Accidental Tourists 

Mayor Dwight Jones promised Richmond a tourism strategy. So where is it?

click to enlarge Mayor Dwight Jones speaks at a media event March 21 highlighting a grant program that he says will boost tourism by developing the city as a destination. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mayor Dwight Jones speaks at a media event March 21 highlighting a grant program that he says will boost tourism by developing the city as a destination.

In March 2011, Mayor Dwight Jones announced he was making tourism a top priority of his administration.

As part of his oft-repeated strategy to grow the city "by design and not default," Jones assembled a commission of high-profile civic and business leaders, hired a city tourism coordinator and directed all involved to help Richmond capitalize on the economic opportunities afforded to tier-one tourist destinations.

Two years later, the city still has no plan. Its tourism commission has fizzled after a handful of meetings. And some people are left wondering if the city will ever get serious about attracting more visitors to the region.

Is Jones disappointed the strategy he called on his staff to create has yet to be delivered? "Oh no," he says.

Unfurling a metaphorical "mission accomplished" banner, Jones points to the coming 2015 UCI World Road Cycling Championships and the Redskins summer training camp's move to Richmond this summer as indicators of the progress the city has made under his leadership.

But there's a problem: The 2015 bike race and the Redskins training camp already were on the way when Jones got involved. The Redskins camp in Richmond was part of the agreement Gov. Bob McDonnell struck to keep the team in Virginia in early 2012. The state gave $4 million in grants to the NFL franchise — Loudoun County, where the team is headquartered, tossed in an extra $2 million — after which the team agreed to move its training camp to Richmond.

"When Redskins indicated that they wanted a new place for a training site, we went and got that," Jones says. "We're laser focused on opportunities that come our way." So what about the big vision? Jones isn't so concerned.
"I mean, a plan is just pulling all of the stuff we're doing together," he says. "I don't know whether a plan — a plan is always good, I'm not downplaying a plan — but that's deterring or dampening our ability to get things done."

It's a statement that represents a departure from his grow-by-design campaign mantra -- lacking vision, the city is left to react to developer-driven proposals. But Jones says he's proud of his accomplishments on the tourism front: "All of these things come together to create a brand that is in contrast to being the stodgy, old, historic place."

He relates a story of a couple from New Jersey who he says will be coming down next week to get tattoos — a decision they made after reading about Richmond's tattoo-heavy culture in an in-flight magazine. Jones plans to meet with the couple while they're here, saying they're exactly the kind of visitor the city has been working to attract.

For many, Jones's willingness to embrace the major events that have recently come his way is a good thing. Bill Martin, director of the Richmond Valentine History Center, echoes others when he says Jones's administration has proved open to new initiatives — a significant departure from predecessors.

But some say that developing a plan is critical, and that doing so needs to consist of more than connecting dots between what's already happening. With the mayor in his fifth year, the clock is ticking.

"We're missing a huge economic opportunity for tourists," says Waite Rawls, the director of the Museum of the Confederacy and a member of the mayor's tourism commission — which hasn't met in more than a year.

Though most other members of the commission are reluctant to discuss it, Rawls says there's concern. The chairs of the tourism commission, the director of the Virginia Museum of Fines Arts, Alex Nyerges, and state Delegate Delores McQuinn, either didn't return calls for comment or referred questions to the city.

"I think most folks who are in the tourist business would agree," Rawls says. "Tourism is the greatest economic development in the world. People come from somewhere else, they sleep, eat, shop and then they go home and they leave their dollars here. And they don't demand hospitals, schools or roads or police or anything else."

So, Rawls asks: Why isn't the city doing more to market itself to potential tourists?

Anedra Bourne, the tourism coordinator who Jones hired two years ago, says there's a lot being done, both publicly and behind the scenes. She notes that $14 million in Jones's proposed budget includes improvements to the Landmark Theater, $5 million for Shockoe Bottom revitalization plans and $5 million for riverfront development.

Likewise, she says funds have been budgeted for a comprehensive set of signs that will direct tourists once they get here. She expects them to start going up in the next several months.

They're all projects that develop what Bourne describes as the "city's product."

The tourism commission, which was created to give her recommendations for what a city tourism plan should include, held its last meeting in February 2012 because she went on maternity leave that March. When she came back in May 2012, she says, her efforts were diverted to projects such as the Redskins training camp.

She says she's preparing to bring the commission together again with regular meetings. Bourne acknowledges the plan is important to ensure that when events such as the Redskins training camp and the 2015 bike race leave, along with, supposedly, hundreds of thousands of spectators, the city is in a position to develop new opportunities.

Fifth District City Councilman Parker Agelasto says that while he's glad the city was flexible in responding to events such as the Redskins camp, he's similarly glad there's a renewed focus on a plan.

"Everyone wants to know where you're going and how you're going to get there and what resources it's going to take," he says. "As we move on, there are opportunities you need to respond to almost faster than you can create a plan and get the buy-in. I see the balance between the two — I want to see the plan, but I can understand why Anedra got pulled off to work on the Redskins deal."

Likewise, Charlie Diradour, a real estate developer and member of the tourism commission, says that while the meetings that were held were productive, and he's disappointed they dropped off, he's ready to look ahead. "We're really almost going to need to hit the reset button on all this because it's been so long," he says. "But I'm not disappointed by the lack of progress. I'm moving forward. The whole point of this is to get something done. Whether it happens last year or happens this year, let's get something done. Let's make sure it happens." S


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