As Norm noted, it did not take long for the Times-Dispatch to weigh in on yesterday's developments. In a three point editorial, the TD argues that Shortpump is now the business hub of the Richmond metropolitan area and that despite the millions being poured into downtown developments, downtown Richmond is dead. Not only that, it turns out art centers have a mixed track record when it comes to economic development. The editors seem to think that Richmond would do well to move the arts center to the suburbs. Hell, it worked in Orange County, California!
After four years of trumpeting the performing arts center as the key to bringing downtown back, the T-D now seems to think it a waste of time to build the center in downtown, since downtown "continues to languish."
Meanwhile, despite gratifying progress linked to the riverfront and in areas associated with VCU, MCV, and the Biotech Park, commercial activity along the city's downtown corridor continues to languish. The 6th Street Marketplace was intended to boost the department stores, which many identified with Richmond's style and soul. The stores closed anyway. The Marketplace subsequently collapsed. Richmond is far from unique: Flagships from the golden age of department stores have abandoned too many downtowns to name. To be more accurate, the stores usually have left because their customers already had abandoned the city cores.
This editorial is stupefyingly wrong-headed in its assumptions and its conclusions. Downtown revitalization takes years. A lot of things have to go right over time for a city to reinvent itself and to make a downtown livable again. But it can be done, and has been done very recently about a hundred miles from here. Norfolk's example illustrates very clearly that no single project will get you there, but a series of projects that ultimately complement each other will get you to a point of critical mass. Then people will be beating down your door to live and work there. That's what is happening in Norfolk.
The development slated for downtown Richmond actually is quite impressive and encouraging, even if you factor out the performing arts center. The Dispatch's earlier optimism about downtown was not misplaced. The collapse of an ill-conceived and under funded project does not mean the end of Richmond's rebirth; it means that the VPAF may not be part of it. Fair enough. Moving the arts center somewhere else may even have some merit. But the idea that Shortpump has become a center of commerce is laughable. Shopping centers, movie theatres and business parks do not a center of commerce make. Shortpump has become a retail hub, but that by itself doesn't mean much if you seriously consider relocating the arts center.
This brings us to the really dumb part of this editorial. To bolster their argument that the performing arts center could thrive in the suburbs, the editors offer us the example of Orange County, California. For the moment, we shall ignore the fact that Orange County is a large county in densely populated Southern California and has a professional baseball team to compliment its thriving arts center. We can also ignore the fact that with the county there is more that one city with a downtown business district. We won't consider that Orange County has a population three times that of Greater Richmond, which includes the City of Richmond, Chesterfield, Hanover, and Henrico counties. Even if you include the metropolitan statistical areas, Orange County's population dwarfs ours.
But what cannot be ignored is the striking dissimilarity between the two regions when considering how they went about developing their proposed centers. In fact, in paragraph one of the Orange County Performing Arts Center's history, we learn that one of the very first things the Newport Harbor Foundation did was--get this-- a feasibility study. The history is quite instructive and is probably the most damming evidence of the VPAF's incompetence.
The Segerstrom family was impressed by the financial integrity of the project group, which had already raised a significant amount of money for the cause through an elaborate network of Support Groups. The family had already determined that the arts would play an integral role in helping the community establish its cultural identity. They recognized that there was sufficient public support for the performing arts in Orange County to sustain a cultural institution entirely through private funding. They were certain that such an institution would serve as catalyst for the growth and development for the county’s regional arts organizations.
Feasibility studies? Fundraising? Private funding? But there's more:
Shortly thereafter, the site was evaluated, market research studies were conducted and fundraising strategies were explored
When all the studies were completed and the results deemed positive, the Board of Directors chose the architectural firm, The Blurock Partnership of Newport Beach, California, working in conjunction with Caudill Rowlett Scott of Houston, Texas, to consult on and design the project.
They actually waited to start hiring until after all the studies were completed, they had acquired the land and were raising the money to build the thing. Well, I guess that's one way to do it. It is also worth noting that it only took 17 years after that first feasibility study to put their arts center together.
Regardless of whether the VPAF moves its project to Shortpump or stays in Richmond, the Times-Dispatch has unwittingly made the case against the proposed performing arts center and the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation.