Thursday, November 10, 2005

Burning Down the House

When city officials inspected the Carpenter Center last week, they were vague about what they found:

Farrar said the inspectors didn't find a need to close off the building or any of its parts for safety reasons. He described Cooper's visit as a typical inspection.

They took a look a look around, found no reason to condemn the building and left. That’s how it sounded. However, it should be clear that Mayor Wilder does things, or has them done, for a reason. It seems the inspectors did find problems at the Carpenter Center:

The Carpenter Center is a fire hazard, with sewer gas leaking inside and more violations of the state's electrical-safety code than city inspectors could count in a two-hour examination this week.

Following the inspection, city officials issued 32 specific violations of state building and safety standards to the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, which owns the historic theater.

Of course, the VPAF is crying foul and repeating their claims that Wilder is out to do this project in:

Martin Rust, former president of the Carpenter Center and now a member of the arts foundation board, said Carpenter Center board members were never made aware of "one single building code or safety violation" at the theater.

"Clearly this is harassment by Wilder," Rust said. "Thirty-two violations is amazing. I'm not sure what they're trying to accomplish. Are they trying to show it's in good shape or bad shape?"

I think they are proving your ineffectiveness:

"You've got a fire trap at one end of the block and a hole at the other," said Paul Goldman, Wilder's senior policy adviser, referring to the excavation for the new music hall the foundation hopes to build next to the Carpenter Center.

"Obviously the Carpenter Center has been allowed to deteriorate," Goldman said. "It's like, if you don't do it our way, we've set it up so you can't do it any other way."

Another nail in the foundation's coffin.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Just Asking

Given the propensity of newspapers for being creative (not in a good way) with their headlines, I wonder why we did not wake up to a large picture of a dejected Kilgore on the front page of the T-D with a the huge headline:


Truly a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

You Had to Know, Right?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Guees What? They Don't Like the Mayor's Idea

What sometimes surprises me is just how predictable all of this is sometimes. The groups that have hooked their stars to the VPAF don't think opening the Carpenter Center quickly is a good idea.

What else were they going to say?

City Council has a mixed reaction, of course. Though, we do hear from a new voice on council:

Councilman Eugene A. Mason Jr. questioned whether the city could legally seize the theater. He suggested the administration meet with council and the arts foundation. Right now, he said, there's a dizzying number of ideas floating about what should be done.

Two things occur to me:

Doug Wilder is brilliantly instictive in how he deals with politics. Secondly is that the VPAF and City Council are hopelessly overmatched against Wilder.

Ever since taking office, Wilder has kept the VPAF and City Council reacting to him. Every time they adjust, or think they have, Mayor Wilder acts in a way they don't expect. Which is starting to bug Manoli Loupassi:

Council President G. Manoli Loupassi said he would prefer for the administration and foundation to work out their differences, and he expressed frustration over having to respond to ideas from Wilder that he hasn't been briefed on.

If he was briefing you on what he was going to do next, then you would be prepared for it. I don't think it has sunk in yet that Mayor Wilder is not interested in working with the council. He's interested in being Mayor Wilder. You might want to adjust your thinking around this Manoli.

Mayor Wilder's announcement that the city is investigating an eminent domain type seizure of the Carpenter Center may or may not be followed with any action toward seizing the center. But it forces the VPAF to respond to it, prepare for it and defend against it. Mayor Wilder has been shaping this debate from the day he stepped into office. How the hell can the performing arts foundation bring their plan together when they are all wrapped up dealing with Doug?

Late Note: It seems that action may well be forthcoming. Well if you can't predict what Doug Wilder will do, you can at least give a guided tour and try to spin things:

Afterward, about 10 representatives of local arts groups led a reporter and a photographer from The Times-Dispatch on a tour of the theater.

"The arts organizations have long had major concerns about the artistic adequacy of this facility and the adequacy for the audiences," said Philip H. Davidson, chairman of the Alliance for the Performing Arts.

I don't believe for one minute that those inspectors were checking for safety violations.

Farrar said the inspectors didn't find a need to close off the building or any of its parts for safety reasons. He described Cooper's visit as a typical inspection.

