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John Rocker's arrival in Richmond could add some excitement when the Braves visit against Norfolk … 

Street Talk

Mets Fans Await Rocker in NorfolkPilot Off to Slow Start Despite Bucks, YuksTraffic School Now Online, TooCity's Census Response Beats National AverageCity Properties Caught on CameraMets Fans Await Rocker in Norfolk

John Rocker could be wearing a Richmond uniform when he next encounters his arch-enemies: the New York Mets fans he bashed - along with minorities, immigrants and his own teammates - in Sports Illustrated last year.

While the Atlanta Braves won't visit the Mets' Shea Stadium until June 29, the wound-up reliever they demoted to Richmond can expect a hostile crowd as early as next week.

That's when Richmond - and likely Rocker - will meet the Mets' Norfolk Tides. Their four-game series opener is June 20 at The Diamond; the next three games are at Norfolk's Harbor Park.

"I really don't know what to expect," says Tides spokesman Shon Sbarra. Fans have called asking when Rocker might pitch there, and the possibility of trouble "has crossed our minds."

Rocker's feud with Mets fans turned violent in the playoffs last year. At Shea Stadium, the controversial closer spit at them, gave them the finger and hurled a baseball at fans behind a net; they threw bottles and batteries at him and dumped beer on his girlfriend, sparking a post-season tirade that wound up in the December issue of Sports Illustrated.

"I would assume … that we would see some reaction," says Tides President Ken Young. "We do get some vacationing New Yorkers from the beach."

The club had no immediate plans to increase security. "We haven't gotten that far in our thinking. We'll see how this goes in the other cities," Young says.

He hopes the Tides-Braves games will be business as usual - even better than usual, with an expected attendance boost. But the club for now plans to do nothing differently, "[a]side from the 5,000 John Rocker-pin dolls we're going to give away," Young jokes.

Rocker's first appearance at The Diamond - since a brief stint here in 1998 before heading to Atlanta - is tonight. He rejoined Richmond last week after control problems on and off the mound, including a verbal confrontation in Atlanta with the writer of the Sports Illustrated article.

Rob Morano

Pilot Off to Slow Start Despite Bucks, Yuks

Virginia Power is spending more than a million dollars in some pretty clever ways to interest you in buying electricity - including cheaper electricity - from somebody else.

So why aren't you interested?

It's a question Virginia Power execs themselves must be asking as the utility's Project Current Choice program enters its third week. While the program is open to the first 33,000 Richmond-area residential electricity customers who sign up, only 556 customers had done so by last Friday.

Project Current Choice was launched at the end of last month with ads in print and on TV, radio, billboards and Web sites. The humorous spots cost about $1 million to produce and run, says Whitney Wirman, account supervisor of Arnold Communications in Richmond.

Virginia Power spokesman Tom Kazas says the ads so far have been aimed more at generating awareness and interest in the program than action. A mailer that Richmonders began getting last week explains the program in more detail and should boost participation, he says.

Project Current Choice is Virginia Power's head start in complying with a state law giving Virginians the right to choose their own electricity suppliers by 2004. Virginia Power will still deliver the electricity, regardless of which suppliers customers choose, and will step in with its own juice if suppliers fall short, Kazas says.

Customers who sign up for Project Current Choice are likely to be offered lower rates and other incentives from electricity suppliers, or they can keep Virginia Power as their supplier at its state-regulated rate, he says.

Project Current Choice is open to residential customers in Richmond and in Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties. Commercial and industrial customers are also eligible.

- R.M.

Traffic School Now Online, Too

Traffic school, a rite of passage for ticket-prone motorists everywhere, now is avoidable in Virginia.

The state last week became the first in the nation to allow an online alternative to the widely despised, eight-hour driver-improvement camp in which insurance points are traded for psychic pain.

For $49.95 and about seven hours at TrafficSchoolOnline.com, speedy scofflaws now can make Virginia's judges, DMV and auto insurers happy without having to meet other drivers as bad as themselves. Traffic school thus joins the ranks of activities requiring about the same amount of time and money online as they do offline, but enabling people to avoid other people as much as possible.

