Statewide tourism initiative to promote African-American history gets the governor's endorsement … 

Street Talk

AAHA Taps Cultural History, TourismCity Probes Pump House PotentialCouncilwoman Buys The Blight Next DoorInmates Make Adoption EasyJ.C. Penney Heads West on Midlothian AAHA Taps Cultural History, Tourism If a new group dedicated to the promotion of Virginia as a tourist destination has its way, the state's slogan could be expanded. Think: Virginia is for lovers of multiculturalism. As syrupy and politically correct as it sounds, it's precisely the idea behind the African American Heritage Association of Virginia. According to organizer Kent Ruffin, AAHA! VA, a new nonprofit group comprising city leaders in business, education, hospitality, government and tourism, is just the agency to make the difference. "There are other organizations that are centered on cultural tourism," says Ruffin. But unlike other groups that get lost in the shuffle of a city's urban revitalization attempts, Ruffin says AAHA! VA has the potential to develop real unifying muscle that can steer city development — particularly downtown and in Jackson Ward — back on track. In a notebook Ruffin sketches a map of New York City from 1st to 6th avenues with New York University and Cooper Union at its heart. This, he says, it what Richmond can be if it realizes its multicultural heritage and learns how to successfully attract tourism and promote it. New York was once just like Jackson Ward and downtown Richmond, says Ruffin. "There were factories, old houses, abandoned buildings. It was considered to be one of the worst areas in the world and now it's come back to be one of its biggest jewels." AAHA! VA aims to provide a more effective way for African-American history to be researched, conserved, presented and used. "We're a clearinghouse for information but our primary concern is economic development," says Ruffin. It's economic development that could permanently be damaged if left only to city officials and planners, says Ruffin. He criticizes city leaders for not considering the historical contexts of neighborhoods, such as Jackson Ward, before undertaking dinosaur-size projects such as the Richmond Convention Center expansion. Already Gov. Jim Gilmore has acknowledged AAHA! VA and encouraged its role in the community. The group, which will provide assistance statewide to any organization wishing to start or expand an African-American history program, hopes to build partnerships with public and private agencies committed to growing local heritage and tourism. But ultimately, Ruffin says, with support from the community AAHA! VA could help make Richmond's urban revitalization a unifying process like that in New York City. "We want to promote how integrated our history really is," says Ruffin. "It's just like 'Amistad,' when you begin to understand history's travails, you make a compelling story, not for monetized capital but social capital. It's this social interaction that holds us together." Brandon Walters City Probes Pump House Potential George Washington first surveyed the land along the James River that envelops the Kanawha Canal. Therefore, it's not unthinkable that maybe it was he who first thought the site would be an ideal location for a dance pavilion. The old Pump House that's nestled behind the Carillon on the north bank of the James has served Richmond for centuries. "But what's significant about this building is that it was abandoned in the late 1920s," says Ralph White, naturalist with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. "Only now is it being reopened." Last Saturday the historic Pump House that's owned and maintained by the city was open to the public, for the first and only time this fall. It's one of three times yearly that the public can view the interior of the building that once housed the city's water pumps in its basement and hosted some of the city's most popular cotillions of the fin de siecle. The Pump House has been the topic of speculation for developers who hoped to purchase it from the city and convert it to residential use or commercial space. But because of its rich history and connection to the Kanawha Canal, the first canal in the country, the city believes the property should remain that of the taxpayers. Currently the city is working to get the two-story stone building stabilized. "We have revealed the old iron work which is quite lovely and we're working on the floor which is not so lovely," explains White. Inside, the Pump House resembles an old English castle; on the outside it looks like an old church. Ultimately the city hopes to restore the space so the public may use it again. White envisions string quartets and modern dance groups performing in its intimate setting. "There's a lot of history here and a lot of connections to the community." B.W. Councilwoman Buys The Blight Next Door If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. That's the message 7th District City Councilwoman Delores McQuinn and other anti-blight activists are delivering in an effort to reclaim Richmond's abandoned houses. McQuinn, who has railed