Throughout much of the year, an obscure yet highly personable entrepreneur named Jonnie R. Williams dominated attention statewide. Revelations that he showered money, gifts, loans and jet plane rides on Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, overshadowed the hottest political race in the country. In the process, the tobacco-grower-turned dietary supplement maker touched off federal and state corruption probes of the McDonnells that are still ongoing.
It all was touched off by charges brought against the former chef at the Executive Mansion, Todd Schneider, accused of stealing from the kitchen. The case was settled in September, with the chef agreeing to a deal that found him guilty of misdemeanor counts and paying back the state. But other beans were spilled along the way.
It was a soap opera: What was Jonnie doing taking Maureen on an Oscar de la Renta shopping spree in New York? Didn't Bob know that the $6,500 Rolex that Maureen gave him really came from the head of Star Scientific? What about those loans to bail out the bad vacation property buys that Bob and his sister made before market crashed? Jonnie's largesse grew to more than $160,000. What did he get in return?
Months into the scandal, McDonnell publicly apologized and paid back all of Jonnie's goodies. Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, reluctantly promised to make amends for the more than $18,000 he got from Jonnie as well, but his tardiness helped cost him the election.
The damage for the governor's misjudgment has been severe. Once a rising GOP star on the national scene, he's created calls for tougher ethics rules in the extraordinarily lax Old Dominion. The state must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
As for Jonnnie, his company says he won't be charged and is cooperating with prosecutors. He and the McDonnells are no longer bosom pals. Big lawyers' bills are taking their toll. Jonnie can't simply foist the cost on taxpayers like the governor can.
To raise money, Jonnie has sold his luxury Smith Mountain Lake waterfront house where he entertained the McDonnells and Cuccinelli. The Roanoke Times reported that he'd asked $3.9 million but got about $2 million.
He's on his way out at Star Scientific, which has consistently lost millions of dollars during the past decade. He'll be replaced as chief executive Dec. 27 by a medical doctor and researcher. The company's name will be changed to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals. The company said "significant leadership changes" were needed.
It's presumed that Jonnie will keep his 29-acre estate on Starwood Lane in Goochland County — at least for now. He's staying on for about a year with Rock Creek to help with new products and, of course, litigation.
If Bravo could do it with rich housewives, why couldn't Richmond do it with single moms facing a grittier dose of reality? Aretha Lewis, a mother of four, held a casting call in May and came up with "Real Babymamas of Richmond," a reality show that debuted on public access in late June. The homegrown series offered, to put it mildly, novice production values. But the women put themselves out there and became lightning rods for discussion, if not controversy. Were they being exploited? Giving Richmond a bad name? Or simply putting faces to a stark statistic from local nonprofit First Things First — that 86 percent of Richmond's black families are households run by single parents. "It's just about our struggle," Lewis said, "our day-to-day struggle raising kids." The latest from the group's Facebook page shows the moms volunteering on some local projects and revealing that a reunion show is in the works.
If Richmond had a spirit animal, perhaps it would be Percy, the overweight, dieting donkey at Maymont. Like the city, he's loveable in his imperfection, trying to better himself, but is plodding and stubborn in his effort.
Maybe that's why his story so captivated us earlier in the year. In March, the 16-year-old donkey was tipping the scales at 450 pounds. Now there's less of him to love, but more to respect: Six months into his diet, Percy lost about 35 pounds. And now he's down about 15 more to 407 pounds.
What's the long goal? His keepers, who asked guests at the petting zoo to stop feeding him the alfalfa pellets dispensed onsite, say his ideal weight would be about 350.
Percy has a ways to go, but he's on the right track, says Keke Myrick, one of his keepers. That doesn't mean change isn't difficult. When he's put in for the night without any extra hay to munch on, he brays loudly in protest.
"He will make quite a noise," she says, "but we can't give in to it."
Several notorious incidents could have used a dose of pest control for that invasive species known as Shitheel Americanus.
