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Wilder Unplugged

Four months later, Richmond's "bad guy" mayor takes on everybody.


Last week, Style sat down with the mayor to take inventory. From the tax abatement program to the Performing Arts Center, he says it's time to renegotiate.

Style: Why was Louisville chosen as the city to visit, to learn from?

Wilder: I think two things. One, they've had a merger, as you know [Jefferson County and the city of Louisville merged governments in January 2003] and supposedly combined a great deal of their efforts. We're certainly not going to have a merger here.

They have a baseball team, a new stadium built. [Richmond Braves General Manager Bruce Baldwin plans to discuss the team's development plans for Shockoe Bottom during the trip.] … So I told the mayor of Louisville, who called me this week … I said I might be lucky enough — who knows? — by going to Louisville to find out … what's going on with the Braves. … And he laughed.

I do know his case. The baseball team there put up a million dollars for debt service for the bonds, and there are other entities that put up money for the debt service for the city. … So I think really, if we did not have a baseball team here. If the Braves were not here. If the Diamond were not here. What you hear coming forth as a proposal [in the Bottom] would not be entertained by anybody, anyplace in the world, for a second. Because it's nothing. On my trip to Israel, I had occasion to meet with several people around the country. The mayor of Manchester, N.H., they had just built a brand-new stadium — 6,500 seats; they have a hotel Hilton along the river and 120 condos along the river. … One group did the stadium, one group did the condos and one did the hotel. And we talked about cost, and what was going on in terms of commitment. In that case, [I told him] we might come up there to see what you have done. …

If you look at what has happened over the past several years, it's been that forefront, or vanguard, that has set the pattern for what takes place in Richmond. One, a canal walk. A performing arts center. All kinds of entities, maybe 6th Street Marketplace. And I'm not saying any of those things were ill-conceived, ill-planned, ill-constructed. But the real question is, what has worked? … That's all right, if it works. But of all the dirt that you see going up on Broad Street, the one thing you can say with a certainty will come about will be the federal courts building [at the corner of Broad and Eighth streets]. You can't with a certainty speak for anything else.

Several studies have concluded that a lot of cities suffer from "big projectitis" — the idea of building new stadiums and convention halls, for example, to save struggling downtowns — instead of focusing on improving schools and police. What about Richmond?

Paul Fraim, the mayor of Norfolk, was on the trip to Israel with us. And we had a great time talking, comparing a lot of notes. They don't have a convention center as such. Their thrust is to bring in … smaller groups, the lawyers maybe, or the doctors, or the chiropractors or the dentists. Or the groups that will come 200 to 300 people. … He said their thrust is to let that be their market growth. I don't know that he's wrong. It is those groups that usually have more money to spend rather than the larger groups, [where] many times people spend all of their money just to get there. …

The classic example in Richmond is that people are not staying in the Richmond hotels for our convention center. … It's a question of where do you put your emphasis, whether there might not be the need for more realistic combining of the business community with government and to move in a different direction. …

Years ago, Richmond Renaissance and some of the people who influence downtown development got together and said we want to fix downtown. Let's expand the convention center with the hopes that it will jump-start all this other development on Broad Street. Do you agree with that strategy that if we build it, they'll come?

No. And I can say it and justify it with retrospect and hindsight. … The issue in Richmond has always been dealing with public safety. … Let's take the convention center and people coming from other places here. We've lost Grace Street. We've lost Main Street. We've lost in addition to Broad Street, those businesses. We are losing businesses in Shockoe. We need to look at why we are losing, what's taking place. The merchants in the Slip say: Look, we need parking. We need to have places for people to come and not drive around half the day, or an hour or so, to find a place to park their cars.

Secondly, people are afraid in some instances. It's the perception of crime more than the crime itself. Then you put that together with your educational facilities. … People are not going to locate their businesses in places where the educational facilities for their work, to be able to go to school and send their kids to school, [are perceived to be in poor condition]. …

People question what I meant [when questioning the value of the] Greater Richmond Partnership. … I'm paying $390,000 a year [to fund the Partnership], and I have an economic development office? Is it chopped liver? Why do I need to spend $390,000 a year to get 4 percent of the jobs, [according to] the statistics provided by [Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of the Partnership]. … Even the inflated numbers give us only 4 percent.

Now people would think you were absolutely crazy if they were to come to you and say, I have a proposition for you: Would you give us $390,000 a year to get 4 percent of the jobs we bring in? … Absolutely insane! This is the Greater Richmond Partnership? To do what? … When I got to pay for half of it, and the people are staying in the other hotels [outside the city of Richmond]? … Doesn't make any sense, and it's over. It's over. It's not a question of if it's going to be, in terms of the direction we've gone in the past. We're not going to do those kinds of things. We'll sit down and negotiate. We'll talk.