against absentee owners who let vacant properties fall into disrepair — and into delinquency on city real estate taxes — recently purchased such a property. It's the one next to her own East End home. McQuinn paid about $4,600 for 902 N. 35th St., which she describes as having been "just a real nuisance and a headache" for more than a decade. McQuinn adds that she put up with the eyesore and the criminals and critters it attracted until last year, when she put a bid on the house to "get the process moving." The councilwoman says she got a fair deal on the property, purchased at auction last month. Hers was the highest of several bids, she says. (Records could not be obtained by press time.) Preservation activist and McQuinn supporter Jennie Knapp of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods says purchasing abandoned homes, many of which have architectural or historical interest, may be the best way to keep them from being demolished by the city. Such properties often are purchased by speculators who hope to resell them at a large profit should development make them more valuable. Knapp says such absentee owners have little incentive to bring the homes up to code or to pay real estate taxes on time, and because of the time, trouble and money it takes, the city has little incentive to go after them. Knapp says new programs and tax credits make buying and renovating such homes more appealing. McQuinn says she plans to renovate her new house and connect it with an extension in the back to her 900 N. 35th St. house. "I'm out here planting flowers right now," she reports. Rob Morano Inmates Make Adoption Easy Save Our Shelter, the nonprofit organization committed to helping end animal abuse and neglect, is celebrating its fifth anniversary in Richmond with another milestone. This November the shelter will begin a joint program with the state's Department of Corrections that aims to pair together inmates with shelter animals. The program, called Pen Pals, is based on a similar initiative that's worked in some Ohio correctional facilities to help hard-to-place animals find homes. The goal is to match a dog that might be abused, untrained or abandoned with a non-violent inmate who is responsible for caring for the dog and giving it obedience lessons so that it might have better chances of being adopted. "It's really a novel way of helping to solve a problem," says Jennie Knapp, an active S.O.S. member. It's a win-win situation, says Knapp in that it teaches inmates responsibility and how to care for another life and it helps the shelter by training the animals and temporarily relieving overcrowding by boarding the animals at the correctional facilities. It's the first program in what S.O.S. hopes will grow to be a statewide effort. The program is scheduled to begin next month. "Right now we're waiting for the final papers to be signed," says Knapp. Department of Corrections officials say that's likely to happen this week. Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell is sponsoring the dogs for the pilot program at James River Correctional Facility in Goochland, says Knapp. It costs nearly $250 to prepare each dog for the program because each one is spayed or neutered and undergoes complete evaluation from a veterinarian. Non-violent inmates who are approved to work with the animals will learn animal care from veterinarians and animal obedience techniques from certified trainers like Gail Mihalcoe, who helped teach inmates at Ohio facilities how to train dogs that were later adopted. "I see this as building pride and self-esteem," in the inmates as well as growing pet adoptions, she says. The Pen Pals program extends the S.O.S. mission in the community. "We've never been just about animals," says Knapp. "It's about people." B.W. J.C. Penney Heads West on Midlothian The J.C. Penney at Cloverleaf Mall closed last week, but mall officials say the blow will not be fatal to the aging retail center. The mall anchor closed Oct. 26 after weeks of close-out sales. A new J.C. Penney store is set to open at Chesterfield Towne Center this month, a Chesterfield Towne Center official says. J.C. Penney Senior Merchandising Assistant Eric Seabrook says employees at the Cloverleaf Mall store will move to the Chesterfield Towne Center store and none will lose their jobs. "We're looking forward to having a newer, cleaner store with fresh merchandise." Seabrook says the move was a corporate decision to follow a shifting customer base and not due to any dissatisfaction with Cloverleaf Mall. While the store showed signs of "wear and tear," he says, staying 20 to 30 years in a location is "the average" for a J.C. Penney store. Cloverleaf Mall was built in 1972. The mall has prospective tenants interested in the Penney space, says General Manager Dwight Rice. "We are actively seeking a replacement tenant … and there has been much interest shown, and we look forward to [signing one soon]." Rice adds the mall will add a food-court vendor and a retailer to fill the former 10,000-square-foot Piccadilly space before Christmas. R.M.

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