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Senator doesn't give gay license plate a snowball's chance …

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Gay Pride Plate Has Tough Road AheadRichmond Nielsen Rating System to Get High-TechMerchants Mixed On Hampton House GreenWorkshop Aims to Stop Loss of Historic HomesSt. John's Needs Fix-up Funds Fast

Gay Pride Plate Has Tough Road Ahead

This designer license plate thing has gotten out of control, says Sen. John Watkins (R-Midlothian). But with about 180 license plate designs now in Virginia - for everyone from bowlers to Shriners, tobacco enthusiasts to conservationists - what can the chairman of the General Assembly's license plate subcommittee do? The horse is out of the barn.

Now it's time to come out of the closet, says the Richmond Pride Coalition. The group has submitted a design for a proposed gay pride license plate that Watkins says he'll have a hard time supporting.

After debating proposed Confederate and pro-life plates last year, "I think it would be a tremendous issue" for some legislators to stomach, Watkins says. "I would have to give it a little bit of thought and hear the arguments as to why somebody would want to do that. … I think with all of them it has gotten out of control."

Richmond Pride Coalition Vice President Kenny Gibson says the design was submitted to Watkins and Del. Panny Rhodes, R-Richmond, about a month ago "but we haven't heard back yet." (Rhodes could not be reached for comment.)

In addition to General Assembly approval, at least 350 applicants would have to prepay for the plate before it would be available, the DMV says. After 1,000 designer plates are sold, the sponsoring group gets a portion of the proceeds.

"It's harmless," Gibson says of the plate, which looks like a regular plate but features a small rainbow-colored rectangle on the left and "Pride" under the tag numbers. "It basically says 'Virginia Pride.' You can take it several ways."

Watkins says he's concerned the plate will lead to hate crimes.

"There's already enough gay bumper stickers out there," Gibson counters. "It doesn't jump out at you as 'Big Old Queer,' you know what I mean?"

Rob Morano

Richmond Nielsen Rating System to Get High-Tech

Richmond Nielsen families be warned: A system of rating the local TV market won't allow you to fudge your ratings diary.

"In theory the viewers sit there and write out everything they're watching," says Mark Pimentel, senior vice president and general manager of WTVR News Channel 6. "In practice it doesn't happen. And it's raised some question about the veracity of diaries."

That's why Pimentel says Channel 6 is going to be the first Richmond station to jump on board Nielsen's new way of gauging audience numbers. Pimentel won't divulge dollar amounts but he says the station is paying up to four times the cost of diary-based research for 300 homes to be equipped with the tiny computers by October 2001. It's much like having cable TV installed.

Richmond will be the 53rd metered market nationwide and the second in Virginia; Norfolk was first. Pimentel says findings in other areas show that "market news leaders will typically see a decline in ratings because of the 'halo effect,'" meaning that viewers often fill in diaries based on a loyalty to a favorite program or news team, despite what they might actually be watching.

Don Richards, general manager at WWBT Channel 12 disagrees. "I think it will benefit us in a variety of ways," he says. "It's going to be a reality for all the local stations." Still, Channel 12 is waiting for more results before it pays Nielsen to receive the information for its metered calculations.

Diaries still will be sent to households other than those monitored by the computer. About 400 are sent to Richmond households several times each year. As accurate as the meters may be, they can't reveal the valuable demographic information, including gender ethnicity and age, that diaries can.

Ultimately, Pimentel hopes Richmond's move to a metered market will translate into greater viewer numbers - and more advertising dollars. And he says the competition could get tough. "We think it's going to level the playing field."

Brandon Walters

Merchants Mixed On Hampton House Green

No "Green Monster" jokes, please. After all, it's much brighter and livelier than the ballpark green of the famed fence in Boston.

"It's 'Grassy Fields' green," says a source at Hampton House, the antiques, bridal registry and interior design shop at the corner of Libbie and Grove avenues. "It's a Benjamin Moore color, if anyone else wants to paint theirs."

"Several customers have said it's too bland - being facetious," says Hampton House owner Joe Smith. "We actually did look bland before, compared to some of the other stores here that have gone for a bolder look, if you will."

Still, on The Avenues, it's a pretty bold departure from the neutral cream color the large store once wore. And Hampton House Green has got some less adventurous business owners seeing red.

"The consensus is they feel it's a little bright, a little different," says a tactful Roy Carter, owner of Suitable for Framing and head of the neighborhood merchants' association. Members have called with reactions ranging from surprise and delight to downright disgust. As for Carter: "I think I'll need to live with it for a little longer."

He won't have much choice. Libbie-Grove isn't a historic district and the association has no rules or covenants concerning paint jobs. But it's a far cry from the rather rowdy days here 20 years ago, when three gas stations and a pool hall sent shoppers scurrying at nightfall. "The building I'm in now was a topless go-go bar," Carter says. "It's an area that's enjoyed a rebirth."

And our Hampton House source adds that the job isn't finished. There are store logos, signage and trim yet to be painted.

What color? "Probably gold."

R.M.

Workshop Aims to Stop Loss of Historic Homes

Jennie Knapp looked at the latest (Aug. 4) report of the city's Vacant Building Review Team and gasped: More than 50 old Richmond houses were on the to-be-demolished list, with more than 60 to follow soon if they aren't renovated as well.

Where some see eyesores and dilapidated, dangerous structures, Knapp, of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, sees historic homes that with a little time and money could be restored to their former respectability.

"A lot of wonderful, wonderful things are coming down all the time because they're abandoned," she says. More historic homes will be lost "if people don't hurry up and do something."

ACORN is doing something. The group will host a "Live in a Landmark" seminar Sept. 9; the investors' workshop will explain the advantages of historic preservation, which Knapp says provides credits that can be applied against federal and state income taxes, and can lower city real estate taxes by more than half. (Call 422-2148 for information.)

"Legal entanglements such as absentee owners of these homes can make it hard to get a quick, clean sale, but that doesn't mean we're not going to try," she adds. "The tax credits and the tax abatement are amazing. It almost pays for itself … and you're benefiting the city. It's a real win-win situation."

But time is short, and Convention Center expansion in Jackson Ward has accelerated the loss of such homes: "They're yanking teeth out of the pretty smile that was that neighborhood."

R.M.

St. John's Needs Fix-up Funds Fast

Patrick Henry may have rattled the rafters, but these days St. John's Episcopal Church is in danger of more serious structural damage.

The church's steeple, shutters and structure itself are rotting and the 40,000 tourists it hosts each year have taken their toll.

"We just go from one day to the next wondering what will fall apart," says Anna Arrington, senior warden at the Church Hill landmark. "We decided we'd have to raise a maintenance fund."

Arrington says the church hopes to have everything from its structure strengthened to its stained-glass windows cleaned in time for an expected deluge of visitors around the Jamestown 400th anniversary celebrations in 2007. An existing maintenance fund "nowhere near covers the amount of wear and tear we're having," she says.

Problems became apparent earlier this year when the church began a painting project now pegged at more than $50,000 because of the need to replace and restore wood around the steeple, shutters and base of the church. And when St. John's began to redo its kitchen and parish hall areas, "everything fell apart."

"It's like the knee bone connected to the thigh bone," Arrington says. "It's just been one thing after another." Gas lines had to be repaired and new appliances purchased; the project came to more than $130,000.

"Those of us who live up here understand this from our houses," the Church Hill resident says. "You fix one thing and something else gets messed up."

R.M.

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