Joining the LMR Quest Class of 2012 offered a provocative challenge for me. Going into it, I knew next-to-nothing about any progress on the massive issues facing my hometown, and I didn’t know if I had the patience or the passion to learn about it. What I did know was my hometown suffered from glaring differences that separated us economically, differences that seemed to either provide or preclude opportunities for our residents, and differences that obstructed our City’s ability to function as a regional leader. Differences that had been here all my life.
I went into LMR with the perspective that the City was trapped inside a time warp, unable to fix its most destructive problems such as systemic poverty, last-in-class public schools, and racial division. Moreover, I assumed our City’s leaders were not interested in modernizing their systems or their approach to these issues. At our retreat in Williamsburg, I began to see that my classmates were not stuck in that mindset or time warp, and they did not see our issues as unsolvable. As the program took shape, I saw my classmates take a genuine interest in the factors contributing to the dysfunction in our City.
Now, eight years later, I can see progress. Maybe I would not be able to see it had I not been in LMR, but that is part of the science here. If we just assume we have unsolvable issues, accept them and stop there, the scenery doesn’t change much. If we look a little deeper and recognize the components of the issues we face and recognize their connections to other issues, we can see change happen. And that’s my advertisement for LMR.
About two years after my Quest Class, Julius (Joey) P. Smith, the venerable longtime Chairman of Williams Mullen, asked me to consider joining the board of the Economic Development Authority of the City of Richmond (EDA) where he served as Chair. Without my LMR experience, I’m not sure I would have taken the bait. Out of my great respect for Joey, I did some research on the EDA, met with my district Councilperson, received an appointment from City Council, and was sworn in in 2014.
The EDA provides a broad set of benefits to the City. Often it serves as a conduit and provides oversight for loan and grant programs emanating from the Federal Government, the Commonwealth, or the City. This largely administrative function directly assists hundreds of Richmond business owners through relief and incentive programs. We rely on the City’s Department of Economic Development to handle this, and they do a great job. I can see first-hand how these programs create life-changing opportunities for aspiring and existing entrepreneurs and business owners from all parts of Richmond, driving down the poverty rate and driving up the creation of jobs inside our City. Some of these programs are outright grants and some are loans that banks would never make. They are lifelines, and while they are not the whole solution, they are part of the solution to some of our most destructive problems.
The EDA also owns and oversees several real estate properties in the City. These properties share a similar pedigree in that they were not contributing to the City’s tax base before the EDA took them over, and now they are. They include the Bon Secours Training Center (formerly the Washington Redskins Training Center) near Scotts Addition, the Stone Brewing facility on Nicholson Street in Fulton, and the Westhampton School development on Patterson Avenue in the West End just to name a few.
In my role as Chair of the EDA, I measure our success in part by what I learned at LMR. Despite the local press clippings on EDA projects, a little deeper look will reveal the positive impact they have on our community. In each project, the developer is contractually committed to create local jobs, to reach certain City tax hurdles, and if there is construction, a substantial percentage of minority owned businesses must be included in the mix. No, it’s not the whole solution, but it is part of the solution to some of our most persistent problems.
The issues in our City that felt ancient to me 2012 are still here. Some – certainly not all – simply need more funding in order to get better. There are two ways to get more funding: raise taxes or add new taxpayers. Those of us on the EDA Board believe new taxpayers with new job opportunities are the keys to increasing funding, and we focus on that mission. When we attract a new company to Richmond, we move the needle on our collective ability to address our challenges. Dozens of companies have moved to Richmond in the past 10 years with the EDA’s help, and for the first time in memory, our population is growing. Indeed, we’re growing faster than the rest of our Commonwealth and our nation. This positive momentum rolls into new affordable housing, better transportation, new and renovated public schools, and a more diversified tax base. This is real economic progress, and while it is not the whole solution, it is part of the solution to our most pervasive problems.
LMR helped me see the complex issues we face in Richmond. It helped me understand it is not enough for us just to give those issues a label and toss them in pile for a later generation. Our problems are more nuanced than a label, and we should not wait for a later generation when it is within our power to solve them ourselves. At LMR we were reminded that economics are not the end-all or even our objective. That said, it’s the degree of economic success that informs the range of possibilities for our objectives.
The EDA plays a vital role in a much larger cast of organizations and individuals who are committed to improving our City and our region. I have enjoyed being a part of the EDA and particularly being able to see the steady progress we’re making through our programs and projects. You can effect positive change through commissions and authorities in many ways. I urge you to go on the websites for Richmond and the surrounding Counties and get involved. Happy to help if I can. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LMR Class of 2012
Managing Director, Branch Complex Manager, BB&T Scott & Stringfellow