In May, a drunken, 19-year-old Radford University student contributed to a fun-filled reggae concert on Brown's Island by tossing a vodka bottle at Grammy-winning legend Toots Hibbert — the guy who actually coined the term reggae. It split the older singer's head open, stopping the concert and spurring a $20 million lawsuit against the bottle thrower, Sports Backers and Venture Richmond. Last week the apologetic kid learned he would spend six months in jail.
In a less high-profile incident, a Colonial Heights man became a viral sensation after wrestling with a Richmond police officer during the St. Patrick's Day blowout known as Shamrock the Block in Shockoe Bottom. As in many viral videos, people saw an abbreviated clip of a situation and spent weeks arguing about it online from their mother's basements. Charges were dismissed, but the takeaway was community reaction being evenly split — in this Rorschach test, half saw the police as overly aggressive, while the other half saw the brawler as an idiot disobeying orders from a man with a gun.
Lastly, and this was more funny than anything, several women at a National concert in September featuring former "MMMBop" sensation Hanson felt the need to add their two cents during a quiet moment of the show. And alas, the tender piano ballad about a little girl, "Lulabelle," sung by Zac Hanson, will forever be known to the Interweb as "I want to lick your taint!" A furious Hanson restarted the song after asking the "drunk bitch" to go home. Like the Toots debacle, the inhospitable incident made national news.
The common factor underlying all these pest incidents? You guessed it: Zac Hanson. Or was it iPhones? No, no, that's right, it was idiotic behavior.
Re-brand, rebuild, redecorate: Some Richmond bars couldn't shed their old identities fast enough. To keep their trend-inflamed clientele satisfied and attract some new demographics, owners ditched Lucky Buddha for Society with a metallic dress-up, a theme change and a luxury menu. Avalon sold and became Social52, with fewer walls and more beer. Baja Bean Co. got a serious outdoor upgrade with a pergola and brick terrace. Mulligan's sold and reopened as Postbellum, a pub with a favorite chef. In a similar scenario with familiar players, Café Diem became Viceroy. The Republic closed more than once, and then emerged as the Pig and Pearl with ambitious new owners. Delux shocked its followers by rebranding as Pearl Raw Bar after a major close-in of an award-winning cut-out design. Cous Cous lost its Moroccan beauty, becoming a more familiar pub at the Well, which didn't make it, posting on its Facebook page Dec. 8, "Later yo." Tap installers did a very brisk business across town with draft lines hitting new highs. And although hot looks will always count in this scene, bar food is finally becoming less of an afterthought — a move that portends sustenance and style.
Richmond fashion designer Angela Bacskocky didn't waste time feeling sorry for herself after being the first contestant eliminated from Lifetime competition show "Project Runway." She took a risk with a raincoat made of parachute material, and seemed happy with it.
But asked what her next designs would look like in an exit interview for the network, she said, "It's probably all going to get inspired by getting shot in the heart."
Sequestered in a hotel for the remainder of the shooting schedule, Bacskocky began creating her next fashion line. And now we have Martyr, a collection that debuted in New York in September with not-so-subtle references to Joan of Arc.
"I've always identified with martyrs and that feeling of sacrificing yourself for someone or for the greater good," she told Style Weekly.
After appearing in Virginia Fashion Week in October, Bacskocky has been getting mentions in such publications as Marie Claire and Women's Wear Daily.
It's probably no coincidence that the more booze we make, the more international travel guides advise people to come visit. Craft breweries? Belch yeah, more than a dozen and growing — and with such great names as Strangeways, Lickinghole and Center of the Universe. Local wines? Sales are up across Virginia, grapes are on the vines at the Executive Mansion, and awards — even for Eric Trump — are being won. Scotch? Vodka? Distilleries are liquoring up with craft spirits and know-how and a lot of social media. Even the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department is relaxing some of its rules for advertising happy hours. Vest-wearing mixologists are no longer misunderstood, they're mainstream. Speak-easys aren't just a thing of the past, they're here at the Hippodrome with more on the way. Beer growlers have new filling stations at grocery stores and the corner cafe. So yes, obviously, there's a niche for legit local moonshine, and now we have that too. Belle Isle broke ground and found out how quickly its crisp, craft batches of 'shine can sell out. Booze of all kinds is big money, and it seems that only tequila and rum aren't being made in-house. Yet.
