Tinseltown fever returns to River City. +7
After all that work in 2011, "Lincoln" earns accolades in its debut, which coincides with the official Virginia screening at the Byrd Theatre. So what if the only star to return to town around the opening is Joseph Gordon-Levitt (and even then, it's for his multimedia show at the National, not the movie). Swarms of Richmonders flood theaters, desperately searching for themselves among the bearded hordes of extras who traded approximately two to three seconds of fame and glory for excruciatingly long days and low pay on set. Hey, it's Steven Spielberg.
Richmond Ballet leaps onto the international stage. +5
Veteran artistic director Stoner Winslett is one of the few female directors of professional ballet groups in the country, and she's cementing her legacy with impressive accolades for the Richmond Ballet in recent years. In 2012 one of the company's leading dancers, Maggie Small, makes the cover of Dance magazine, and the ballet makes its international debut in June at the Linbury Studio Theater at the prestigious Royal Opera House in London. "It was a privilege to see Richmond Ballet, the State Ballet of Virginia, make its international debut in London," Dance Europe magazine writes. "The Company showed themselves to great advantage by presenting such a varied program." Next stop on the prestige train: In June the ballet is scheduled to make its Kennedy Center debut in Washington.
A political cowboy gallops into the sunset. 0
The original red-faced, snuff-dipping, no-parole dynamo who ushered in a new era of Republican control in the General Assembly in the mid-1990s bows out after losing his bid for the U.S. Senate. It's his last race, he announces. This is the same Allen who was on the short list of GOP presidential candidates in 2006, one of the most popular governors in Virginia history and the son of a famous Redskins coach with the same name.
That he would lose to Democrat Tim Kaine, another former governor, isn't really a shocker, which is kind of sad. His downfall starts with that obscure, bizarre, racially tinged "macaca" comment in 2006, during his losing Senate campaign against the clunky Jim Webb. Allen's odd reference to a Democratic tracker of Indian descent? He just couldn't shake it. And that's not to mention Virginia's shifting political winds.
For those who recall the seemingly invincible political cowboy who was destined for the White House — kind of a uncomedic Ricky Bobby — it's a lot to swallow. Or spit out.
Randy Blythe gets jailed, released, and may go back. -8
Richmond's Grammy-nominated metal maestros Lamb of God (they get the awards nod again this year) make violent music not for the timid. But nobody, especially the band itself, knew that when its plane landed in the Czech Republic this year that singer Randy Blythe would be immediately arrested and jailed for a month. It stems from the death of a fan who sustained a head injury, allegedly in a fall after rushing the stage at a 2010 show. Blythe is finally released on $400,000 bail and returns to Richmond, where fans have been participating in sweaty vigils and online campaigns. He tells news media that he'll return to face charges if necessary — and indeed, Czech Republic officials move forward with the manslaughter indictment after months of investigation. Meanwhile, Lamb of God keeps touring to help defray mounting legal costs. It's a case that just might have widespread repercussions in the concert industry, solidifying the stage as a No-Fan Zone.
A hot Richmond musician catches fire. +6
Musician Matthew E. White, previously known for his group Fight the Big Bull, has the kind of year most musicians dream about. His mellow summer debut album, "Big Inner" (get it, beginner?) immediately is praised in all the right places, starting on influential blogs (Aquarium Drunkard, Stereogum) and burning through national press such as Rolling Stone ("Artist to Watch"), The New York Times and most recently Paste magazine's No. 1 new band of 2012. He launches a major tour opening for the Mountain Goats that will head overseas next year, where his album is being released by Domino. What does this mean for White's own hometown label, Spacebomb, meant to be like Richmond's own version of Stax with a house band? We hear there are some extremely promising new releases already in the can.
A First Fridays leader makes her exit. -2
Christina Newton, founder and former director of the nonprofit Curated Culture, which once ran the First Fridays Art Walks, was there from the start and watched the event grow in popularity, facing numerous hurdles with little help from the city. After taking a job as a project manager with the Virginia Association of Museums, Newton announces that she's leaving, with the arts walk management taken over by the Downtown Neighborhood Association, a board made up mostly of realtors and property owners. While some people wonder about the direction to come, the new director of First Fridays, Meghan Barbato, says she's looking at new ideas to draw people to the arts district on other days besides Fridays and a new website should be up soon. "My primary goal is to make sure that everyone's voice is heard, and that all of the players feel included in the ongoing conversations behind the event," she says. "My secondary goal is to widen the audience for the event, and reach beyond the usual folks who come every month."