If you are going to seize a building, it would be good to know how bad the tenants have screwed it up. There certainly will be more to come.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Doug Wilder isn't going to sit around and wait while the VPAF gets it act together:

Goldman said a so-called "quick take" provision in the city charter would enable the property to be acquired in about a month, although an independent appraisal would have to made first. He said City Council would have to approve funding, and he stressed that Wilder has made no decision to pursue the option.

It's hard to say how hard Mayor Wilder is going to push this, or how hard the VPAF and its cronies will push back. It is fair to say, however, that Doug Wilder is definitely driving the herd.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Ray McAllister--VPAF Skeptic

It seems Ray has read the latest financial reports from the VPAF, and it did not escape his attention that the VPAF lost ground this month. Now he wants to know the bottom line:

So the question:

Is the Performing Arts Center dead?

Alright, Ray. Let's bring you up to speed.

1. The VPAF does not have a building permit and Doug Wilder isn't going to let them get one as long as he is breathing.

2. The VPAF has dropped plans to get a building permit to raise funds, you know, since they can't get one anyways.

3. Donors are rescinding their gifts.

4. Brad Armstrong has been forced out the door.

5. Mayor Wilder has declared this a "failed endeavor" and vowed that pigs will fly before the VPAF gets any more money from the city.

Now, if you think about all that, and then go read this, I think it is very clear. It's dead. At least as long as this project remains in the hands of the VPAF.

Ray points out that he was a little skeptical last year about proceeding with demolition when the VPAF didn't have all the money it needed to complete the project:

Armstrong had assured the HRF that: "Such demolition does not need to occur until and unless it is abundantly clear that the redevelopment of the Thalhimers block is ready to take place and the funding is available."

Nonetheless, the $93 million Thalhimers-block project is going ahead, with less than $29 million in hand.

What's the deal?

Okay, fair enough. He had questions. A lot of people had questions. But the T-D never bothered to challenge Brad Armstrong when he spouted VPAF happy talk:

Not to worry, Armstrong countered. "We are well on the way, completely confident that that performing arts center is going to get built."

But what if it doesn't?

"It is not a question of if, it is only a question of when," Armstrong insisted.

That was as hard as Armstrong got pushed. Well, it’s not playing out like they though it would. Armstrong is on his way out the door and the financial house of cards is starting to collapse. The more the VPAF is scrutinized, the worse it gets. The foundation continues to spew its long discredited claims of financial health, but even its donors are starting to jump off the stern.

This thing is dead all right.

I highly recommend reading the entire article Ray wrote last year. It is archived at Richmond City Watch, about half way down the page. Reading it, It becomes clear that everything Brad Armstrong was saying at the time was either wishful thinking or pure bullshit.

"If the money is raised later [than anticipated], then I suppose there could be some time when the Thalhimers building is down and we are not yet starting the construction of the performing arts center. I don't think it would look any worse than it does now."


Armstrong said that even if literally no more money were to be raised, there's already enough to enlarge the existing performing arts center, which everyone agrees is needed and which requires knocking down Thalhimers, anyway. But the whole amount will be raised, he said.

Thank god there were people who didn't accept Armstrong at his word, because this could have been much worse.

This is a good time to mention the piece on Save Richmond at Adaptistration. I know Don and Andrew have mentioned it on their site (twice), but its a nice recap of the excellent work that they done since that fateful meeting in the back of Jim's store. Don, Andrew and Eagle Eyes have done the heavy lifting and due diligence that others should have done. Save Richmond is a stalwart example of the power of a blog and their success in forcing accountability upon the foundation is evidence of the usefulness of blogs in public discourse.

As my Dad used to say: The truth will set you free, but it's going to piss you off first.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I really do enjoy reading Times-Dispatch articles that have innocuous sounding headlines like:

Arts foundation reports finances

All right then. A routine report about the current state of the VPAF's new commitment to fundraising. But we know better than that, right?

The Virginia Performing Arts Foundation lost a $100,000 pledge in September, a month marked by a city audit of the foundation and the first of two revised plans that failed to win the support of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

At least they put the stuff you need to know in paragraph one for a change. For some reason, Judy Ford is doing the talking this time, but she wouldn't explain why the unrestricted pledge was withdrawn. I have a hunch and it rhymes with sinking ship.

It occurred to me that the T-D is so busy trying to appear uninvolved in the story, that they miss some really nice moments of VPAF silliness:

Foundation officials would not comment yesterday on the reports.