It was crazy: For a few weeks in February and March, Bill Bolling was the most interesting guy in Virginia politics. The state's go-along, reserved, vanilla-flavored lieutenant governor saw his career take a turn for the exciting when he publicly broke with his party and mulled an independent run for governor.
Why? Bolling was peeved (an emotion!) with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who engineered a switch from an open primary to a convention, which positioned Cuccinelli to easily win the party nomination. Outmaneuvered, Bolling didn't hide his displeasure.
He quickly restored the natural order of boringness when he decided that he couldn't raise enough money to make a credible run and bowed out altogether. Now he says he's looking forward to his return to the private sector to sell insurance.
And, as you probably know, Cuccinelli lost.
It's difficult to get too excited about a new city department head. But the departure of Richmond's longtime steward of the outdoors, Ralph White, from the city's James River Park System, left kayakers, mountain bikers and hikers holding their breath for about a year while the city looked for a replacement.
Then it hired Nathan Burrell, who quietly worked under White as the system's trail manager. The move was hailed as the only logical choice, including by White. Richmond will have to see how Burrell's tenure progresses. White predicts it will go well: "He's smarter than I am," White said.
Burrell said he plans to keep up with White's hands-on approach, albeit more quietly than his former boss, who had a flair for ignoring red tape when necessary and sparking headlines.
Until then, no news is good news, right?
The Redskins roared into Richmond this summer to train. Then the team left and promptly launched into a season that can only be described as embarrassing.
But that doesn't take away the glory some Richmonders felt while the team was here, the small ensemble of fans that gathered in front of the Omni to see players board the bus, or RG3's near-constant presence on the front page of The Richmond Times-Dispatch. An average of 10,000 people were counted entering the camp during the 17 days it was open. Countless autographs were signed. Three hundred volunteers joined to help run things. One rainy morning, a helicopter was used to dry the field for practice.
The camp even brought local fans a chance to support their favorite franchise by donating $100 to get an engraved brick placed into a path on the grounds.
Pesky questions about public financing and economic impact aside, the camp was a huge victory for Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, proving amid the implosion of his Social Service Department that his administration can pull off some big stuff.
And as for the team's abysmal performance, at least it looks like the blame's resting on Mike Shanahan's shoulders and not Richmond's.
By the time the Dove Court public housing projects were demolished in 2008, they'd become another one of those misnamed places of misery. October saw the opening of a new community on that ground: Highland Grove, a neighborhood designed to pulverize a pocket of poverty by bringing in a mix of public and market housing. It was one of the steps the city took this year — some big, some baby, toward addressing its 26-percent poverty rate. The Mayor's Anti-Poverty Commission gave birth to a handful of task forces that are readying budget requests for concrete proposals. Among them: the expansion of quality, affordable, flexible child care, of the Mayor's Youth Academy and of employment opportunities through new businesses that could serve some of the city's anchors — say, a commercial greenhouse to supply produce to VCU Medical Center. It took awhile, but the city brought to the task a smaller group of people living in poverty or working in impoverished communities to vet the proposals — and you better believe their B.S. detectors are finely tuned. It's a long, hard road ahead and political rhetoric comes cheap, but the people who have spent many hours on these proposals are as serious and dedicated as they come.
There are a lot of ways to rile up Richmonders about their past. [See: Build a baseball stadium where human beings once were bought and sold.] A surefire trigger is to roll out a giant symbol of the Confederacy.
A group called the Virginia Flaggers has been outspoken about the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' decision to remove the Stars and Bars from a former Confederate veterans' home chapel on its property. Flaggers upped their game from frequent sidewalk rallies to leasing property alongside Interstate 95, where they could fly their colors high.
"Flaggers speak for those who have no voice," Susan Hathaway said at the flag-raising ceremony. "Our weapon is the Confederate battle flag."
The group's display succeeded in annoying a whole lot of people, including Mayor Dwight Jones. A new group, United RVA, formed to counter the Flaggers' message with a giant U.S. flag flown next to City Hall.
That move didn't seem to rile anyone up.
Who could have predicted that a coffee shop's request to stay open for an extra hour and add beer and wine to its menu would set off neighborhood discord so wacky?