The city builds a smaller jail ... on purpose. -5
Ground breaks in January on the city's new jail. It's shaping up nicely save for one small problem: The way things stand, it's set to be over crowded the day it opens.
The jail was supposed to be Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones' big success. That didn't pan out for him last year when the bidding process went about as wrong as possible and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People emerged as a vocal critic. This year isn't looking much better.
The city has made virtually no progress on efforts to divert low-level offenders into alternative sentencing programs and the jail's population still hovers around 1,400 inmates — almost 400 more than can fit into the new facility.
The administration is rushing a last-ditch effort to pull through with some kind of solution, but we aren't holding our breath.
Our votes really do matter, and it annoys the hell out of us. -2
Virginia voters relax a little after a brutal, annoying and unspectacular election campaign. No more visits by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (26) or President Barack Obama (19), which end up costing the Richmond-area police agencies that provided security for the events a total of $350,000. On top of that, Virginians are forced to cope with 163,740 campaign ads, the third-highest total in the country, worth $122 million.
State and local races are no better. The contest for 7th District congressional seat between Wayne Powell and Rep. Eric Cantor is noteworthy for its constant barrages of personal attacks.
In the end, Democrats win the day although Cantor is easily re-elected. The bad news: The 2013 gubernatorial campaign is just getting started.
History buffs descend on Richmond ... or do they? 0
So did the tourists actually come? In the wake of the spectacular Steven Spielberg bio-pic on Lincoln and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in 2011, in which Richmond played a pivotal and tragic role, did they show up? Did they not see Richmond Times-Dispatch publisher Thomas A. Silvestri sport a goofy stovepipe hat at one of his public forums to push the idea that this place is swarming with history buffs?
Figures for 2012 aren't in, but the Virginia Tourism Corp. releases a study showing that in 2011, tourism expenditures top $20.4 billion, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year. Gov. Bob McDonnell is quick to tout the study as major progress.
Things get a little stickier on closer examination. The report doesn't list figures by actual tourists visiting, but by expenditure estimates. Checking those, you see that the hottest places were Northern Virginia (about $6 billion) and Virginia Beach. Henrico did an OK $713 million, but Richmond, at $588 million, ranks behind Norfolk. Battlefield-rich Petersburg pulls in a measly $43 million.
Another problem: Gas prices rose about 26 percent from 2010 to 2011, so that likely accounts for much of the 8-percent rise in expenditures. The increase is solid, but modest, considering that Charleston, S.C., home of Fort Sumter where the war started, saw an 11-percent rise in visitors from 2010 to 2011.
Confederates go marching again. -3
All right, we get it: "Lincoln" couldn't come to the former Capital of the Confederacy without raising a rebel yell or two. But when the Sons of Confederate Veterans descend upon Monument Avenue in February, they leave a few unsettled.
To a cheering crowd of mostly middle-aged white men, Michael Givens, the group's commander-in-chief, gives a speech blaming Lincoln for murder, theft and arson while a giant Confederate flag waves behind.
We're guessing they still haven't seen the movie.
Roseanne Cash leads a record-breaking Folk Festival. +9
When the weather's good, there's no stopping the Richmond Folk Festival. In a year that sees the city's grandest local music festival lose two significant sponsors — Martin's and SunTrust, at a $50,000 hit to the $1.3 million budget — the people respond, turning out in record numbers for the free weekend that offers a variety of music, food, arts and crafts in a stunning setting by the downtown riverfront. More than 200,000 flock to the shows during the three days, contributing around $107,000 in cash to the volunteer bucket brigade. Also, there's the biggest single crowd yet at the Altria Stage (more than 10,000) for a daytime set by headliner Roseanne Cash, daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash, who happens to be in town promoting a charity, Children, Inc. "Cash and her band really couldn't believe the turnout," Lisa Sims of Venture Richmond says. She also notes the benefit of the cooperative fall weather. "We know we're always only two rainy days from disaster, but the community really stepped up this year, and we look at that money as hugely helpful, like a stage sponsorship." Next, Sims says organizers want "to improve the experience so people don't feel crowded," adding "there's nothing to indicate the festival won't continue to grow."