Treasurer Beverley W. Armstrong referred questions to President Brad Armstrong, who is on vacation. Chief Operating Officer Michele Walter directed questions to Beverley Armstrong.

What the VPAF does not understand, and the VPAF newsletter, the Times-Dispatch, fails to comment on, is just how ridiculous these moments make the foundation look. They just lost a hundred thousand dollar pledge, and unrestricted private pledges fell by almost 60k in September. So the VPAF stonewalls and plays Call the Other Guy. What might be nice, and could even be construed as a first small step towards accountability and transparency (if they wanted to go that way), would be to say something like:

"You know, September pretty much sucked for us and Doug Wilder handed us our ass. It cost us some money. But we are contacting all the members of the Ukrop family who haven't withdrawn their pledges and redoubling our efforts to get Booty Armstrong to pony up some beer money. Because, you know, we really need to get a drink on."

Or something like that.

Does anybody take these people seriously anymore?

On an unrelated note, it's nice to find out that Don has a sense of humor,but I was referring to his and Sam's steely gaze. What eyebrows?

Blogging Tip: Increase yours hits five-fold by comparing a prominent citizen to a muppet.

Monday, October 31, 2005


Sam the Eagle

Don the Irresponsible Blogger

Allright. Don has more hair. But it's close.

Fun At The Public Square

Having done a quick search of a few blogs, I noticed that there hasn't been any mention of the transcripts the Times-Dispatch has up from it first Public Square. I could be wrong about that though.

I haven't read it all yet, but there are some nice moments nestled between a lot of VPAF propaganda. Scott Burger should run for council:

And the fact of the matter is, there’s still some really troubling questions. How much real estate do the Ukrops and the Bryan family own around downtown? How much corporate control Media General has over this whole area? And how much does that play into this debate? We see the pretty spread in the Times-Dispatch about Richmond Renaissance, ideal downtown, with this projects here and-- here and there. But what about the property the buildings that they own are sitting on? We talk about slumlords in this city. Well, let's take a look at that.

I don't mean to be crude. But the fact of the matter is, the full story has to come out. The other topic I wanted to bring up are the cultural questions. Arts-- cultural. What happens when Howard Stern comes and wants to perform at the Performing Arts Center? You know, we jest about Gwar and some other more radical people coming. But honestly, what happens when Bette Midler, as part of her act, is-- is on a cussing, anti-Bush tirade, and the citizens are upset, and she wants to play at the Arts Center? And the city council gets drawn into it, like it did with Marilyn Manson debate?

And Derome Scott Smith should be on the VPAF board:

I took students who had potential, in five years, from nothing, to Scotland to perform, representing the United States of America. I have taught. I'm in the ground level, I'm in the trenches. First, the first student - the first person that I have ever known that was killed was one of my students. The first person that I have ever known personally to go to jail was one of my students. The first person that I have ever seen theater truly change their life was one of my students. This is important for not just for the people who are sitting in this room, but for the people who are not here, who are not represented. Look to your left and look to your right. Diversity is not here. And the potential for diversity is great. Thank you

My two favorite moments in the transcripts came from Sam Forrest and Mark Novick.

SAM FORREST: Oh, Sam Forrest. I thought I said it. Sorry. What else did I do? I've sailed alone across the Atlantic. I've knapsacked around the world. I'm an urban pioneer. I've-- lived in Richmond's ghettos and carried a gun just to get into my house. I feel like I bring some wisdom here.

After reading five pages of transcripts, I could use a drink, and I wouldn't mind sharing the bar with Sam.

Mark Novick probably does the best job of anyone in summing up the problems with the Ukrop's involvement in the performing arts center:

Another thing I learned growing up is, you don't fight with the Ukrop family. I ran for President against Bobby Ukrop at University of Richmond in 1965. I got one vote. Bobby got the rest of the votes. You don't fight with somebody who can buy your city. And Doug Wilder, God bless him, needs to learn that.

But Jim Ukrop has a dream, and it's paid for by the taxpayers!

And I guess that's my dream. Is that together, we might make this project happen. And-- one last thing. In Charlotte, right now, they're trying to raise $150 million to add to their cultural arts downtown capital projects. And the-- and the way they're gonna raise $80 million of that is raise the rental car tax 4 percent. So, all around the country, there are public dollars going into these performing arts centers. And I think we should be doing that here in Richmond. Together with the private sector. Thank you.