TrafficSchoolOnline.com , a California-based company, says it takes about six-and-a-half hours to complete the online course at home, then 30 minutes to take the final online test, which is administered at participating Kinko's copy shops any time of day or night.

Five Richmond-area Kinko's are participating. Don Cramer, a manager of Kinko's in the Libbie Place shopping center, says students have started trickling in.

Slowly, for a change.

- R.M.

City's Census Response Beats National Average

When it comes to the Census, size matters.

And despite fear felt by city officials and Council members that poor returns could mean less funding for future programs, Richmond's participation in Census 2000 is better than average.

"We've been very successful and we're very pleased," says Jim Richardson with the local Census office.

Since the first Census 2000 questionnaires were mailed in March, everyone from Bill Clinton to Halle Berry has popped up in TV public-service announcements and on billboards to urge citizens to send them in.

"Richmond as of [June 8] is 94.5 percent complete," says Jerry Stahl, census spokesperson from the regional office in Charlotte, N.C. "That's good," he says. "Not exceptional, but really good."

For two months local census workers have been going door to door, hoping to catch those who failed to return their census forms by April 15. Richmond's average of returned responses beats the current national average of 93 percent.

But if you're interested in getting the skinny on how the city of Richmond added up in the last population census in 1990, don't hold your breath. No one at the local census office could provide Style with that information, and three calls to the regional office in Charlotte also didn't produce a figure.

Still, Stahl explains, local census workers aka enumerators in Richmond are prepared to get tough on everyone from census dodgers to unknowing residents who never received their forms in the mail. Door-to-door follow ups will continue through August, and after that, says Stahl, there will be an intense effort to track people down in newly constructed areas that often are missed by census reports.

Tracking will continue through December when a summary of state populations will be presented to President Clinton.

By then, Stahl says, city officials in Richmond should have their fears of non-response assuaged. "We won't stop until we reach 100 percent."

Brandon Walters

City Properties Caught on Camera

Remember when city departments came in under budget?

Bettie Clarke, project manager with the city's Office of Assessor of Real Estate does.

Three years ago when new computer systems replaced outdated ones, Clarke's department spent its excess budget money on new software that soon will make previewing residential and commercial properties in the city of Richmond easier.

That's good news for the assessor's office that recently bore scrutiny from City Council and the International Association of Assessing Officers after a charge by the Virginia Department of Taxation claimed the city's assessment practices could cost $22.68 million in under-assessed real-estate values.

So far, the office has spent $25,000 to hire a contractor to photograph nearly every residential property south of the James from Midlothian Turnpike to Interstate 95. And with the help of Deputy City Manager Connie Bawcum and the Neighborhoods in Bloom project, Clarke says other areas like Barton Heights and Highland Park have been caught on digital camera, as well. It's worked so well the project now is being continued by officers in the field, with the help of two city-purchased digital cameras

"We're putting it all together for a good, quick visual for the assessor's officers," says Clarke. "With all the houses pictured together it looks like a little yearbook." It's a catalog that acts as a quick reference guide for anyone wanting basic information like assessed value, size, or location of any property in the city.

Clarke says the project - which should be completed in two years - is the first of its kind in Richmond, and soon will be adopted by other cities like Charlottesville and Arlington. And, she contends, even though it did not arise as a result of the IAAO's review, it will help the assessor's officers more efficiently document property values in the future.

To date, more than 12,000 residential properties in the city limits have been photographed and cataloged, and Clarke says commercial areas bounded by Belvidere, Broad and Canal streets will be completed by this summer.

The IAAO's report should be presented to City Council soon, says Clarke, but so far, no one in the city assessor's office has been given a date or any information in the report.

Whatever findings the report reveals, Clarke says the new computer-assisted photo information likely will make a difference. "We're very excited about this," Clarke adds. "But we still have a lot of work to do."

- B.W.
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