A veteran actress mounts a comeback. +2
A year ago, Irene Ziegler awoke to have a gun pointed at her head. Two masked men entered her home in Charles City County, bound Ziegler and searched the house for valuables. Ten days after her traumatic experience, her husband asked for a divorce.
Then she had a car accident.
But one of the city's most well-loved actresses and writers doesn't let the setbacks stop her. Instead, she mounts a comeback. She moves into the city, begins teaching at the University of Richmond and dives head-first into new work.
In August she stages a reading of her script, "Miss Palmer's School of Penmanship and Civil Behavior." In February she'll appear in Virginia Rep's staging of the Noel Coward favorite "Hay Fever," and audiences can catch her in the University of Richmond's production of "Spring Awakening" in April.
"Art saves lives," she tells us in August, "and I fully expect it to save mine."
Happy has a happy birthday. +4
Happy is difficult to ignore. With his flamboyant clothes, twinkling eyes and eye-catching 1996 Cadillac "Hugmobile," J.P. "Happy the Artist" Kuhn is as much of a local landmark as his brightly colored murals. He's such a fixture that Mayor Dwight C. Jones dubs Oct. 13 — Kuhn's 70th birthday — as "Make Someone Happy Day." To celebrate, Kuhn gets a public birthday bash at the Byrd Theatre.
Bill's Barbecue drowns in bitter political sauce. -3
When Bill's Barbecue closed in September after an 82-year run, Richmonders responded with respectful, nostalgia-inspired laments. People shared fond memories of eating pork sandwiches with grandpa and making miles-long detours just to pick up a limeade or chocolate pie.
All pretense of polite mourning is cast aside a month later when the restaurant's president blames the chain's closure on President Barack Obama in a campaign ad produced by the Mitt Romney campaign. The three-minute spot ends with a chilling warning: "Bill's Barbecue couldn't take four years under President Obama. Can we afford four more?"
Residents of all political stripes are quick to note that perhaps it was the service, food and an outdated business model that had more to do with the chain's demise than the president of the United States. And then there's the pesky fact that Buz and Ned's Real Barbecue is thriving and even expanding just a stones throw from one of Bill's locations.
The final verdict? Perhaps some sauce just has an expiration date.
Havoc moves to a new conference. +3
After coming within a bucket of advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament in March, Virginia Commonwealth University jumps to a new conference — the Atlantic 10 — primarily to give the men's basketball team a higher profile. Coach Shaka Smart buys a house in the Fan and begins asserting his influence. He even plays host to a rally for President Obama at the Siegel Center in early May.
All around, it's a good year for basketball in Richmond. In the new, still-young season, the University of Richmond comes out strong (it already plays in the A-10) and jumps out to a 9-2 record before slamming into Kansas on Dec. 18, losing by 28. VCU struggles a little early but then starts cranking up. On the same night the Spiders lose to Kansas, then ranked No. 9 in the country, the Rams beat Western Kentucky by 32 points, improving their record to 8-3.
... And Richmond loses the CAA tournament. -3
The Richmond Coliseum may be old and dungeonlike, but serving as host to the Colonial Athletic Association men's basketball tournament in March is one of the few bright spots. With VCU in the A-10, the CAA announces in December that it's packing up and moving the tournament to Baltimore in 2014.
That means no home-court advantage for the Rams. This season's A-10 tournament is in Brooklyn at the spanking new Barclays Center. Losing the CAA tournament also means the city is losing one of the few sporting events that generates economic impact, although not nearly as much as civic boosters and the mayor's office claim. (In attempt to drum up support for a new Coliseum, the mayor once claimed the tournament kicked back $6 million to the city, but it's more like $1.7 million).
Once again, the mayor's incredible foresight to not go forward with the new Coliseum construction plan pays off.
