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Unshackling Richmond 

In a city that lacks an identity, some people say history and tourism could fill a gaping void.

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It's undisputed that Richmond has plenty to offer in the broader narrative of the nation's history — from the colonial era to the Revolution and through to the Civil War, Reconstruction and the civil rights era.

Making that story heard outside of city limits has proven far more challenging in the modern era. But some local historic preservation leaders say that finding the solution may be up against the clock: A proposed downtown ballpark could bury parts of Shockoe Bottom's slave history, and with the Civil War sesquicentennial looming in 2011 the city lacks an articulate plan to capitalize on an expected tourism surge.

“I think maybe tough economic times have helped put a fine point on this, on the question of what Richmond wants itself to be,” says Paul A. Levengood, president of the Virginia Historical Society. “If we're not necessarily going to be a financial center, what do we hang our hat on? History seems to be something that Richmond really has to offer, but we haven't had really a comprehensive way of presenting it.”

There was no better illustration of how a comprehensive presentation of all of Richmond's offerings might help promote all the city's museum efforts than April 29 at the University of Richmond's Robins Center, where more than 2,000 history buffs gathered for a day-long program on the years leading up to the Civil War.

The event was the first in a series of university symposiums the state's Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission presented. When the crowds broke occasionally between speakers, they filed out into the gangway to be captured by display kiosks from every major historical museum in the city.

At the Museum of the Confederacy booth, a man admiring pictures from the museum's collection turns to Megan Stagg, a museum spokeswoman.

“It's a shame it's all covered up by MCV,” he tells her, sparking a conversation about the museum's location on East Clay Street, in the heart of the medical campus, and how difficult it is to navigate among the city's seemingly unending wealth of museums and historic sites.

What would help, he says, is some sort of hub-and-spokes approach to historic tourism — a central visitors' center to pull the entire story together in one convenient place. That's not lost on museum heads.

“There really isn't [an umbrella organization],” says Levengood, whose museum plays a major role in creating a roving state exhibit for the sesquicentennial. But he says it's something City Hall is starting to support. “I think there's been lots of institutions and individuals working individually at it,” he says, “There hasn't been a real concerted effort.”

Jack Berry, director of the Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau, disagrees.

“I think what you're looking for is … visitors' centers,” Berry says, pointing to three — in the downtown convention center, at the airport, and a new one at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World off Interstate 95 in Hanover County. “Also the state operates a visitors' center at the bell tower in the Capitol.”

“Those would be hubs,” Berry says. He dismisses the thought that they may be three more spokes.

A lack of a coordinated effort goes against all advice — solicited or not — that the city has received, says Waite Rawls, president of the Museum of the Confederacy. “It's one of the things that was pointed out in the Crupi Report both times,” he says. “There ought to be a [Richmond] department of tourism.”

Swimming against one conception, that the museum's devoted to pumping the egos of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Rawls has been in talks with Delegate Delores McQuinn, who leads the city's Slave Trail Commission, on how best to bring black antebellum history into the public view.

“Historic tourism could be Richmond's cash cow,” says David Herring, director of the Alliance to Preserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods.

The city's collective unwillingness to see its history as a tourist draw, Herring says, is perfectly illustrated in the Shockoe Bottom ballpark plan, which he says could potentially trample on the area's historic significance. He points east to Williamsburg, which is a fraction of Richmond's size and home to far fewer historical resources. Still, Herring says, Williamsburg produces “as much tourism revenue as Richmond does.”

Actually, Williamsburg rakes in about $76 million less annually from domestic travelers. In 2007 tourists spent around $571.9 million in Richmond and $495.4 million in Williamsburg. That Richmond, with such an unfocused tourism message, is neck and neck with one of the country's most visited historical tourism destinations, Herring says, speaks only of untapped potential.

Herring has advocated that a small-area master plan study be done in Shockoe Bottom ahead of any decisions about ballparks or other development. Councilwoman Ellen Robinson proposed funding such a study two weeks ago.

“Other cities ... that have much less history and cultural resources devote more money — and dollar for dollar they produce more revenue off of that than Richmond does,” Herring says. Shockoe Bottom presents an opportunity to create a major tourist epicenter, he says, and from this “you could start to connect all of the cultural resources of Richmond.”

Whether it's a physical location or just a unified concept, Herring says the lack of an epicenter may help explain Richmond's perpetual underachievement as a first-tier city.

“I think it's in the back of most citizens' minds — in the front for some,” Rawls says. “Tourism creates jobs and creates taxes, but at the end of the day those people go home to Indiana. … you don't have to build schools,” Rawls says. “It's almost all revenue and no expense.”

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