You had to know that I was going to give Don the last word:

I'm Don Harrison. I'm with And actually, someone asked, I believe on the other side tonight, wh-- why isn't this center being built? The center isn't being built because of a lack of private funds. The Performing Arts Foundation were supposed to-- come up with a certain amount of private funds. And it hasn't materialized. I don't think we can blame Mayor Wilder, for being accountable for public money that is being spent on a project. I-- I don't think that we need to call him someone who doesn't like the performing arts.

This project has never been independently studied. Never been independently studied. It's a hundred million dollar project. It's failed in its fundraising. It had to go back to City Council-- the Foundation did, in order to have the fundraising deadline extended. This, despite telling everyone that these fundraising deadlines held feet to the fire. Okay? So, this isn't just a matter of supporting the arts or not supporting the arts. I would gladly give tax money to a worthy arts project, myself. I would. But this isn't that plan.

We need a new plan, is what we need. For the big hall. And-- I don't think that the question with the arts groups should be, "How do we keep propping up this bad plan at any cost?" I think the question for all of us is, "Don't we deserve better?" Thank you.

So what did we learn?

1. Everybody feels better after a good talk.

2. Arts Organizations need places to perform.

3. Children love the arts but just don't know it because they haven't seen any arts.

4. Tom Silvestri looks a lot like Stephen Hawking.

5. Don Harrison looks a little bit like Sam the Eagle from the The Muppet Show.

Well, I guess it's a good thing they got everybody together.

I Was Wrong

In a recent post I was incredulous that the Times Dispatch failed to mention that City Council passed a proposed ordinance adding additional oversight to the VPAF fundraising extension and tabled a related ordinance from Bill Pantele. Well, as Snoopy pointed out, I was mistaken.

For the record, I did not get my information from the minutes of the council meeting, as they were not available when I wrote the post. Rather, I ran a search using
the tool for Ordinances and Resolutions found here. I searched Ordinance 2005-247 listed on the Council Agenda for the 24th of October. That document is here. I ran the search about 2 o'clock in the morning Tuesday, October 25th. At the time I ran the search, the search return indicated that the resolution had passed.

I ran the search again a few minutes ago and that same search returns a resolution of stricken. I apologize for the error. I don't mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Loupassi Getting Unwanted Public Exposure

Manoli can't catch a break it seems and he is getting a lot of flak for representing a guy caught allegedly flagellating himself in public. In this instance though, my sympathies are with Manoli. He is a defense lawyer after all, and it's his job to defend the interests of shady degenerates and miscreants. You know, just like he does for the VPAF. He scored points with me by shrugging off the complaints of his constituents and showing a little backbone.

Pulling out of the case would be unethical, Loupassi said.

"Your duty is to your client, regardless of how it affects you politically," he said.

However, I find it ironic that at the center of all the complaints is the allegation that representing this client creates a conflict of interest. No, Manoli would never put himself in that position.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Build on Your Strengths

Some of my friends are, or have been, adjunct faculty at VCU. So I was aware that the art department was of very high caliber and I did know that the VCU art program was highly regarded nationally. One can learn this for themselves by checking out the student work that is sprinkled around downtown on First Fridays. What I did not know, however was VCU's Sculpture + Extended Media program is the top ranked program in the country.

According to U.S. News & World Report’s most recent ranking of art schools in 2003, VCU’s sculpture program is No. 1. (Fine arts programs aren’t ranked annually.) VCU beats Yale and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which ranked two and three, and nine other master of fine arts in sculpture programs.

It is an interesting piece and further evidence that the creative class is thriving in Richmond, even though most people aren't paying attention. It occurred to me that we have an amazing asset like this in the city and you don't hear about it, let alone see the work. The recent Artspace 2005 Sculpture Invitational was a step in the right direction. But the city could get a lot more serious about promoting the arts and creating a reputation for itself by promoting this jewel of an art school.

All year there have been press reports and news conferences about the yet to be built performing arts center on Broad Street. Everyone--Mayor Wilder, Jim Ukrop, Bill Pantele, Manoli Loupassi--everyone says how important supporting and promoting the arts is and what a positive affect it can have on the future development of the community.

