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IS RICHMOND BURNING?: City government's policies hurt the poor and involve no public input

For many of us Richmond as we know it is not about a convention center, the Ukrops family, city council nor Virginia Commonwealth University. Richmond is swimming in the James River, walking on bumpy sidewalks, the people on the streets and rich cultures exuding from various music, art and political scenes. It’s hard to deny that Richmond’s got a lot of flavor stemming from its unique identity as an independent city with small town appeal.

It’s all soon to become a fading memory. A decade of change has altered Richmond with the growth of VCU, the construction of the convention center and the targeting of the East Broad Street corridor as a tourist hub. What many people cherish about Richmond is threatened as developers and corporations hungrily eye Richmond as a place for exploitation and profiting. But what’s done is done: a myopic city council and city elite have opened the door allowing for projects like a convention center, a performing arts center and VCU to be grand saviors of this city.

Richmond Indymedia wants to know what will a convention center and performing arts center do for the poor and homeless of the city? What will these projects do for a crumbling public school system? What will VCU and its private developer friends do with all of the low-income people who are displaced by rampant construction of student apartments and luxury townhouses? It’s a big deal to question how the city government’s policies affect impoverished people because Richmond’s poverty rate for all people is close to 25 percent while 32 percent of the city’s children are poor. That means a lot of people are in need of a social safety net that Richmond is not willing to provide. Two questions remain to be asked: who is making these decisions and who are these changes for?

With this feature Richmond Indymedia plans to tie together recent events with city government and development projects to expose how the future direction of the city is not being decided by the people but by a corrupt power structure that runs deep in influence.

Let’s be frank: Richmond is run by a group of backwards politicians that are controlled by the corporate elite of the town. Recent scandals have turned the council on its head, with the conviction of Sixth District Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin for tax fraud and evasion and the arrest of Eighth District Councilwoman Gewn Hedgepeth for bribery. Writer William Mullen explains that “Indeed, anyone with an interest in social justice is tempted to cheer for the downfall of any and all of our local politicians. Richmond's City Council has done nothing but foist a pro-rich agenda on our city in recent history. Best described by City Manager Calvin Jamison's slogan ‘Richmond is open for business,’ our politicians are tripping over each other to advertise this small southern city as being wide-open for exploitation by the greedy and powerful…These politicians take their orders from some very smart, very calculating, cold-blooded rich white men. Their policies are increasing inequality, not by mistake, but on purpose, because it’s good for business. Their intent is simply to increase inequality, keep wages down, give corporations a free reign, and increase profits for elites. This reality must condition our analysis of recent political scandals. Despite our temptation to cheer at the recent downfall of Sa'ad El-Amin and Gwen Hedgepeth, we progressives ought to think carefully and critically about their arrests.”[Read Mullen’s article]

Although some power is vested in Richmond City Council, the real deals are brokered behind closed doors with private government entities like the Richmond Renaissance and Broad Street Community Development Authority. Community researcher Greg Will writes, “The city of Richmond has embarked on a multi-million dollar development project designed to exclude poor people from Broad Street in favor of tourists and convention-goers. At the center of the project is the Broad Street Community Development Authority (CDA), a private government that is not accountable to Richmond City Council and is run by the developers who will profit from the project.” In his research, Will uncovers the creation of this CDA, who runs it and the amount of public money that has been spent on its projects. [Read Will’s story]

The area that the CDA is focusing on includes the convention center, which has cost the city more than $50 million to finance. The Richmond Convention Center reconstruction project was dreamt up to increase tourism and to increase a hotel lodging tax base for the city. So far, the convention center has destroyed several blocks of historic Jackson Ward and opened to a less than lucrative future. An article published in Style Weekly revealed that convention participation in the country has plummeted in the past three years and other cities comparable to Richmond already have their own competitive convention centers.

City planners are banking on the Virginia Performing Arts Complex, which the people will finance with a one percent meals tax increase, to give Richmond a competitive edge over other cities with a music hall, corporate retail and office space, and theater. As construction of this center begins, building space downtown will be evacuated by small business owners and the people who use the space for shopping needs and for public transportation. Although the Times-Dispatch says that the downtown Broad Street corridor is an eyesore, many people of color have used the area as a social and commercial space for decades. ”The recently completed expansion of Richmond's convention center is part of a plan to turn a stretch of downtown Broad Street from a shared public space into a backdrop for conventions and tourism. This change will displace small businesses and the working class population they serve, and make millions for investors and developers,” writes Greg Will in an article on the history of Broad Street. [Read the article]



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