The Change Agent

Rick Tatnall would appreciate some customer service here.

For the last 10 years, Rick Tatnall has spent 50-plus hours a week working on a host of community-improvement projects. One day he hopes to find someone willing to pay him for his services. But for the time being, the 53-year-old is content to work gratis as a self-described cheerleader for all things Richmond.

To Tatnall, that means poking with a stick the public officials he says are standing in the way of Richmond's potential as a hub of historical tourism.

Recent months have seen him feud with city Department of Community and Economic Development head Peter Chapman for, among other things, what he calls a lack of appreciation for the potential of the Civil War's 150th anniversary to bring people and revenue to the region.

“Right now they're not doing anything” Tatnall says. Chapman, he says, hasn't responded to his original e-mail sent Nov. 22, nor the tersely worded follow-up he sent admonishing the deputy chief administrative officer for not addressing his concerns about a lack of planning. “Your Customer Service SUCKS,” read the subject line.

A 1979 graduate of the University of Virginia, Tatnall moved to Richmond in 1987. He wandered in and out of financial sector, taking up work in the insurance industry and then financial planning.

By 2000 he decided to commit to what he calls “the goals.” They are, as he says, “massively huge, existential and hard to comprehend.” Distilled to its core, Tatnall's desire is for Richmond to become a change agent for the world. And that process begins with the sesquicentennial.

The next half-decade may be the most important in Richmond's long history, Tatnall says. “We have an opportunity to transform the way Americans think about the Civil War using the very delicate issues of slavery and emancipation. That's how Richmond becomes a leader not just in the region but in the nation.”

Aside from changing the way Americans think about race and the Civil War, he's started a campaign to double the number of yearly visitors to the Richmond region.  

A $400-per-month Church Hill apartment serves as Tatnall's base of operations, which he calls Replenish Richmond. He hand delivers missives to City Council staff on the importance of tourism. Plans are under way for a summit on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to be held in March.

It's solitary work. Not being beholden to the responsibilities of children or family provides the freedom to take risks, he says. The freedom also allows him to play a necessary role in the dialogue of the city. “I have to be a pain in the ass,” he says. “Things are screwed up. You have to constructively criticize.”


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