Well, there is a gift horse grazing in our front yard. Not too long ago there
brightly colored fish all over the sidewalks of Richmond. But most accounts it was a pretty successful venture all the way around. The city was transformed for a while. I still see some of those fish around town, years later. If you take the sculpture invitational and merge it a public art project like "Go Fish!," you get where I am going with this.

Having sculpture displayed around Richmond by students in the best sculpture school in the country is no small thing. You can bet that some of these people are going to become big deals. Not Richmond-class big deals, but international-type big deals. Having work of that caliber be part of the city landscape is no small thing.

Obviously, I am throwing off the top of my head with this. The point is if Richmond wants to really become a first-class city, it can. There are great things about living in Richmond. But we need to take step back and see what we have to work with. Big projects won't make the city a good place to live. Making it livable will. Joe Essid is right. Think small.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Bill Pantele's proposed ordinance to continue funneling meal tax money to the VPAF was tabled Monday, while Martin Jewell's ordinance adding some teeth to the fundraising extension was adopted. While the Times-Dispatch couldn't wait to let us know about the mayor's letter to Governor Warner, it seems this development wasn't worth mentioning. I think it might be key down the line.

Besides changing the definitions of what can be reported as real money from "binding commitments" to "cash or investments", it requires the transfer of real property assets of the foundation back to the city if they don't meet the new fundraising deadline. So the city could get their hole back.

In adopting Jewell's ordinance and passing on Pantele's, it does seem that the council has taken a step towards assuming its proper role as stewards of public interest. Sort of. The council also voted to exempt the Carpenter Center from real and personal property taxes backdated to 2003 contingent upon continued use by the VPAF.

So the VPAF has to more stringently report its finances to the city, and it could lose its hole on Broad Street if they fail to meet their fundraising requirements. But they don't have to pay any taxes on the Carpenter Center.

Are we making progress?

It's the letter to the Governor that is really interesting. Mayor Wilder proposes taking some of the state money and using to alleviate the heating crisis that is coming this winter. Kevin Hall, the governor’s press secretary, points out that it is a moot point:

But, he said, "the governor cannot unilaterally withhold money the legislature has already appropriated, and winter will have come and gone by the time the General Assembly could act on this request."

True enough, but Doug Wilder knew that, right? He was the governor and might have some inkling about the workings of state government. Then why send the letter? I suspect that Mayor Wilder is throwing a change-up pitch. By taking the issue of meal tax money for the performing arts center and pointing out uses for that money that address very real problems the city is facing, Doug Wilder is making it very hard for Jim Ukrop to publicly argue for that money, now or later on. But Norm figured that out a while ago.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hey Bill, Take the Two Million and Buy a Clue

I was in New York for the weekend and somewhere in the midst of preparing for the trip, I got married. So I haven't exactly been on top of things. But after a really great and incredibly full weekend, I was heartened to learn that City Council meeting would be happening Monday night and I would have some fun to come home to. It turns out that Bill Pantele was geared up to insure the poor would not go unheated this winter and simultaneously insure that the VPAF would keep the hole on Broad Street. Funny how those two things fit so neatly together. He's right too, you know. I mean the money is just sitting there, so why not take it?

Of course, the Mayor has other ideas.

The mayor said his proposal would generate $2.6 million a year and added that Pantele's proposal would force the city to give up a valuable piece of downtown property.

The Mayor also called Pantele out on his obvious conflict of interest by sitting on the VPAF's executive committee.

"I don't think anything like this would happen anyplace but Richmond," Wilder said, "that a member of a private board would use his political position to suggest that the city . . . benefit that private board."

Bill Pantele doesn't see it that way at all.

Pantele said it is routine for council members to sit on boards, to act as the public's eyes and ears, and dismissed the mayor's suggestion he has a conflict of interest.

Well, I might agree with that if he were acting as the public's eyes and ears. But the council voted themselves two seats when they voted the fundraising extension in order as an act of defiance of the Mayor. Since then, council members have been killing themselves to see who can do more to advance the cause of the foundation.

Elected representatives cannot safeguard the public's interest while advocating for a quasi-private organization that receives, or used to receive, public monies. It is a conflict.

Though I have been harping on this building permit thing, I have overlooked something recently. The foundation tried to give the city two million to secure the land on Broad Street. The Times-Dispatch mentioned again that the board did this in case they don't get a building permit.