But then, there it is: The special use permit request from Captain Buzzy's Beanery in Church Hill launched a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, a $50 fine for assault with a flowerpot, an alleged takeover of a neighborhood association and a television attack ad.
The permit was denied, neighbors are divided, the lawsuit is pending and the ominous attack ad will delight on YouTube for years to come.
Yes, this is the place where once there was a call to "Give me liberty or give me death." Whomever you're rooting for, it looks like it might be time to call in the University of Richmond's Ed Ayers to mediate a neighborhood-wide reconciliation.
In 1786, Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom broke ground for the soon-to-follow First Amendment of the Constitution. The site of the General Assembly that passed the statute served as a Shockoe Slip parking lot while folks spent decades trying to figure out how to honor the history of the place.
It's been 20 years since the site was donated to what became the First Freedom Center. The initial excitement included an idea to light up skies with a laser beam. Proposals for education centers received millions of dollars, but went nowhere.
Now stewards of the place finally have found a way to honor the site's significance: a dual-brand Marriott hotel complex, with an onsite First Freedom education center.
"I know that Jefferson would be very pleased," developer and former First Freedom board member Glade Knight said at the groundbreaking.
Sure, concerns were aired about whether this was the best use of the land. But as construction began in earnest, the religion of the free market seemed like the way forward.
After a long struggle to "legalize it," backyard chicken fans brought their coops out of the shadows when City Council voted to allow as many as four hens per yard. All you needed was a $60 permit and the chickens — and a willingness to put up with how your neighbors reacted.
Proponents of urban chicken farming say the eggs are healthier and better for the environment. Roosters still are barred under the ordinance, although proponents say their crowing is 20 decibels quieter than dogs.
The hip-hoorays came with a dose of reality. Style Weekly contributor Melissa Scott Sinclair detailed her backyard chicken odyssey, which made the hobby's smelly, noisy and emotional hardships sound more intense than some people realized.
"If you want chickens, get them," she writes. "But first, figure out what you will do when your birds get sick, or loud, or filthy, or maimed. Know that your tiny tyrannosaurs will torment you, and that you will love them. That you will have to protect them, and that you may fail."
City records indicate that 39 urban chicken farmers have registered their birds with the city's Animal Care and Control, though it's possible that unsanctioned chickens are unaccounted for.
The legacy of the Civil War looms larger in Richmond than just about anywhere, and for the past decade two museums — a relative newcomer, the American Civil War Center, and the 19th-century vintage Museum of the Confederacy — have offered varying points of view of the conflict.
Today, 150 years after the battle was waged, it looks like we're edging closer to an agreement on how to tell the stories more comprehensively with the two museums agreeing to merge.
University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, a Civil War scholar, will serve as board chairman of the unnamed combined entity, saying in a news release: "Amassing the resources [of the museums] will help us ensure that our nation's rich history will be passed on to future generations."
The new museum, which will be built as an addition to the American Civil War Center at the Tredegar Iron Works, will emerge out of $30 million in contributions.
The spirit of cooperation is in the air. The Black History Museum in Jackson Ward is undergoing a major rejuvenation, broader mission and planning for a new home in the historic Leigh Street Armory. And then there's the proposed slave heritage site in Shockoe Bottom. The Black History Museum's new chief executive spoke of "collaboration" with the Slave Trail Commission just before Mayor Dwight Jones announced his plans for the heritage site, and the baseball park he says it depends on.
Even cops aren't embarrassed by how much they love Sugar Shack, the Portland-inspired doughnut shop in Carver. You'll see them in line at all hours, gazing into the glaze for flavors that are all over the map — fruits, nuts, salts, meats — dreamed up with humor at a shop that exploded this year. Another cheffy take on the batter goes down at Dixie Donuts, a hip cap to a Carytown stroll. Country Style Donuts, the old-school dean of the business, expanded its reach into retail. Mrs. Yoder's continued to sweet talk farmers markets with long lines of fans waiting for while-you-watch frying. Krispy Kreme broke ground in the South Side on a second Richmond storefront, and Dunkin' Donuts resolved its legal issues and just reopened. A few places tried some knockoffs of the New York cro-nut craze and prices edged slightly upward, but clearly this trend ain't leaving town — we have holes in our diets for good.