We fantasize that we're a bike town. -4
Excitement starts to build over a giant bike race coming to Richmond in 2015 — thousands of visitors spending millions of dollars! — and then reality hits. First comes the devastation of losing Lanie Kruszewski, a 24-year-old who is killed riding her bicycle to a friend's house in the Museum District after getting off from work.
The vivacious graduate of Maggie Walker Governor's School and James Madison University was struck and killed by an SUV driven by Elias Steven Webb, 30, a newspaper advertising salesman later charged with felony hit and run.
Her tragic death serves to highlight how Richmond lags in terms of bike infrastructure and safety. There's a general disregard and lack of understanding when it comes to motorists coexisting with cyclists.
No, Richmond isn't some romantic European city where everyone bikes to work and understands how to navigate traffic circles. We like our big trucks and cars too much. This helps explain why Henrico County's board of supervisors thumb its nose at Mayor Dwight Jones — who tools around in a giant black SUV — when he comes asking for help to stage the UCI Road World Championships in 2015.
But in the wake of Kruszewski's death, there finally is some talk of making roads safer for cyclists.
Her race is won. +7
A former track standout at James River High School, Chesterfield native Kellie Wells overcomes not only personal obstacles, but also clears the ones in her way at the Summer Games in London, where the Olympian earns a bronze medal in the 100-meter women's hurdles.
A billionaire buys dead trees. +5
A subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway puts its money where others fear to tread: print media. Faced with staggering debt, Richmond's Media General sells 63 of its newspapers to the investment company for $142 million and other assets, saving the 150-year-old Richmond Times-Dispatch and giving hope to employees. It's not that print is dead, it just matters more than ever what you put on those pages.
The governor becomes very concerned about uteruses. -7
When the controversial ultrasound bill drums up public criticism for being "state-sponsored rape," not to mention laughs on "The Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live," Gov. Bob McDonnell supports a compromise by signing a revised bill that gives women the miniscule choice of undergoing either a transvaginal or an abdominal ultrasound before having an abortion. If problems still arise, state legislators will be placed in the operation room to flip a quarter and ensure that women will never be bothered with making their own medical choices ever again.
One public art project stumbles... -5 ...... while others soar. +7
After granting a permit to allow 31 murals painted by fifth- and sixth-graders on Monument Avenue, city officials tell Art 180's Marlene Paul to take down the exhibit, called "What Do You Stand For?" in late March. It isn't clear why — something about damaging the grass and conflict with the Easter on Parade and permit miscommunication.
But in April other public-art projects bloom, including murals springing forth on buildings for the G40 Art Summit and the launch of RVA Street Art Festival, a two-year gallery along the James River flood wall showcasing artists' work on 18-by-32-foot murals. Jon Baliles, later elected to City Council, and artist Ed Trask are among those helping push the project along, with Venture Richmond, Altria and the Greater Richmond Chamber.
The contrasting efforts make the message clear: The city has a lot to iron out if it is to become a real arts town, but it can be done.
West Broad Village makes Short Pump less gross. +2
New urbanism, a hip but aging development buzzword, finally finds a home at West Broad Village.
The 161-acre project on the south side of car-clogged West Broad Street near Short Pump Town Center in Henrico County was built with the Birkenstock set in mind. It has villagelike townhouses, real sidewalks, walking-distance restaurants such as Bonefish Grill and a Whole Foods. Green-conscious residents can catch the bus to downtown. Hot knowledge-economy jobs aren't far away at massive business parks to the east and west, at Innsbrook and West Creek.
After slogging through the real estate crash, jackhammers come blasting again. New, $350,000-plus townhouses are selling, a gigantic Richmond ACAC fitness center opens and more trendy stores like outdoor goods retailer REI are on the way.
More good news: Unicorp, the Florida-based developer that took a financial beating in developing West Broad Village, unloads the project, less the townhouses, to a California real estate investment trust. The residential properties still are controlled by a group linked to Markel Corp., the Richmond-based specialty insurance powerhouse.
A river rat retires. -9
Sometime in the '90s, Ralph White started calling himself the manager of the James River Park System. As far as the city was concerned, he was simply a "level two recreation technician" — whatever that means. He says the title he gave himself didn't start to stick until sometime in the early 2000s. We're glad it did.
