Downtown Takeover 

It's time to ignore the complacency and incompetence of our government and form a downtown nongovernmental organization.

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Throughout the world, whenever and wherever backward-thinking, corrupt or incompetent governments fail to meet the needs and desires of the citizenry, nongovernmental organizations, known as NGOs, are often called in to restore basic services and to formulate plans for safer, saner and more effective living conditions for the citizens.

In most cases the organizations — created by citizens without government representatives — are organized, maintained and financially supported by private individuals, corporations and charitable organizations. These supporters realize that when governmental bureaucracy, and the expected incompetence that normally manifests itself within that bureaucracy, fails its citizens, more rational and experienced minds must fill the void to continue to provide necessary services.

Typically, NGOs are created in impoverished Third-World nations that are controlled by evil or incompetent despots. When a government shows total disregard for its citizens, or is no longer able to provide to them effective and cost-effective leadership, it's time to call upon the private sector and free enterprise to correct the situation.

Perhaps it's time that the people of Richmond create their own nongovernmental organization to save our downtown. While we are not being abused by bullets, batons or tear gas from a despotic, third-world government, we are being beaten into submission by an ineffectual City Hall that maintains its existence and power through crippling, ever-increasing taxes and user fees and a long-running reputation for repeating the same mistakes over and over.

Our city leaders have no concept of how to properly develop and run a successful downtown. Need some examples?

The old reliable, 6th Street Marketplace, a wonderful concept that, if allowed to follow the free-market approach instead of a politically mandated concept of what retail should exist downtown, would most likely be successful today.

The venerable and beloved Miller & Rhoads building: In 1991, several nationally acclaimed developers wanted to transform the magnificent 250,000-square-foot structure into a mixed-use megaproject, complete with luxury apartments, artists' studios and galleries, a world-class museum, and a reopened Tea Room, complete with Santa Claus at Christmas. What happened?  Then City Manager Robert Bobb turned the developers away and proclaimed that the building would be torn down to make way for a park, tying up the building for years in bureaucratic stagnation, leading to its deterioration.

Although the stores were long closed, the 6th Street bridge left behind became a convenient, weather-resistant, passageway for pedestrians to cross Broad Street on rainy or snowy days.  However, in an ongoing effort to rid itself of visible monuments to failure, the marketplace bridge had to go — millions to build it and millions to tear it down. Now, after only two decades of politically imposed abandonment, the old Miller & Rhoads has taken on a new life as a Hilton Garden Inn, a welcome addition to the woefully inadequate supply of rooms needed to assure the future success of our convention center. Too bad its visitors will have to face the harsh elements and the dangerous traffic encountered while trying to return to their hotel rooms. 

As for the convention center — all we need are people to fill it.  In a seemingly conscious effort to chase everyone away from our once-vibrant downtown, our leaders used their powers of eminent domain to destroy the busy retail district, replacing it with office buildings and parking decks, without any retail spaces. 

With few exceptions, the blocks adjacent to our convention center are totally or partially vacant and poorly maintained. The handful of remaining merchants peddle merchandise that has little appeal to mainstream citizens and visitors. When I brought this to the attention of several of our city leaders during a recent meeting my remarks were met with looks of complete incomprehension. 

One well-meaning, but clueless, senior official countered with:  “This is just a temporary situation. As soon things pick up they'll all be gone, and we'll start attracting some higher-level merchants.” Is that so!  No one in the group had any idea that many of these so-called low-end merchants actually own their buildings and won't be simply moved out when, or if, the economy of Richmond's downtown improves.

I want my downtown back. It has been held hostage by the bureaucrats far too long.  It's time to ignore the complacency and incompetence of our government and form a downtown nongovernmental organization. Here's my proposal:

1. Work with the Richmond Public Schools, Virginia Commonwealth University and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College to help train downtown merchants who want to elevate themselves and become a more powerful voice in rebuilding our downtown.

2. A recent study indicated that a majority of the remaining downtown merchants are Asian. We need to work closely with the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce to enlarge and enhance the scope of its annual Asian art, music and culture festival to include festivities along Broad Street, similar to the First Fridays Art Walk.

3. Encourage the merchants to diversify and begin operating more mainstream stores such as souvenir shops, book stores, pharmacies and coffee shops.

4. Assist the police in combating crime and drug trafficking along Broad Street by demanding a return of the anti-loitering law.

It's time for our residents to demand more accountability from our government officials. We need less spending on ill-conceived, poorly planned projects and expensive, out-of-town experts who do little more than take our money and leave us with pretty pictures of extravagant what-if concepts. 

5. And lastly, form a downtown marketing advisory group. This would not be just another gathering of out-of-touch corporate leaders, but composed instead of developers, retailers, artists, residents and business owners who have an active interest in revitalizing our downtown. People power and common sense will outdo government programs every time. It's time for the people to take back our downtown.

Tom Robinson is a long-time Richmond developer and political activist.

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