Thursday, December 06, 2007

Greater Richmond: First Create It, Then Save It

You may not have noticed it, but at the end of November, David Ress of the TD wrote an article entitled “Business leaders eager for input from public.” In the article Mr. Ress indicated that the very same business leaders who paid Dr. James A. Crupi to write his report, “Putting the Future Together,” have decided to implement Dr. Crupi’s recommendation that the business community take the lead in developing a plan for rescuing “Greater Richmond.” I guess this makes sense. If you’re going to lay out big bucks to hire a consultant to recommend that you become “Greater Richmond’s” superhero, you better be ready to don the mask and cape.

At first I was a bit upset. Where did these business leaders get the gall to appoint themselves our saviors? Is there some provision in the Constitution or laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia that says that when you’re not happy with the way things are going you can appoint yourself to fix them? Do we not have in the Commonwealth a General Assembly and a Governor that we elected to make and implement policy? Do we not have in the local jurisdictions boards of supervisors or city councils, not to mention Uncle Doug, that we elected to do exactly what the business community has appointed itself to do? What ever happened to the republic we fought so hard for only 230 or so years ago?

But then I started thinking. Who was I to complain about the business community? Aren’t I, as a maven, self appointed? Oh yes, I studied long and hard and struggled through six decades of life to qualify to be a maven. But I have to admit that nobody elected to me to this position. So, if I can self appoint myself maven, I have to concede that our business leaders can self appoint themselves regional saviors.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this posting. Is there such a thing as “Greater Richmond?” I have studied my map of the Commonwealth long and hard and cannot find anything called “Greater Richmond.” I see the City of Richmond. I see various counties surrounding the city. But there is no “Greater Richmond.”

How can this be? If there is no “Greater Richmond,” how can there be such a thing as the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce? I went to the chamber’s website to find out about this “Greater Richmond.” On the page “About Us,” under “The Facts,” it says that the chamber is,

“Located in Richmond, Virginia and serving the City of Richmond, and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico."

I guess that means that “Greater Richmond” means the city plus Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties. That makes sense to me. The city and the counties do make a nice little compact area, except for Hanover, which is on the wrong side of the Chickahominy. But… in Dr. Crupi’s report he talks as if “Greater Richmond” also included Charles City, Goochland, New Kent, and Powhatan counties. He also sometimes uses the term “Metro Richmond.” Does Metro mean the same thing as Greater?

But, you may say, this is all semantics. I agree. The definition of “Greater” or “Metro” Richmond is not the major issue. In his report, Dr. Crupi sets out as one of the reasons there is little regional cooperation in the Richmond area, “[t]he inability or unwillingness of metro leaders or citizens to think of themselves as a region.” I think that what Dr. Crupi is saying is that there is no feeling of community in the area.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has the following definitions for “community:”
1- a unified body of individuals;
2- the people with common interests living in an area;
3- an interacting of various kinds of individuals in a common location; or
4- a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.
These definitions use word like unified or common or interacting or together. Unfortunately, none of these words currently apply to the people living in Greater or Metro Richmond.

Rather than being a single community, Greater Richmond is an amalgam of hundreds of small local communities. Aside from those places with historic names like Midlothian, Short Pump, Glen Allen, Bon Air, Mechanicsville, Highland Springs or Varina, there are all those named neighborhoods in Richmond City and the tons of developments built in the suburbs over the years. The unfortunate fact is that the vast majority of the people living in the counties surrounding Richmond do not consider themselves connected to the residents of the city.

Take a ride out Broad Street. Take a ride out Hull Street Road west of route 288. Take a ride out the many other suburban boulevards. What you see is mile after mile of commercial development. Our suburbs have been developed in a way that the residents have all their needs satisfied right near their homes. Need food, go to the local strip mall. Need gasoline, go to the local strip mall. Need medicine, go to the local strip mall. In addition, look at all the jobs that are located out on those suburban boulevards. The fact is that because of the way the suburbs have developed a majority of the people living there have no need to ever enter the City of Richmond. There is no feeling of unity or interdependence or togetherness or connectedness between the residents of the suburbs and the residents of the city.

(An aside: My daughter is a high school teacher in Henrico County. She told me that in one of her classes more that half the students stated they had NEVER been in the City of Richmond.)

Before our business leaders can became saviors of Greater Richmond, they need to create a community. They need to find a way for residents of the city to care about the problems of people living in the suburbs. They need to find a way for residents of the counties to care about the problems of people in the city. On page 28 of his report, Dr. Crupi listed the dismal statistics of poor people living in the city: 19% of the residents of the city live in poverty; 25% of the city’s children live in households with annual incomes of $20,650 or less; 74% of the students in Richmond Public Schools receive subsidized lunches; etc. The business leaders have to get the residents of the counties to care about the poverty in the city. Our business leaders need to find a way to deal with the attitude shown in a letter to the TD back in October:

“Does anyone really believe that suburban citizens will experience any improvement in their lives if such a [regional] government is adopted? Do the surrounding county residents want to see their current quality of life decline to the point that mediocrity and complacency are benchmarks? Should the county citizens be penalized for Richmond's failures?”

Or in this response to TD reporter Michael Paul Williams’ article last week about the inferior quality of school buildings in the city as compared with the counties:

"If the students and teachers can't take care of what they have, what makes it mandatory to give them more. The majority of suburban students, teachers and parents take pride and care in their educations and schools ... Problem is that the people that stay in Richmond don't care about the schools their kids go to."

I am sure there are equally negative attitudes held by city residents toward our suburban cousins.

So, our business saviors, the first thing you must do is convince us all that we live in a community all the time, not just when we suffer from a hurricane or a drying up of our beloved James. You must show us that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. You must convince us that we will sink or swim together.

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