April 24, 2012 News & Features » Cover Story


The Perfect Mayor 

Want real change in Richmond? Here's where the next mayor should start.

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With the mayoral race six months away, a serious challenger to Mayor Dwight C. Jones has yet to emerge. And the clock is ticking toward the June 12 deadline for candidates to file. Only Rick Tatnall, a longtime activist and political newcomer, has declared his intention to run. So the prospect of a race as hard-charging as the last — a five-way battle to replace L. Douglas Wilder — seems increasingly unlikely.

Isn't it time to demand more? Eight years after switching to an elected mayor form of government, Richmond has yet to produce a true visionary. Which got us thinking: What if we could build the perfect mayor? What would he or she look like? What if there were a big button to push that would give Richmond a mayor that would move the city forward and enact significant change to strike at our most vexing problems: poverty, underperforming schools, racial inequality, public transportation and the lack of job opportunities for low-income residents.

Perhaps Richmond is too fickle, too politically genteel to produce a true change agent. And we've been burned trying. Remember Wilder? The former governor created a wave of anticipation when he launched his campaign in 2004 to become Richmond's first elected mayor in 50 years. He was supposed to be the savior, to finally give voice to the city's big problems, to produce a vision and bring us together. Then he took office. His massive ego was too much for City Hall. He picked fights to pick fights. Aside from hiring a top-notch police chief, he did almost nothing of substance.

Mayor Jones took office in 2009 promising to clean up the mess and rebuild the bridges burned by Wilder. He has yet to officially announce whether he'll seek re-election, but it's all but assured that he will.

Are we in good hands with Jones? That depends on your perspective. Altogether Jones has played it relatively safe during his three-plus years in office. But he's also been somewhat complacent. He came in preaching the virtues of social justice, reducing poverty, improving education and cleaning house so the city could begin to function reliably and efficiently.

This is important to the Jones doctrine: Richmond first must take care of itself before attacking the bigger social and economic ills, which require a regional approach. Bus service needs to expand deeper into the counties, for example, and more regional cooperation is needed in economic development. Who knows, maybe Jones really is serious about those issues. His poverty commission is stocked with formidable thinkers. He's demanding more of Richmond schools and pushing for change. And for once he's seriously talking about building on the city's greatest asset: the James River.

But what if we could do better? What if Richmond had the choice of electing a change agent to cut the crap and get right to the problems? Here's a modest proposal for what that platform could look like:

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1. Expand the Bus Lines

The problem: We'll start with an easy one. It's mind-numbingly ridiculous that the Richmond area lacks a real, regional bus system. In a study released by the Brookings Institution last fall, Richmond's regional bus system ranked among the worst in the country when it came to connecting people with jobs. The study found that 74 percent of the jobs in metro Richmond were inaccessible by bus, and only 16 percent of the low-skilled jobs were accessible by bus.

The solution: Expand full-service buses. It's quite simply the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to address the city's lack of job opportunities for low-income residents. There's an abundance of entry-level retail jobs in the suburbs. It also combats rising gas prices and the lack of funding for new road construction — buses take cars off the road, which means less wear and tear.

How to sell: Richmond already has a well-run bus company — GRTC Transit System has a history of good management — and the business community long has supported extending the bus lines. There's no quick and easy way to break up Richmond's concentrated poverty, but connecting more inner-city residents with the region's job centers with better bus service is a good place to start.

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2. Retail the City

The problem: Sure, the city needs a long-term plan and strategy, one that incorporates housing, transportation and job training that targets the lower-income communities. But there are a dozen or more short-term opportunities that the city has identified as part of its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, approved in October 2010. Some may take a little longer, such as bringing residential and retail development to the 25th Street and Nine Mile Road corridor in the East End, in a largely depressed area, and plans to improve the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor and other city gateways. Redeveloping low-income areas, in which developers are reluctant to invest, takes considerable time.

The solution: There are market-ready projects involving city property that could start today. Developers long have expressed interest in the former GRTC bus barn at Robinson and Cary streets. It's nearly 7 acres, nestled between Carytown, Byrd Park and the Fan, making it one of the biggest pieces of underdeveloped land in one of the city's most desirable housing districts. The city has dragged its feet for years on this project. Developers would line up to convert the property into mixed-income housing.

City Stadium is another market-ready site. Big-box retailers already have expressed interest in the 16-acre site, which is bounded by Interstate 195, the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway. True, it's a political hot potato — some nearby residents have expressed concerns about turning the property over to retailers, and some worry about competition to Carytown — but it could be a major jobs and tax-revenue generator if developed properly.

