east and west of that street. It runs south from Commerce to Cowardin. Encompassing 75 acres, Manchester is not as big as the Fan or the Museum District. Still, with 216 properties soon to be declared historic, preservationists hope the neighborhood will bloom. Last year, the Manchester Warehouse District, which runs adjacent to the residential and commercial area and includes the new Carter Ryley Thomas building, received historic designation. For those looking to buy a home or a business, Wagner says the new Manchester Historic District should be considered. "There are some fairly impressive turn-of-the-century cottages," he says. But the historic name allows a practical incentive, Wagner says: "Access to tax credits." Add the 5 percent state tax credit to the 20 percent federal one and that's a whopping 25 percent. - Brandon Walters Tread Lightly, Museum Advises Nuclear testing? Asbestos removal? Nope. Slippery sidewalks. The "We Look Out for You and for Lawsuits, Too" award of the week goes to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. With no fewer than four waist-high, red-orange signs — one posted at each entrance to the museum's parking lot — you have no excuse for falling. Here's what the signs say: "Use caution. All walkways, including sidewalks and parking areas, may be slippery and may result in an injurious fall. There is a risk. You must use caution. Use caution." The super-motherly, somewhat Big Brotherish attitude is courtesy of the private contractor that manages the museum's grounds, says museum spokeswoman Suzanne Hall, "because of possible ice in the night, or frost and wet spots." Thanks to the warmer weather last week, the signs have been taken down — for now. But if the temperature drops, take our advice — no, take the signs': You must use caution. Jason Roop

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