The story surrounding "i.e.*" continues to draw laughs.
"i.e.*" is the Great Richmond Chamber of Commerce's latest, three-year-long promotional campaign that supposedly will make our town "the Capital of Creativity" in the words of promoter-in-chief Thomas A. Silvestri, the publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and past chairman of the chamber.
About 200 people shelled out $125 a head for a pep talk a couple of weeks ago on "innovation" at La Difference furniture store downtown. The idea is to get so-called "provocateurs" and other cool folk to talk about just how great their ideas are to the world beyond the James River and the Henrico County line. The chamber's idea of such people include a belly dancer, the owner of a shoe store and a bright young girl. From what I can tell, the Martin Agency and others are supposed to let the globe know that such talent is here as we wait for the "paradigm" to "shift."
At least that's the idea of a promoter named Andy Stefanovich who apparently wants to be on the "flash dial" list of every economic development official in the country along with pop urbanist Richard Florida and journalist Thomas Friedman of "The World Is Flat" fame.
As the murky concept of "i.e.*" started to sink in, a number of people have had questions about it. I did in a previous blog post. My Style Weekly colleague Don Harrison did in this issues Back Page. Carolyn Troiano wrote her doubts in a letter to the editor of the TD on July 6.
Here are some of the responses from our Fearless Leadership. Silvestri ran a full page of breathless praise for the program on July 3's Commentary section in the TD. One of his points: "Preschoolers dressed in business attire demonstrating why they're already leaders."
That really confused me. Does dressing up four-year-olds transform them? Why didn't he say: "Preschoolers dressed up like Stalin demonstrating why they're already dictators?" It makes about as much sense.
The "i.e.*" issue is apparently so touchy for the Silvestri-controlled TD that the editorial page editors trotted out Kim Scheeler, chamber president, to respond to Ms. Troiano's letter in print. This is part of his response: "These companies are looking for places where creativity annd innovation are part of the fabric as that environment fosters more innovation in the workplace."
Here's my suggestion. If Richmond's power elite really wants to put out the idea that we're all so terribly creative, leave Silvestri and Scheeler out of it. Silvestri can't type a line without insulting his readers'intelligence. Scheeler's prose can't get beyond consultant-speak gobbledygook. If Richmond is going to get competent leaders, maybe they should start by finding articulate people. It could also be that the "i.e.*" is so obtuse that no one can explain it.
Not to worry. The TD apparently hasn't posted Troiano's letter online so the world at large won't know of her skepticism about our new Capital of Creativity. One problem solved!
For the perfect illustration of the sloppy and wishful thinking that plagues Greater Richmond, check out this morning's front page of the business section of the Times Dispatch.
There's one article shamelessly promoting the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce's new "initiative" with the cute name of "i.e.*" which purports to tell the world just how creative people in the city are.
Right next to it is a story telling us that Richmond's showcase example of "innovation," the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park "is doing well" but otherwise is in such dire financial straits that it is raising its parking fees and "voluntary" assessments of tenants. They've just lost one promising tenant to Denver and they're banking on the state government to come up with monetary support since North Carolina and Maryland support their research parks with state funds. Lots of luck there. The state has never paid a dime for the park which has produced only three actual incubated and gone-public companies. Two moved away and the other is bankrupt.
Therein lies the rub. Money. Venture capital and angel financing are lame in Richmond. Plus, the area does not have a Tier One university to anchor efforts for incubating start-up research companies. Go to North Carolina's Research Triangle Park and you have Duke, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Maryland has Johns Hopkins, the No. 1 medical research school, proximity to the National Institutes of Health and a serious biotech corridor stretching from Bethesda to Gaithersburg.
Here in Richmond we have the University of Richmond, a good liberal art school that does little research, and Virginia Commonwealth University which has some research but seems more stuck on the problems of its president Michael Rao who will finally be "inaugurated" next fall more than two years after he arrived. VCU is not in the same league as the Tar Heel and Terrapin schools, unfortunately. The biotech park here does have a big Philip Morris USA lab but it is notoriously secretive and company products help kill 400,000 Americans every year.
What to do? Well, if you are Thomas A. Silvestri, publisher of the Times-Dispatch and outgoing chairman of the chamber of commerce, you pretend, sort of like the kids in "Peter Pan.""We have to start believing we are the capital of creativity," he says.