Foundation officials say the group already owns the Thalhimers block. They say the $2 million is meant to keep the city from demanding the return of the land if they are unable to obtain a building permit within three years.

Three years? Could it be that Eagle Eyes was right? Of course he was.

Apples and Orange County

Over at River City Rapids, Snoopy has a post about Denver's Performing Arts Complex. I still feel it is not fair, or relevant, to compare the arts center of a major population center like Orange County, California (population 3,056,865) or even to Denver, Colorado (population 554,636). The population of Greater Richmond, which includes the City of Richmond, Chesterfield, Hanover, and Henrico counties, has just over a million people. But as we know, it is hardly a cohesive region. If Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond were working together on an arts center, we might be able to put together projects like Orange County or Denver has. However, that kind of regional cooperation is beyond us right now.

I made the point in an earlier post that Orange County, offered by the Times-Dispatch editors as an example of a successful suburban arts center, is a text-book example of how to do one these projects. Denver looks like an excellent case-study as well. There are strong similarities between how these cities developed their performing arts centers, and the histories of both centers make the VPAF look like the ill-organized bunch of hacks they have proven themselves to be.

Read both histories though. They offer a vision of what could be possible; something the VPAF can't wrap their heads around.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Shortpump Can Have Them

The more I think about it, the Times-Dispatch is probably right. These bastards should go to Shortpump.

I figured after yesterdays annoncement, things might quiet down. Not likely. Hell, even Manoli Loupassi drug himself out of whatever hole he has been in:

"What is his plan?" City Council President G. Manoli Loupassi. asked of Wilder. "Are we going to lose the symphony? The performing-arts groups in town, what are they going to do?"

You could answer the same question pally. Have you got a plan to get the Carpenter Center reopened before we all die? Just in case you were wondering Manoli, this is what a plan looks like.

The way I figure it now, the VPAF and Henrico County are made for each other. So go already.


What the Hell is the Times-Dispatch Talking about?

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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

VPAF Falls Back and Armstrong Takes One for the Team

Saying it has been unable to resolve six months of disagreement with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation today announced a new plan for a downtown arts center.

If this were any other group, one could make the case that today’s announcement was a recognition of the sea change we have seen since Doug Wilder took office and an adjustment to reality. But we are talking about the VPAF and what I would call an alignment with harsh political realities they call a new plan.

Over the course of the summer, these things have happened to the VPAF:

1. They lost their building permit.

2. Mayor Wilder has withheld funds and declared that no more city funds will be released.

3. The Mayor has demanded that the VPAF revise its plans to a Carpenter Center only project.

4. The city has indicated it may try to seize the Thalhimers site.

Coincidentally, along with today's "new plan", the VPAF has indicated that it will:

1. Not pursue a building permit while it raises money.

2. Not pursue additional money from the city, which the VPAF still believes they should get.

3. Focus its efforts on renovating the Carpenter Center.

4. Attempt to hang on to the Thalhimers site.

So if you ignore everything they say and look at their actions, which a wise man once said never lie, then it is evident that the VPAF is dancing to the Mayor's tune.

Having said that, I must admit that I a little confused by the latest developments. Nor am I the only one who is scratching their head. Brad Armstrong's resignation was inevitable and it does seem that all the VPAF has done is fall in line with the Mayor's demands. But given the foundation's continued passive aggressive defiance of Doug Wilder and their significant credibility problem, I wonder if there is a future for the foundation.

If the VPAF does stay alive, there is one other thing to consider. With Brad Armstrong gone, Jim Ukrop is now on point for the foundation. Even with city funds off the table, I suspect things might intensify. Brad Armstrong served as something of a buffer between Ukrop and Wilder and I think that personal animosity between them has been a huge factor in all of this.

Right after the Mayor met with Ukrop and his crew, he said
"It took a long time for them to get where they are now." Today he called the announcement "a clear indication that the people who used to run Richmond don't run it anymore."

You tell me who he's talking about, if not Jim Ukrop

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Will They Sue Doug or Fire Brad?

For a group that seems to revile scrutiny, the VPAF does seem bent on a course of action that will bring them a great deal of it. Doug Wilder couldn't be happier:

Wilder said he doesn't intend to initiate a court fight against the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation and hasn't been told that one is forthcoming. He added, "It would be a great time to be able to depose some witnesses, to ask some people about a whole lot of things that went on."

