First Blood 

Wilder's budget has a message: Prove your worth.

The budget battles are just beginning. Council most certainly will roll back into the budget some of those groups jettisoned by Wilder. The opening salvo, however, had a broader purpose: Wilder is laying the framework for a different approach to building a city, one that eschews marketing and overincentivizing business development and emphasizes police and schools.

Wilder's cuts also serve as a repudiation of past economic development and city marketing strategies. They decimate old standbys such as Richmond Renaissance, the biracial downtown booster club created to bridge racial barriers, and newer ones such as the River District Alliance, which is leading the charge to rebuild Shockoe Bottom, still reverberating from flooding last August.

For many, the timing couldn't be worse.

"Cutting nondepartmental funding across the board will have drastic consequences for downtown events," says Erika Gay, executive director of the River District Alliance. "We're getting ready to roll into the events season, and now we can't. We can't put out marketing materials right now. Everything is at a standstill."

Regular events such as Midweek Mojo, billed as the "hippest downtown cocktail party" at the Canal Turning Basin on Wednesdays, are in question, Gay says. As for the Bottom, she fears she won't have the time necessary to work with Council and business owners on their plans for improving streetscapes, lighting and the drainage system that sorely needs work. Instead, she says, she'll have to spend her time fund-raising.

Other groups are facing a similar dilemma. Wilder's budget shaves $7.2 million off nondepartmental funds in 2006. For many groups, it wasn't just a reduction. He scratched funding altogether for 65 of 90 line items.

Greg Wingfield, president and chief executive of the Greater Richmond Partnership, took it on the chin. His department lost $390,000 in city funds in the Wilder cuts, effectively leaving a $780,000 hole in the Partnership's $3.12 million budget. (City money is matched by the private sector.) Meanwhile, Chesterfield County is considering whether to withdraw from the Partnership.

Wingfield, however, isn't panicking just yet.

"We plan to put together our rationale, our return on investment that the city has seen in a ten-year period," Wingfield says. "I'm hoping that the logic we present and the results we show over the years will sway the decision."

Councilman William J. Pantele, who also chairs the finance committee, says Wingfield's group is widely regarded as one of the best economic-development agencies in the country. Site Selection magazine has named the Partnership one of the top 10 such groups in the nation for six years running. "I don't think this discussion is closed just yet," Pantele says.

Wilder carries a big stick, however. After his budget presentation, he questioned the role and significance of the Partnership. He also questioned how vital a role the partnership played in the city's latest coup, landing Philip Morris USA's planned $300 million research and technology center downtown.

"I know what happened with Philip Morris," Wilder says. "Tell me what [the Partnership] did? I'm hanging on your lips. … I can say I'm the king of Spain, but that doesn't make me the king of Spain."

Wilder is streamlining the city's economic-development efforts, Pantele says, much the way he's doing within City Hall. He's questioning the overlap of the Partnership, Renaissance and the city's economic-development office. Wilder also questions the validity of some downtown projects, including the Greater Richmond Convention Center, the planned Miller & Rhoads hotel and the Performing Arts Center.

Particularly, Wilder vows to take a hard look at the Broad Street Community Development Authority (CDA), responsible for streetscape improvements and new parking lots in a 10-block area of Broad, Marshall and Grace streets downtown. He's also poring over the finances of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, responsible for the arts center.

"We're going to have to renegotiate where we stand on the CDA. A hotel? When? An arts center? When?" Wilder muses. "What is it going to cost?"

James C. Cherry, chief executive of the Mid-Atlantic region for Wachovia Bank and co-chairman of Wilder's transition committee, says the mayor is simply starting everyone who is nonessential from scratch. Cherry says he believes Wilder will ultimately see the value in the Partnership and other groups that allow the city to leverage taxpayer dollars to generate corporate donations.

"I think [Wilder] has to have the freedom to look at everything," Cherry says. "We're starting from zero, now let's go see what we've got to do as a community."

As for Renaissance, Wilder cut out $700,000 for the group's Clean and Safe program, the street-sweepers and sidewalk ambassadors. While the cuts themselves wouldn't doom the booster club, it could lead to its eventual breakup.

Some within the organization say that Renaissance may have outlived its usefulness, anyhow. The group's board — a who's who of the city's business elite and politicians — is split 50-50 between black and white members, a show of unity. But some say that's a celebration of racial quotas, a practice that has all but disappeared from the corporate landscape. "I think maybe its time has come," says one board member, who asked not to be named.

Wilder's approach forces the organizations left out to scratch and claw their way back in. Those who prove their value, or those who fight the hardest, have the best chance of getting their money back.

"I'm not going to give this up without a fight," Wingfield says. "That's why we have the data. That's why we run the business as an open book. … It's a $5 billion investment the region is seeing [because of the Partnership's efforts] since 1994. It didn't happen by magic." S

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