For 32 years White has stood tall, socks up to his knees, fighting for what's best for the city's leafy riverfront. As of last week he's retired, and it's going to be impossible not to miss him.
White is a rare kind of city employee: He's willing to buck rules and side-step oversight committees in order to commit good, accomplishing what would be impossible under the watch of order-minded city bureaucrats. White has let mountain bikers cut trails along the river's banks, helped kayakers pour boat ramps to make access easier and built a dedicated community around the park.
While bringing a vision to what was a troubled park system, he's never shied away from the hard and sometimes menial work necessary to implement it. The bearded, bespectacled 68-year-old has scrubbed rocks, cleaned bathrooms and picked up trash, helping remake the river into one of the city's best attributes.
Richmond got lucky with White. He came to Richmond in the late '70s chasing a girl, got involved with the James River and decided to stay. In the end he managed to introduce a new generation to the natural goodness that cuts through the center of the city. For that, all we can do is thank him, wish him well, and hope to heaven that the city manages to hire a replacement even half as dedicated as White.
We pat ourselves on the back for the river, and rightfully so. +5
So what if we stuffed the ballot box? When Outside magazine asked if we thought we were the "best river town in America," we responded with a resounding, "Yes, whatever, all I have to do is click the 'like' button?"
Three months and 9,351 votes later, we'd blown our competition out of the water. (Take that, Hood River, Ore., and your pathetic 2,851 votes.) Next thing we know we're on Outside's October issue and city leaders are promising an economic windfall.
Far be it from us to question another magazine's methodology.
The mayor sets up the Skins and buries the Squirrels. -2
He wins the election convincingly. But it doesn't take long before Mayor Dwight Jones is back to his fumbling ways. In early November, the deal to build the Washington Redskins' $9 million training camp facility begins to fall apart. The deal hinges on a land-for-sponsorship swap with Bon Secours, which pledges to put up $6.3 million for the Redskins' camp in exchange for the right to develop the former Westhampton Elementary School in the West End.
The Jones administration is accused of cutting a bad deal for the city — the Westhampton property is assessed at $7.5 million; in the original deal, Bon Secours agrees to pay just $300,000 to lease the property for 60 years. What do the Redskins put up? Nothing. (The city, in fact, agrees to pay the Skins $500,000 a year to practice here.)
Meanwhile, the Richmond Flying Squirrels scrounge for nuts. The only professional sports team that has invested in Richmond can't even get the region to kick in a few bucks to keep the lights on at the dumpy old Diamond. That new stadium they were promised three years ago? The fat lady is warming up.
Fans of boobs must reconsider dining options. -4
While some signs may say "closed for remodeling," the harsh reality is that the local Hooters locations have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. With the impending doom looming over the tacky, yet unrefined restaurants, patrons craving the opportunity to gawk at boobs while eating subpar food are forced to enjoy the buffet cuisine offered at local gentlemen's clubs.
The mayor paddles the School Board. +2
Disingenuous? Perhaps. Results-oriented? Not exactly. But when Mayor Dwight Jones kicks off the new year blasting himself and the School Board for participating in "celebrations of mediocrity," we have a moment.
"A tier-one city does not celebrate a decrease in our dropout rate and truancy rates. A tier-one city does not celebrate getting more education money from the state because we are poor and have kids on free lunch," Jones preaches at his State of the City address in late January. "A tier-one city does not celebrate when our schools are ... accredited based on archaic minimum standards."
After a tough three years in office, Jones feints and catches the School Board with a nasty hook. He creates a school-efficiency task force that publicly dresses down the board and the superintendent. He brings in the business community's favorite former city manager, Bob Bobb, to join the party.
It works politically. The attention shifts away from Jones and what he's been unable to accomplish. His only obstacle to re-election is an unknown real estate agent who barely gets on the ballot. His biggest obstacles on City Council, Bruce Tyler and Marty Jewell, are swept out by the rising tide.
Jones has some political game. Now, if he could just govern. ...
------Editors' note: This version reflects a correction to the print edition, correcting numbers to the $50,000 loss in sponsorship that affected the Richmond Folk Festival.