If the VPAF does file suit, things could get very weird. What would be weirder still in the VPAF without Brad Armstrong to kick around anymore. It's hard to say what will the VPAF will announce tomorrow, but I suspect they won't be talking about where all that money came from:

The foundation has scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. today following a meeting of its board of directors. Early yesterday, spokeswoman Carolyn Cuthrell would not discuss any potential details and said she was unable to answer questions about how the foundation was able to cover the check for $2 million. The foundation recently reported having had a cash balance of $1.6 million as of Aug. 31.

There is one thing that I do know; if I want to find out tomorrow what transpires at that news conference, I will have to go here.

A Historic Development

The Patteson-Schutte House appears to have been spared demolition, according to the Times-Dispatch:

About a week ago, Nolde and the Historic Richmond Foundation agreed to a deal in which the organization would purchase the house and some surrounding property at a discounted price. Nolde has agreed to redraw development plans to allow the house to stay in its current location.

This would have seemed to be a no-brainer, considering the historic signifigance of the property and the fact that so few homes from the 18th century remain in Richmond. But it seems that the house was genuinely in danger of being torn down until the Historic Richmond Foundation closed a deal with John Nolde.

Three lots aren't too high of price to pay for doing the right thing.

Why is Brad Surprised?

After remaining in the background for several weeks, Brad Armstrong reasserts himself into the VPAF debacle by expressing surprise that the city, at Doug Wilder's direction, rejected its 2 million dollar check to purchase the Thalhimers property. "I'm surprised it would not be welcomed," he said.

Well I don't believe for a minute that he is surprised. The Mayor has repeatedly referred to this as a failed venture, refused to release additional funds, openly questioned the continued relevance of the previous city ordinance and all but called Jim Ukrop out into the street. That doesn't even take into account the pummeling the Mayor gave the Brad and the VPAF right after they failed to include him in the distribution for the city auditor's report on VPAF financing.

So, why is Brad surprised?

To their credit, even the Times-Dispatch noticed that the VPAF was suddenly flush with cash:

The foundation's ability to even write a check for $2 million is noteworthy. In the four monthly financial statements released to the city since late June, the foundation has reported cash balances ranging from $1.1 million to $1.6 million.

Armstrong said the foundation has not received any gifts or had any pledges fulfilled with the specific purpose of paying the city the $2 million. He said the foundation had more than $3 million in the bank yesterday, including the $2 million offered to the city.

This means that the VPAF bank balances doubled seemingly overnight.

"It's just the typical rise and fall of our cash statements as pledges are made," he said.

It probably is just good fortune that one of those rises occurred right before trying to buy the land that they absolutely must have in order to keep this doomed little experiment in civic pride afloat a little longer.

Machinations for Naught

The blog has been on the back-burner as I prepare for a trip to New York City and deal with the city's dysfunctional building inspection system, though I can always make time for Brad Armstrong's antics.

However, I really want to discuss Andrew's theory on yesterdays move by the VPAF to buy the Thalhimers site. He thinks it creates an opportunity to ease Brad out the door and to eventually tie up the property:

If it’s (2), and it sure seems to be, then we’re left with an unpleasant scenario–the executive board has come up with a way to show Brad the door (possibly with his consent), buy the land (by suing once the city rejects the check) and make an eventual music hall too expensive NOT to build. It could do this by doing something called “pouring the footings,” setting up the moorings for the concrete walls, if I understand correctly. Once done, it’s expensive as hell to undo. Hello Ukrop Symphony Hall, inaugural season 2014.

I sent Andrew an email on this and argued that this scenario is an unlikely one as it would call for the VPAF to have a building permit in its possession. This won’t happen, even if Mick Jagger did mention Midlothian at Scott Stadium.

Upon reflection, there are other problems with the hypothesis. First it would require the VPAF to have actually developed a plan, one which they would have to implement. Not only that, the plan would have to work, which means winning the lawsuit. But trust me; they haven’t thought this through any more thoroughly than they have anything else.

Regardless of any moves the VPAF might try to make from here on out, I think there is only one thing that matters:

They still don't have a building permit.

