March 31, 2015 News & Features » Cover Story

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Lonesome Highway 

While plans abound for most of Richmond's struggling areas, the five-mile stretch that is Jefferson Davis can't seem to attract a savior.

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click to enlarge George Rosenson has run his video store for 30 years, watching the neighborhood change. As video rentals fall off, which he acknowledges is a separate issue, he survives by offering a large selection of adult titles. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • George Rosenson has run his video store for 30 years, watching the neighborhood change. As video rentals fall off, which he acknowledges is a separate issue, he survives by offering a large selection of adult titles.

George Rosenson, a 79-year-old who speaks with a thick, Eastern-European accent, stands behind the counter of his video store, Video Mart Corp.

He opened 30 years ago, and as a holdout in a dying business, he knows he faces worse odds than most trying to eke out a living here. “I’m headed to oblivion with the buggy-whip factory,” he says.

His collection of tapes once topped 30,000. Now he survives mostly on the sale and rental of adult movies.

From his shop, he’s watched the neighborhood change. He says the place used to have more life. Now most of his customers skulk in from around the city and Chesterfield. “A lot more traffic was here,” he says. “Philip Morris used to have more employees. DuPont had more employees.”

He recalls bakeries and shoe stores. “Now it’s thrift stores and junk stores,” he says.

Jerry Finn is the second-generation owner of Hull Street Outlet, an army surplus store on Jeff Davis. He takes a less bleak view of the street’s fortunes. But he acknowledges the problems. “Yeah, if you’re an old-time resident here — the attitude is entirely different,” he says. “This is not the good old days. Things change.”

Both Finn and Rosenson say they don’t stray far from their shops. And when they close at night, they head home. “We’re not here in the evening,” he says. “I have no idea what goes on after hours.”

That prostitution and other quality-of-life crimes plague the area doesn’t surprise him, he says: “You’re right off [Interstate] 95 in an area where people make money doing shift work.”

Not everyone’s even convinced the street was ever that great of a place to live. Jimmy Cox, an 84-year-old who opened a business on the highway in 1970, says it was always a rough neighborhood: “I’m not sure there were any good old days for Jeff Davis.”

 

click to enlarge Luis Pardo is growing the tire shop business he bought. He says city economic development officials stopped by recently but nothing came of it. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Luis Pardo is growing the tire shop business he bought. He says city economic development officials stopped by recently but nothing came of it.

Any growth the neighborhood has experienced in the past few years can be squarely attributed to a thriving Latino population.

Census data shows that Hispanics make up anywhere from 25 percent to 30 percent of the population, up more than 300 percent in some areas from the numbers recorded by the 2000 census. They own take-out joints, appliance stores, bodegas and thrift shops.

The changes have presented unique challenges for the community, with schools struggling to keep up and some lower-income areas such as Rudd’s Trailer Park — Richmond’s largest — facing growing pains and pressure from city officials (see sidebar).

Luis Pardo moved to Jeff Davis 18 years ago, taking a job at the used-tire shop he now owns and has expanded.

The area appeals to Latino residents because rent is low, Pardo says. It’s an affordable place to lay down roots and start climbing the economic ladder.

His business is thriving, he says. Pardo wants to add three bays to his shop. Last year, he says a city official stopped by and outlined a program to help finance his expansion plans, but he never heard from him again and nothing came of it.

Lee Downey, the city’s top economic development official, recently toured Jeff Davis with Councilwoman Trammell.

“There’s a lot of potential,” Downey says. “There’s some great business owners down there.”

After Mayor Jones presented his city budget last month, Trammell made a point to note that he didn’t mention any major projects in her district.

That doesn’t mean the city doesn’t want to help, Downey says. His department needs to find “creative sources of funding” and ensure that business owners are aware of existing programs, he says.

click to enlarge Joyce Elkins, Connie Butler and Ada Southall sit on the porch of their trailer with Alliyah Southall and Alberto Rivera. They live together in the trailer park behind Luis Pardo’s tire shop. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Joyce Elkins, Connie Butler and Ada Southall sit on the porch of their trailer with Alliyah Southall and Alberto Rivera. They live together in the trailer park behind Luis Pardo’s tire shop.

Tom Papa, a city developer who recently purchased 38 acres off the highway, says there’s one tool the city has been slow to use: state and federal historic tax credits.

Papa says the 28 old tobacco warehouses he bought already qualify for the credits, which have spurred significant development elsewhere in the city. But he says the city planning and economic development departments have yet to move on a long-discussed proposal to have the corridor designated as a historic district. That designation would make properties within the borders eligible for the program, which can provide millions of dollars in financing at no cost to the city for large projects. Individual home owners also are eligible.

Papa says he’s still developing plans for the warehouses and has yet to submit proposals to city planning officials.

It’s pretty much a no-brainer,” he says. “There’s lots and lots of old buildings over there. The houses are — they’re really beautiful. They are truly the workforce housing that the city wants to create.”

Downey says the city is working on the historic district internally. Funding is set aside for the project but the city has yet to hire a consultant to do the work.

It’s unclear why the city hasn’t moved quicker to pursue tax credits. Downey says his department is working on it. He stressed that, far from being a panacea, tax credits are just “one tool in the tool box.”

“We need to and are making a concerted effort to get down to the businesses to say, ‘If you had some support, what would you be doing,’” Downey says. “When you hear their stories, it’s pretty exciting.”

“The potential is there.” S

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