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Region's Problems Solved Last Thursday 

The Big Answer: We need more regional cooperation.

Participants in the two-day Greater Richmond Challenge also made these discoveries: Individuals need to become more involved in the community, and local leaders should be proactive, not reactive.

The Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce organized the event, in which it challenged teams to "discover new and existing creative solutions to our region's issues."

Every year the chamber takes about 100 people — "the typical CEOs, chairmen of the boards" — to a different city to collect ideas for the Richmond area, says Stephanie Brenner-Kirksey, the chamber's executive vice president for programs and services. This year she wondered, "How do we get people, just regular people, involved?"

Or at least those who could take off two days from work.

The chamber sent out open invitations, mainly via e-mail. The 104 people who participated included a kitchen assistant at The Hard Shell, a Car Pool employee, a 78-year-old lifelong Richmonder and Bobby Ukrop.

They paid $375 each — except for 25 people who took the chamber up on its offer of financial help — to pay for meals, transportation and a night at the Marriott.

Each person was put on a 10-person team, given a T-shirt and assigned a topic — such as education or crime — and spent Thursday racing around to talk with local experts.

One of the teams tackling affordable housing, for instance, visited William Byrd Community House, South Richmond SRO (a dwelling for previously homeless adults), the Catholic Diocese of Richmond's Refugee and Immigration Services, Habitat for Humanity of Hanover County and an apartment complex in Chesterfield County.

It was something like a grown-up version of Sticky Rice's annual "Cannonball Run"-style scavenger hunt, but without the heavy drinking.

In their Friday wrap-up, a few groups offered specific solutions, such as having a regional transportation authority promote more equitable, region-oriented funding and planning for transportation. ("We already have that," says Patricia Villa, spokeswoman for the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, established in 1969.)

One group signed a contract to stay together for a year and commit themselves to raising money for Head Start and to becoming involved in "stressed middle schools."

But regional cooperation remained the oft-played note. Leaders need to start looking beyond their own provinces, said John Sarvay with Luck Stone. When local officials spoke to participants Thursday night, Sarvay noticed, "every single planner came in and said, 'Let me tell you about how cool we are in Hanover.'" Or Henrico, or Chesterfield, or Richmond, he said.

Dave Gau of ShaveFX Inc. acknowledged during his presentation that no one in his group, assigned to ponder transportation, had any background in transportation.

So, he posited, what would happen "if we were people who actually had direct influence on what happened in this region?" Good question. S
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