Inspectors Target First Fridays? 

Organizers and gallery owners sweat possible code crackdown at upcoming artswalk.

click to enlarge news35_firstfridays_200.jpg

Organizers and participants in the city's First Fridays Artwalk are walking on pins and needles in the countdown to the next event, Sept. 4, fearing a return of city inspectors who made an appearance at last month's event.

Though city officials insist they have no plans to interfere, concern among participating galleries and shops along Broad Street stems from increased attention and recent visits from city fire- and building-code inspectors.

Many of the businesses, operating in decades-old buildings, fail to meet fire codes to allow the large crowds generated during the arts walk, and many would face challenging expense hurdles if city officials forced them to upgrade facilities to meet modern requirements.

Additionally, few if any possess certificates of occupancy to allow crowds of more than a dozen inside at any given time. The arts walk has been held for eight years along a stretch of Broad Street once crime-ridden and plagued by blighted, empty storefronts.

“Everybody's really worried,” says Christina Newton, director of Curated Culture, which coordinates the monthly walk. “What we're worried about is not knowing what's happening — if anything.”
What Newton does know is that the city's assistant fire marshal attended August's First Friday event, giving helpful tips to business owners, but also setting their nerves on edge. She also knows that in follow-up e-mails with that official, William Andrews, her own nerves hardly were put at ease.

“First Friday concentrated increased activities to those downtown blocks, thus focusing attention versus our otherwise sporadic discoveries scattered throughout [the] city,” Andrews writes in one mid-August e-mail response to Newton's concerns.

Andrews, who's also a member of the city's Community Assisted Public Safety team, or CAPS, indicates that his visit was based on weeks of research into the businesses and their occupancy limits, and indicates that he's passed his research and findings along to the city's community development department.

“I completely understand the city's need to enforce public safety, and city code,” Newton says. “No one is against enforcing [the law]. On the other hand, these businesses and this effort, it's helping to change the face of Richmond, drive economic development to downtown.

“Without the opportunity to have substantial traffic in these small businesses during First Friday, many of these businesses will go away,” she says. “That's a fact.”

Community Development Director Rachel Flynn says she's unaware of any plans by members of her staff to attend First Fridays in an official capacity, or of any ongoing investigations into complaints of noncompliance with city code.

The monthly event's importance as a cornerstone of Broad Street's cultural and economic minirenaissance isn't lost on the mayor's office, which says the city has no plans to crack down on First Fridays or any of its participants, though Tammy Hawley, Mayor Dwight Jones' spokeswoman, acknowledges the need to balance business with public safety.

“The mayor is in full support of this … event and we don't want to see a situation develop that is in any way a hardship to the businesses involved in this event,” she says, noting that the only city official she knows of who plans to attend this First Friday is Jones himself. “It is contributing to the economic success of the city and we want to see this event continue.”

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