That's where this marketing plan called "i.e.*" comes in. This week, for $125 a head, the "who's who of Richmond's creative scene" got together at the "secret" meeting place at La Difference furniture store for the launch. The three-year program is supposed to highlight "world class" creative talent here in Richmond. But if you look at the Chamber's Website, you find examples such as a young girl who regards "teal" as her favorite color and another individual who started a shoe store in Carytown. Sounds very creative.
The Martin Agency, the leading advertising shop that is an authentic Richmond claim-to-fame, is a big player in "i.e.*." Too bad advertising is just what it is — presenting an image someone wants you to believe, such as making people think that geckos are really savvy insurance executives with New Zealand accents.
What's missing here? Money, a top-flight university and competent local leadership.
It might seem like a simple question: Is it hard to quit smoking tobacco?
For Philip Morris, past and present, it depends on what kind of barriers your corporate lawyers have erected.
To Louis C. Camilleri, CEO of Philip Morris International, now conveniently based in Switzerland, the answer is no. While smoking is addictive, he admitted, "it is not that hard to quit." Camilleri made the statement at PMI's annual meeting in New York.
Meanwhile, down in Richmond, at its annual meeting, Michael E. Szymancyk, CEO of Philip Morris USA, said that yes to both questions.
"Because tobacco use is addictive and can be very difficult to quit, our tobacco companies help connect adult tobacco consumers who have decided to quit with cesssation information from public health authorities," he told shareholders at Richmond's convention center.
Confused by this Alice in Wonderland doubletalk from what was once the world's greatest cigarette maker? It's just one of many contradictions.
The two Philip Morris' were split apart by corporate fiat and an army of corporate lawyers a few years back. The reason? The U.S. branch, now headquartered in Richmond, still makes cigarettes but tells you not to smoke them, yet it still makes a tidy profit by doing so. Last year, sales were $16.8 billion with net income of $3.8 billion.
Philip Morris International, which sells tobacco products everywhere but the U.S, rakes in even more dough: $27 billion in sales and $7 billion in profit last year.
The company split up was arranged to help block the U.S. version of Philip Morris from health-related lawsuits and for the American version to promote tobacco regulation by the Food and Drug Administration on terms favorable PM USA, in other words, in ways that lock in the dominant market share of its best-selling product, Marlboro brand cigarettes.
While PM USA, now wonderfully separate, fights a holding action on U.S. soil, its one-time sister can hop scotch the rest of the world selling even deadlier products. PMI has been testing a series of new -- some more potent -- tobacco products around the world.
One is Marlboro Intense that was test-marketed in Turkey. A shorter version of the flagship smoke, Marlboro Intense has tobacco packed more densely so a smoker can get a quicker nicotine kick when time is of the essence -- say, eating out at a smoking-restricted restaurant or working in a smoke-free building. Another product, fatter cigarettes called Marlboro Wides, was test-marketed in Portugal in 2006. The following year, the company introduced Marlboro Mix 9, a high tar and nicotine cigarette, in Indonesia, where more than half of all males smoke daily.
So, then, is it any surprise that Louis Camilleri, head of PMI, is going to say that it isn't that hard to quit smoking while Szymanczyk says (oh, moan) that it is?
The two companies are rich, well-run and deep-pocketed. Altria, owner of PM USA, buys favor by making major contributions to education, the arts, sports and culture. In Richmond, for instance, the decline or departure of a number of important companies has meant that just about two, electric utility Dominion and Altria, bankroll just about every community activity. And when the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park was floundering a few years back because it had little to show among its very large field of competing parks, newly-arrived Altria plopped down $350 million for a new research lab. Of course, they're not about to tell you what goes on inside those lab walls.
What's still overdue, however, is a reckoning. The handwriting is on the wall for tobacco products, unless you are dealing with Third World-types who live in smoking cultures and haven't been elevated to the level of caring or understanding about health warnings. In this country, cigarette smoking is on the decline. U.S. tobacco farmers started going to through a major downsizing two decades ago. The days of making deadly products and then telling customers not to use them can't last forever. Even smokeless tobacco has been shown to be dangerous as sales disappoint its makers.
It is "Oh So Richmond", that the city (and the state) still bets on a losing horse. Not the first time, though. Look at 1861.
I'm going for the Post.