When you say it's over, are you talking about funding for the Partnership?

I'm not going to put any money into the budget for that.

Obviously you didn't.

That's right. There are other people. "Well, you're pulling the money from Renaissance." I'm not pulling the money from Renaissance. This is our money. [Chuckles] … These quasi-governmental things are what I campaigned against. … And it is time to come to a close. Four years from now, it will have closed. We'll have a different charted course for our government. We'll have more of a direction involving education. For the city not to have more involvement in education and housing is crazy. We'll have that. …

We don't need more marketing. And, moreover — and I don't know that enough people have heard this to understand it — we don't have to bribe people to come in to invest in Richmond. People want to do it. I can tell you they want to invest in Richmond, they want to develop Richmond, and we don't have to give away half of Richmond for that to take place. Give us the tax breaks for 100 years and we'll come, or give us this much property and we'll come, or build this for us and we'll come? The message is going to be we're going to fix [the city] for you to be able to come in terms of safe streets, transportation facilities, intermodal transportation. … But we are not going to give you the city.

In terms of tax credits, look at Brown's Island and look at Stony Point. We gave up a lot of real estate tax revenue to get those projects here.

For what? OK, Brown's Island. Good point. Nice place, like it, beautiful. And they are going to have a big firm to take over part of it, right? Troutman Sanders law firm. [They are moving] from Main Street to Brown's Island. So we are taking from Richmond to give to Richmond. But what came? …

I'm not against business. I'm with business being with me, with business being for the people. When you see the things that we are taking out of the budget in terms of nondepartmental, and people are here begging and crying for things that may be or not be meritorious on their own. … You've got other groups that are saying, Oh we want the city to pump in more, and we want you to be the bandleader … to raise more money for an arts center. That's not my priority. … My priority is the needs of the city … and continuing with the theme I started when I was governor, the necessities before niceties.

There were probably 55 ragtag businesses here in the Broad Street area, around 6th Street Marketplace, four years ago. With the exception of a handful, pretty much all of them have shut down. Do you think we made a mistake by not including a place for those businesses within the new development?

Why not focus on what you have? Nurture it, build it … require the merchants to straighten up those buildings and whoever owns them to clean them up. … We know that the restaurants follow the retail. If you have good retail, you are going to have good restaurants. … So now what has to happen is a complete … restructuring and a complete rethinking as to where we are in the city.

Let's shift gears. What about the Performing Arts Center? Their plan is to go ahead and start construction before they finish fund-raising. December 2006 is when they hope to have the fund-raising complete.

What does December 2006 say to you? That that's the furthest date that we believe we'd be able to have fund-raising, which is a year and a half from now, which has no certainty to it attached at all. No, let me tell you quite frankly that there may be no need at all to wait until July 1 to do anything. They've already said they are not going to meet [the fund-raising deadline to receive $15.8 million in city funds]. It is what you would call an anticipatory breach of the conditions. … The only issue, now, is what the city role is going to be and what the city intends to do with a contract that has already been violated.

What's your recommendation?

I'm going to make it at the appropriate time. [Chuckles] … To say we're going to do this, thus and so past your breach — that may have worked with the previous administration. It doesn't work with me.

Building a fa‡ade before having the money secured to build the entire thing? Do you think that is a smart strategy?

The new thing is, this was supposedly a privately funded thing. That all you needed was a little seed money from the public. Now you'll find that two-thirds of the money that will be generated, if they are counting, will be public when you count the federal, when you count the state and the city. [This occurred] without the city or any locality or any of the government officials having any say-so as to what happens. How anything like that could have gotten off the ground in the first instance is beyond me. … And somebody says, We'll give you a seat on our board. You're not going to give me a seat on your board. The question is, will you have a board for anyone to have a seat? Then the final determination is whether Richmond wants to participate, and it will determine what seats it wants. Not for you to tell us. …

So I guess what it comes down to … somebody has to volunteer to be the bad guy. And in this instance, I guess I'm the bad guy. But I didn't volunteer to be the bad guy. I volunteered to be the mayor of the city of Richmond, to represent all the people of the city of Richmond. … That's why you see the kind of support that this administration has because the people are saying: Thank God somebody is finally saying the things we've thought all along. Thank God somebody is not afraid to peel back this fa‡ade.

You talk about a fa‡ade. Yes, to peel back this fa‡ade of supposed direction. The city doesn't need to go to other people to give them money to build things for it. [We] can build things for ourselves. S

Look for Part Two of the Wilder interview in next week's Style. The mayor offers his perspective on the Richmond Braves, the School Board and upcoming changes to the city's legal department.

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