Plumbing the Depths of Economic-Development Stupidity

Rendering of Main Street Station train shed.

Rendering of Main Street Station train shed.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone in Richmond city government ever learns anything about anything. The city has experienced a string of failures over the decades, starting with the grandiose Sixth Street Marketplace that was supposed to revitalize downtown retail in the mid-1980s and came to an end in 2007 when most of the structure was unceremoniously torn down. Undeterred by what should have been a searing memory, the city has squandered millions on several other high-profile revitalization projects of dubious value, the most notorious of which has been the Washington Redskins training camp.

The most recent folly is the $45 million renovation of the Main Street Station train shed, part of a larger, $90 million renovation of iconic station in downtown Richmond. The end result, though visually splendid, fulfills no clearly demonstrated need. The bottom floor will be dedicated to retail space, of which there is no shortage in the Richmond region, and the top floor to meeting space, of which there is an outright abundance.

“Free” federal and state money is covering for most of the up-front cost of the project, but the train shed facility will require $1.7 million in operating subsidies in just the first year. The city already subsidizes the Coliseum to the tune of $1.7 million a year and the Convention Center by $8 million a year, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. In other words, the city will spend millions of dollars to support an event facility that will to some degree compete with, and cannibalize, other event facilities that it is subsidizing.

That’s about as stupid as it gets. Kudos to City Council members Parker Agelasto and Chris Hilbert for asking questions.

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4 responses to “Plumbing the Depths of Economic-Development Stupidity

  1. If this blog truly cares about economic development in Virginia, it would focus its ire on the Cities of Richmond and Norfolk.

    When I look around the country, I see so many cities leading the way in terms of prosperity, etc.

    Richmond and Norfolk absolutely have the bones and people to make it happen. But during this urban renaissance in the nation, both can’t seem to get out of their way. Yes, the press releases look “good.” And the metrics have improved for both since the 80s/early 90s. But, in no way, does either city qualify as a “success story” over the past 20 years compared to their peers in other states. Economic development, schools, transportation, regionalism…..both cities have been completely incompetent. The continuing theme on this blog for years seems to be a gradual decline of Virginia’s economic competitiveness. A lot of hypotheses are thrown out. There is some truth to some of them: no one can deny federal cuts hurt NoVa, “rural” Virginia is getting to a catastrophic condition when it comes to certain socioeconomic factors.

    But I think a forgotten part of the story is the inability for Richmond or Norfolk to capitalize on their assets and become much stronger engines for community and economic development. Believe it or not, in 1990, the RVA metro area had a larger population than either Raleigh/Durham or Austin….

    • LGGuy – you make some good points. Too often, we see redevelopment as different or repurposed buildings. Again, Virginia’s worship of real estate development. A clean, safe, well-run city that has reasonable taxes and reasonable services will likely attract the type of people who can build and expand businesses. Both Norfolk and Richmond have universities, highways and airports – basic infrastructure for growth.

      • re: ” Virginia’s worship of real estate development”

        isn’t that really the entire country’s worship of the American Dream of owning your own single family home?

        If that is something that people seek – should we be surprised that both the State and entrepreneurs see it as legitimate economic development?

        And those that get their piece of the American Dream then oppose others from getting it because it affects their enjoyment of what they got?

        Is that where NIMBY comes from? “I got mine.. there’s none left for you”?

        If that’s the mindset then why would developers or those that approve their ventures feel that providing others with that same dream was wrong?

        tough questions, eh?

  2. Just back from our annual “Spring Trip” – a traveling group of good friends who like to do things…

    In the process, we traverse and visit quite a few places – rural, urban and in between.

    Places include those named Darien, Waterboro, Savannah, Fargo, Waycross, Fort McAllister, Richmond Hill, Homerville, Macclenny, Folkston, Nahunta, and a dozen or more others.

    The Savannah waterfront is the more successful – a re-made port warehouse district into a tourist haven strip chock full of money-sucking businesses that I’m quite sure, produce a pretty penny of revenues for the city where a fictional Forest Gump made history!

    Many of the others exhibit various attempts by local govt to do what they could afford to produce an attractive venue for businesses that would attract customers and a tax revenues.

    More than a few of the rural towns are deteriorated and barely alive – mostly empty storefronts , the ones not empty – marginal shops .. sometimes one or two successful restaurants.. and one or two “grab and go” type gas stations.

    They’re sad to see.

    Back to Savannah – we entered the city via non-interstate roads through it’s outskirts and through it’s residential which looks and feels like both the richer and poorer parts of Richmond.

    But sitting outside the ice cream shop and people watching and large ships moving watching – it occurred to me that at some point in the past, one or more “planner” types must have had thoughts not so different than planner types in other cities – like Richmond – where they think they can .. with a few tax dollars – make something better and more productive out of a disreputable .. probably rat-infested place..

    As they say.. “hope springs eternal”!

    Some of these attempts are wildly successful like the Savannah Waterfront while others maybe not so spectacular .. others still.. total bombs.

    One thing is obvious to me … the “secret sauce” is … not readily available in a reliable recipe!! and the search for that elusive secret sauce.. never ends!

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