Virginia may not allow gay marriage, but that didn't stop City Council from voting in October to offer same-sex benefits to city employees if the law is overturned.
The ordinance was unusual in that it can't take effect until state law changes. But apparently hearing Jerry Falwell turn in his grave, people showed up at City Hall to speak against 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto's proposal.
After facing hours of fire and brimstone, and hearing from one speaker that gay people were "hypnotized" into their attractions, council members passed the proposal. While some members opposed it on grounds that it wasn't council's place to make laws pre-emptively, none seemed swayed by the hateful rhetoric.
Councilman Chris Hilbert of the 3rd District took threats of God's judgment in stride. "I'm very assured that when I'm standing there that my vote tonight won't be something that I am ashamed of," Hilbert said. "It will be something where we are expanding compassion to our fellow human beings."
For the better part of a year, it was the worst-kept secret in the city: Mayor Dwight Jones wanted to put a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom.
Never mind that the idea had been floated and sunk amid controversy twice in the past decade — this time would be different, they said. Unlike previous attempts, Jones and his staff attempted to line up nearly every pertinent deal and detail before going public in early November with a big unveiling.
What Jones might not have counted on is that while his people worked behind the scenes to put the deal together, the opponents and activists were getting ready, too. And they were there when he made the big reveal, breaking up his speech with heckles and shouts of protest. They've continued to be a prominent voice at most public gatherings.
The debate hits all the sore spots. Are you for or against development? Or just the right kind of development? How should the Bottom's slave-trading history be treated? Where should public money go? Should the suburbs help? Can all of this happen without a stadium? Why can't we all get along? Who's in charge here? And what about Nutzy?
It's far from certain whether City Council will approve the proposal. The only thing that's pretty much guaranteed is that the public discourse in the city will be dominated by the stadium debate for months to come.
Once you've had Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis in town filming a best picture nominee, it's hard to go up. So instead you go onward with a little newfound swagger, which is what Richmond did, continuing to establish itself as a go-to town for filming historical dramas.
With sets already in place and its suitably chameleonlike architecture, Richmond continued to set up shop for Hollywood productions, providing extras, artists and craftsmen with temporary work and pumping some short-term money into the local economy. Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Kennedy" television movie for the National Geographic Channel, shot during the summer, causing women in high heels to hit Shockoe Bottom cobblestones in search of Rob Lowe. And AMC recently began casting calls for extras in a hotly anticipated pilot, "Turn," about spy ring during the Revolutionary War, which will film across central Virginia.
Of course none of this would be possible without tax breaks for the rich — you have to pay to play, as they say. But the questions remain: How are tax dollars best spent? Fixing schools for future generations, or investments in some sexy publicity for Richmond, temporary and often low-paying jobs, and a slew of Twitter posts about where celebrities are eating?
The continued momentum was triumph for new Virginia Film Office Director Andy Edmunds, who jetted to Hollywood to work on new deals while crafting in some innovative bonuses from local productions that included PR work for Richmond. Edmunds recently told Style Weekly that a television series is the real golden goose in this business, a gift that keeps on giving — and that may prove to be the case.
In the meantime, "Turn" is seeking a few good longhaired, scrawny guys.
The almost all-new Richmond School Board faced steep challenges in trying to improve a struggling school system. With fresh faces and new resolve, they forged into a new year with some bold moves — then promptly went off the rails.
The board's credibility wasn't served by 6th District board member Shonda Harris-Muhammed, who falsely claimed to have a doctorate. After asking the board to refer to her by that title, she was indignant after CBS-6 reported in April she hadn't earned the degree from Walden University as she claimed.
Harris-Muhammed insisted she'd completed the coursework required, telling the board, "I'm never legally bound to share this information with anybody."
President Jeffrey Bourne and the board put their foot down, noting that any other school system employee would face disciplinary action over such an issue. They stopped referring to her as "doctor."
Then along came her spouse's arrest on a charge of growing a marijuana plant on their balcony.
