October 16, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


15 changes in the way Richmond works 

2. Convention center opens doors.

A banquet for 2,500 guests. An exhibit hall with 180,000 square feet. Parking decks, 34 meeting rooms -- and a location smack in the middle of downtown. The taxpayer-funded expansion of the Richmond Convention Center to 640,000 square feet is a conventioneer's dream. At last check, it was over budget, with an estimated total cost of $168.6 million, and it was expected to be open for events by January. The center may be a companion to, and some say a reason, for plans to build a $100 million fine arts complex and spend millions on downtown renovation.

3. No payola from Motorola.

It broke its promise, but surprised few. In September, after a seven-year delay, Motorola officially tore up its plans to build a $3 billion semiconductor plant on 362 acres in Goochland County's West Creek office complex. Oh well. Richmond won't be the next Silicon Valley. But maybe it can hold onto Infineon Technologies AG -- initially White Oak Semiconductor -- a $1.5 billion chip-making plant in Henrico County. Its arrival was sparked by Motorola's intention to come.

4. The circle (will be) unbroken.

The completion of the $324 million Pocahontas Parkway/Route 895, a nearly nine-mile stretch of toll road, will do more than get us between counties quickly. It closes loops. It creates an inner loop of sorts, made up of Chippenham Parkway and Laburnum Avenue. And it brings us closer to an outer loop, which includes I-295 and the under-construction 288. This short, four-lane highway is sure to change our economic patterns.

5. Not just biracial.

There was a time when all we could talk about was how to bring whites and blacks together. What about everybody else? Demographic trends in Richmond are changing the way businesses think about their consumer markets. In the last 10 years, Hispanics have doubled in population in the Greater Richmond area. The latest census figures put the number at 23,283. New faces -- and buying power.

6. We see the Canal Walk.

Officials cut the ribbon on the James River and Kanawha Canal riverfront project on June 4, 1999. It focused attention on the river as an economic driver. Look at San Antonio, Texas, the city said. Now officials are asking for patience. After all, it took two years, but in the summer of 2001, developer Robert Englander -- with First Market Bank as an anchor -- finished a 92,000-square-foot, class A office building at the Turning Basin. It was the city's first new office building in a decade. Currently, City Hall is betting that a deal with developer Cordish Co. will make a miracle on Brown's Island.

7. VCU builds.

In the last several years, led by its president, Eugene P. Trani, Virginia Commonwealth University has constructed many of the projects that will contribute to Richmond's economic future. There is the $50 million school of engineering, opened in 1998. Renovation of MCV Hospitals. VCU's crossing of Broad, bringing the Stuart C. Siegel Center and millions in other construction projects. And there is VCU's partnership in the BioTechnology Park, a long-running city idea resurrected by Trani. VCU is building more than students' minds.

8. PrimeCo buzzes in.

Remember those sweet, quiet days when wireless phones were a luxury? No more. Richmond wasn't the first market to get affordable, digital, wireless phones. But PrimeCo Personal Communications brought them here in November 1996. The regional provider drove down prices and raised demand. Now they're Ntelos. And there's plenty of competition: Alltel, Nextel Communications, Sprint PCS, SunCom and Verizon Wireless. This summer, T Mobile became the new kid on the block. No. 7.

9. Meet Capital One.

It's tough to believe the ubiquitous Capital One Financial Services was born as recently as 1995. Started in Richmond as a spinoff of Signet Bank (but no longer based in Richmond), it remains the area's largest private employer. The credit-card company is really an information analysis powerhouse, designed to discover what you want to buy and sell it to you. And somewhere in West Creek, where it will open a new campus, or among its thousands of cubicles, there may be a job for you.

10. Banks go bye-bye.

The former banking capital of the Southeast is no more. Some say the Virginia General Assembly and the restrictive laws it passed in the early 1900s are to blame. Richmond lost banking power to Charlotte, N.C. Still, local brokerages are strong and the Federal Reserve is firmly planted.

11. Richfood goes public.

Thirteen independent grocers joined forces in 1935 to fight the buying power of giant grocery chains. That co-op, Richmond Food Stores, helped small stores survive tough times, and spurred Ukrop's Super Markets Inc. into becoming a dominant local favorite. The co-op became Richfood. It went public in 1988, became the country's fourth-largest grocery distributor by the late '90s. And in 1999, Supervalu Inc. snapped it up for $1.56 billion.

12. The rise and fall of a marketplace.

It was a long, slow whiplash. In 1985 Richmond celebrated the glistening bridge over Broad Street. The 6th Street Marketplace was a symbol of racial connection, but more than that, of a new day in retail. But over the next 15 years, the marketplace, built for $23 million, slowly lost steam. The bridge will be demolished. The next question is: Can Richmond figure out what should rise in its place?

13. Shockoe Bottom transforms.

Pawn shops. A sleepy farmers' market. Some abandoned stores. That's how it was before Main Street Grill owner Wally Bless decided to let his son and his friends keep the restaurant open late. The Grill became a hub of activity -- cultural, musical and otherwise. Domino's Dog House opened, along with the 1708 Gallery and the Richmond Artists Workshop. Then the Bird In Hand, once a pawnshop, became a nightclub. The Flood Zone arrived. Today, the Bottom is much different. Some see it as a sea of bright lights and booze on its way downhill. Others see it as fun. Regardless, its transformation gave it a sense of place -- and revitalized the area around it.

14. Richmond's lost institutions.

In the last 20 years, Richmond has seen a number of its corporations go. Among them: Home-furnishings giant Heilig-Meyers Co., which filed for bankruptcy in 2000, is left with just The RoomStore division. Downtown's flagship Thalhimers was closed by the May Co. in 1992. Catalog-showroom store Best Products Co. filed for bankruptcy protection in 1991. Alcoa Inc. purchased Reynolds metals in 1999. We miss many more, including Crestar, Miller & Rhoads and Wheat First Butcher Singer.

15. Richmond's gains.

Fortunately, there are seven Fortune 500 companies still here, including Dominion Resources, Circuit City and CSX. We hold tight. But there are recent signs that we can still attract newcomers. There is Capital One and White Oak Semiconductor (see above). In 1995, condom-maker Carter-Wallace Inc. opened a plant in Chesterfield. That same year Performance Food Group Co. moved its headquarters here. In 1997, General Electric Corp. chose Henrico as the site of its headquarters for GE Financial Assurance. And in 1999, Cavalier Telephone arrived to become the first local competitor to the Baby Bell Verizon. Keep 'em coming.

Edwin Slipek Jr., Scott Bass, Meg Medina and John Ramsey contributed to this story.


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