Andrew may be absolutely right that the board is angling for a lawsuit, one that might force the city to sell them the land for 2 million. But that raises other questions, questions that a newspaper journalist might actually consider asking:

Regarding building permits, can the city deny a building permit on the basis of financial capacity?

Can the city be forced to issue a building permit?

What other factors can be considered in determining the merits of building permit for any large scale development project?

As things stands now, nothing is going to happen without that permit. They can raise all the money they want, fire Brad Armstrong, and parade a thousand children in front of city council with placards reading "We need the arts. Do it for us." Whatever.

If I were David Ress or Will Jones, I would be researching the building permit stuff. You know, if they wanted to do some actual reporting.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

RVA Blogs

RVA Blogs is a pretty cool idea; one stop shoppin for all the blogs about Richmond, Virginia. A good idea with a sharp new look.

Dead in the Water

Eagle Eyes at Save Richmond called it first. The VPAF can't move forward with any version of the arts center as it doesn't have the money. That has been an open secret for some time now, and Carolyn Cuthrell's announcement that the VPAF will concentrate on fundraising only underscores the obvious.

My own hunch is that the pesky little matter of a building permit has done them in. Without a permit they cannot move forward and I can't imagine anyone working in Doug Wilder's City Hall issuing a permit unless the Mayor signed off on it. That would mean that the VPAF would have to demonstrate the capacity to build the thing, and there are all sorts of other things the Mayor has called for that would have to happen before he would green light the project.

Which brings us to an interesting point regarding this announcement, one that Manoli Loupassi neatly summed it up a few days ago:

"The bottom line is, I could give them until 2020 [to raise money], but as long as Wilder is there and against them, who's going to give them money?"

So, the VPAF will concentrate on fundraising, which they admit is going to be nearly impossible in the face of Doug Wilder's opposition. That means Brad Armstrong, Jim Ukrop and the entire VPAF are going to be left twisting in the wind.

I have been reflecting how this weird saga has played out over the last several months, and how a project everyone seemed to agree was a good thing for the city became such a public spectacle. I have a theory.

What we have been witnessing for several months is basically a pissing contest between Doug Wilder and Jim Ukrop. Not long after the luminous Gang of Four met with the Mayor, the city auditor released its report to the VPAF. The VPAF then released the report to everyone except the Mayor. That struck me as being a really dumb move, until I considered the possibility that it was deliberate. But that didn't make sense since everyone was making noises about how productive that meeting was; unless it wasn't that productive. Mayor Wilder comes out of the meeting completely non-committal and the next move the VPAF makes is to release the audit to all but the Mayor, who responds by verbally smacking the VPAF around the ears.

Yesterday the VPAF said it will concentrate on fundraising that can't be successful with Doug Wilder's support, which I think one could assume will not be forthcoming. How did we get here?

"He might own some other people. He might bully some other people," Wilder said. "But I owe my election, I owe my strength and always have owed it -- to the people. And he doesn't own, nor will he own or buy me."

The Performing Arts Center as envisioned by the VPAF died that day. They are only now figuring that out.

The only thing that could possibly revive this thing is a very public restructuring of the entire foundation. But as I said before, they don't have the will to do it. But a purge must happen and I agree completely with Andrew. Brad Armstrong's head is first on the block.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What the Hell is Manoli Loupassi Talking About?

There is a longer post coming on the latest Times-Dispatch article on the VPAF road show, but for now let us examine this beauty of a paragraph:

City Council President G. Manoli Loupassi said council members must rely on the administration for information, including the quality of the foundation's reimbursement requests. Loupassi also said Wilder should be the one to propose an ordinance for the arts center.

I remember reading something the Council wrote not too long ago that sounded like they were feeling all empowered and stuff (still looking for the link). Now he is saying they are dependent upon the administration for information? Is this the same council that has two members on the VPAF board, has been reading the audit report for five days before the Mayor even got a copy, and decided that the Mayor was really making to big a deal about all this financial stuff and gave the VPAF a fundraising extension over the concerns of that same Mayor?

He has got to be kidding. Now Manoli does have a good point about one thing:

"The bottom line is, I could give them until 2020 [to raise money], but as long as Wilder is there and against them, who's going to give them money?"

What he doesn’t address is how city council and the VPAF have colluded to work around the Mayor, which has only intensified the Mayor’s objections. They really don’t get it.

I wonder how Andrew is coming with that recall petition.