And did we mention the threat of an ass-whooping issued by one member to another?
All of which prompted much head shaking and hand-wringing and the not-new observation that being an adult and being a grown-up are not the same thing. A parent sued the district over school closures. The superintendent was forced out.
Much of this has served as a distraction from the necessary business at hand: turning around one of the poorest-performing school districts in the state. The board, while not always acting in lock step, has shown itself willing to wade into the not-uncontroversial waters of education reform, including the search for a superintendent open to more public charter schools and a partnership with Teach for America.
With the objectivity that comes only from the passage of a few months, it's become obvious: City Councilman Parker Agelasto looks much better without a beard.
But when he shaved it back in May? Oh, the outrage.
Had Agelasto just been pandering to the beard vote of the 5th District during the election? Would he remain a reliable representative for his facial-haired constituents? How would fellow Councilman Chris Hilbert handle the pressure of being council's lone bearded member?
"He's done a lot of good things in the community with a beard," said Travis Oliver, the treasurer of the RVA Beard League, who along with his colleagues was dismayed by Agelasto's decision to lose the full, inch-long beard.
Agelasto pledged to continue defending "the position of all men and women with facial hair." We've heard no one voice any complaints since, so we can only assume he's followed through.
The lead singer of internationally known Richmond metal band Lamb of God, Randy Blythe, pictured center, was found not guilty in March of manslaughter charges in the Czech Republic. Relief followed the exhausting, nine-month legal battle stemming from an incident in which a fan died from a head injury sustained during a 2010 concert.
Blythe showed real cojones stepping up to face the charges when he could have stayed in the United States and avoided the uncertainty of entering the country altogether.
His full story soon will be available with the publishing of his nearly 300-page memoir, "Dark Days: My Tribulations and Trials" (De Capo Press) this summer. The publishers offered a small taste of the writing in their spring 2014 booklet:
"After three days ... I would arrive at Prague's Pankrac Remand Prison, a crumbling 123-year-old hellhole where the Nazis had imprisoned, tortured, and executed thousands of Czechs. ... No one spoke English, and I spoke no Czech. I didn't even have a watch and had no earthly idea what time it was. But I soon found out."
In the age of Facebook event invitations and other social media campaigns, it seems easier than ever to spur interest in big parties — or the birthday party your aunt is throwing for her cat. And just when you thought Richmond couldn't fit any more festivals into the year, it did.
By the numbers, the biggest outdoor party remains the glorious, family-friendly Richmond Folk Festival. But this year also saw some new entries: There was the Bacon Festival in June, which wound up flooding the 17th Street Farmers' Market with an estimated 17,000 people waiting to chomp down on bacon ice cream, bacon chocolate and bacon kettle corn — or leaving, frustrated at the lines. Next year, organizers may want to consider moving to a spot that accommodates more hog freaks — perhaps the Redskins Training Camp.
September saw the inaugural Fall Line Fest, a music festival featuring local and touring bands at various venues across the city, along with some art and food. Launched in part by Venture Richmond's Stephen Lecky, the festival is starting small but hopes to grow into something akin to the successful Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, N.C., which unfortunately was held the same weekend as Fall Line (along with a new hippie jam band festival, Lockn, at Oak Ridge Farm in Arrington).
Just a week after Fall Line was the RVA Street Art Festival — shouldn't those happen at the same time, maybe? — a major success in beautifying the former GRTC depot on Cary Street with 5.5 acres of colorful murals and public art. That is until two months later, when a still-unidentified man beat up the security guard posted there. The attack ended up closing off the art to the public and bringing a bad vibe, squelched only by a community effort to help pay the guard's medical expenses. Good lookin' out, Richmond.
One of our favorite new festivals was the Boulevard Pumpkin Festival, Charlie Brown (well, not that last part). Meant to highlight the revitalization of the Scott's Addition neighborhood, it shut down the Boulevard from West Marshall Street to Leigh Street while thousands of people ate everything pumpkin, drank and rocked out to local bands such as the People's Blues of Richmond. And best of all? Not only does pumpkin stuff smell better than bacon stuff, but nothing bad happened.