And lastly there's the Boulevard. The city controls 62 acres on the northern end, near interstates 64 and 95. The property that includes The Diamond, Arthur Ashe Center and the city's fleet maintenance shed that can be turned over to developers tomorrow. It could be developed with or without moving The Diamond.

How to sell: All three projects immediately would begin generating jobs, retail and real estate taxes to the city, all of which are desperately needed. All can be developed within three or four years. Sure, some neighbors will protest, but ask them if they'd rather you raise their real estate taxes to generate revenue.

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3. Desegregate Schools

Mayor Jones got tough with the Richmond Public Schools, putting the School Board and the superintendent through the public wringer with his politically charged school accountability and efficiency task force. Last week it offered cost-cutting measures to close the school system's $24 million budget gap — but at what cost?

The problem: The city school system never will improve if the primary focus is on how to cut funding year after year. Political leaders should be more concerned that not enough children are graduating ready for college or with the skills to get jobs. Or graduating at all. Until that changes, the cycle of poverty in the city will continue.

The real problem with inner-city schools is the same problem with the city at large — income inequality. More than 70 percent of Richmond's schoolchildren live in poverty, measured by the number eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches.

The solution: Studies show the most effective way to improve test scores and graduation rates of poor students (and in Richmond that means minority students) is to create diversity — not according to race, but income. This has worked in other places, most famously in Wake County, N.C., which merged its majority white schools in Wake County with the majority black inner-city schools in Raleigh in the 1970s. In 2000 the school system implemented an integration policy that dictated no more than 40 percent of any school's population could receive free or reduced-price lunches, which broke up clusters of poor, majority black schools in Raleigh with an extended busing program. It worked. Studies show that minority students perform substantially better in economically diverse schools.

How to sell: The plan unraveled last year when Wake County's School Board abandoned the program, going back to neighborhood schools. Some parents complained of long bus rides and the lack of parental involvement because schools were too far away. But 84 percent of Wake County's 143,000 students lived within five miles of their designated schools under the integrated system. And according to one study of 41,000 parents, 94 percent reported being satisfied with their children's schools.

By population and geography, Wake County is similar to metro Richmond. Both are between 700 and 800 square miles; Wake has 143,000 students; there are 130,702 students in Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield in Henrico, according to the most recent data. It's difficult to imagine Chesterfield and Henrico agreeing to a regional, integrated school system. It wouldn't be easy, and it wouldn't happen overnight. But these days both suburban jurisdictions have more than their share of schools chock full of poor kids. And they've all been facing massive budget shortfalls. Consolidation will save money. If Wake County can do it, Richmond can too.

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4. Propose a Regional Government

The problem: The concentrated poverty in the city, which leads to all kinds of social ills that affect the entire region. And operating three separate governments is expensive — and a hindrance for many other reasons. Yes, political leaders in Chesterfield and Henrico will freak out. They'll have a good laugh at the proposal. The tea party types and anti-big government conservatives will thrash the idea, saying it simply will create a giant, regional bureaucracy that wastes hordes of taxpayer dollars.

The solution: Combining resources will improve economic development efforts, lead to enormous cost savings by eliminating duplicate services and make metro Richmond stronger politically at the state level, which will help with all sorts of funding issues. And it will allow for regional initiatives to break up the city's dense poverty, not to mention the steadily increasing poverty in the counties.

How to sell: Consolidating services among the three jurisdictions would lead to huge cost savings. Believe it or not, it's been studied seriously and proposed before, by Sen. John Watkins, the longtime Republican from Chesterfield County. In 1994 Watkins introduced legislation in the General Assembly that would create a regional government to deliver some basic services, namely water, sewage treatment, trash removal, transportation and health services. A consultant was hired to study the concept, and it was determined that significant cost savings could be had by consolidating services delivered by three separate localities into one agency. Political leaders in the counties flipped, and Watkins — in the House of Delegates at the time — stopped pushing it.

But that was 18 years ago. Creating a regional government to deliver basic services would be a good, unthreatening place to start in 2013 or 2014. Richmond was one of the deadliest cities in America in the mid-1990s; it isn't anymore. And Chesterfield and Henrico counties now have more people living below the poverty line than Richmond, according to the most recent Census figures. In other words, a regional government isn't just about solving the city's problems anymore. S



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