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Stepchild of the State

I have seen enough to wonder whether being the Great Capital City of Virginia is all that it is cracked up to be.


In came the new secretary of transportation, Whitt Clement, to talk to them all about highway problems and other transportation issues. He was nice enough to the group. I just did not hear him promising any big solutions.

Anyway, the thing I found most interesting was how Secretary Clement started out his address to these visitors from the north. "I want to welcome you to the Great … Capital … City… of the Commonwealth!" he said, drawing it out toward the end for just the right dramatic effect. In fact, he seemed to say it with real pride, like he owned the place and was happy to show it off.

Just between us Richmonders, though, aside from some of these ceremonial occasions when the words flow, how often does the state actually go out of its way to acknowledge with pride that Richmond is its capital city? Does the state even claim any responsibility for the social and economic well-being of the city of Richmond as the capital of Virginia?

At a public forum held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church last fall, I had a chance to ask outgoing Del. Panny Rhodes that very question: whether the state legislature felt any sense of stewardship or responsibility toward Richmond as Virginia's capital city. Without a second's hesitation, she answered, "No." She then launched into the standard putdown of our City Council, saying that it would be nice if, for once, the City Council did not do the most "inane" things while the General Assembly is in town.

From the prepared remarks that former Del. Rhodes gave at the forum that day — delivered as insight into the way "we" at the General Assembly see things — you would think that the city exists to be servant and handmaiden to the state and the General Assembly members. For example, in tips that took on a Martha Stewart-like tone, we in the audience were told that it is very important to stage road construction work in the downtown area in such a way that General Assembly members will not experience any delay or, God forbid, detour, as they make their way from place to place.

Rhodes lectured us that we in Richmond should be careful to show only our best side to the General Assembly members when they visit. Ben Campbell from Richmond Hill was in the audience, and he gently reminded Rhodes that blight and poverty are a reality in Richmond, and that the state might even be looked to for some help.

Not so gently, a reporter was talking to me afterwards and gave this cutting assessment: "What does she want the city to do? Build one of those Potemkin villages with the fake facades, so the General Assembly members can be pleased by all that they see?"

I do not know how things work in other states, but Richmond often seems like the unwanted child of the state, if you ask me.

I worked in the city attorney's office when the city was acquiring property for the Floodwall Project. Guess who was one of the toughest property owners to deal with? The state — and its Department of General Services in particular. You might think the state would have proudly donated the property to the Great Capital City of the Commonwealth, as did many of the other property owners affected (and benefited), but no.

Different project; same story: The state extracted all it could get from the city in its property deal to "help" the city's project to bring back Main Street Station.

Then there is the not-so-small matter of the payments in lieu of taxes, called the PILOT payments. The state makes an annual payment to the city each year that is supposed to help the city defray the financial impact of having a high concentration of tax-exempt, state-owned property within its borders. People have acknowledged for as long as I can remember (20 years or so) that the state's annual PILOT payments come nowhere close to a fair amount; some call them unconscionably low.

Or how about this one? A recent Times-Dispatch story announced the federal government's plans to build an architecturally world-class, "signature" courthouse on Broad Street. The article closed with this remark from Jack Berry, executive director of Richmond Renaissance: "I just wish the state would do their part by taking care of nearby office buildings." That speaks volumes from one of the chief promoters of downtown Richmond.

Not to mention the latest kick in the pants. Based on the way the state is accounting for its expenditures for Route 288 construction, which really became a state-driven economic development project to try to lure Motorola to Goochland's West Creek site, the highway improvement funds for the entire capital region are apparently spoken for … for the next 12 years!

Hope comes with a new administration and with Tim Kaine now in statewide office. If things do not look up soon, though, maybe the city should ask, "Hey! Anybody else want a turn at being the Great Capital City for a while?"

Mike Sarahan worked as an attorney for the city of Richmond for 15 years, until 1999.

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


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