As Mayor-elect Dwight Jones prepares to transition from the pulpit back to public office, Richmond BizSense sat down with him to find out his plans for economic development and fostering business growth.
Jones, a Philadelphia native with a deliberate delivery, is no stranger to doing business in Richmond. He chaired the downtown development group Richmond Renaissance and served on the Metro Richmond Convention and Visitor’s Bureau board of directors. As a state delegate, Jones was a member of the Commerce and Labor committee. A corporation operated by his church dabbles in real estate investment, spending a few million to redevelop blighted portions of Hull Street in the city’s Manchester district.
An edited transcript follows:
Richmond BizSense: What are your top three economic development priorities?
Dwight Jones: I think that my first economic development priority is to get the economic development team in City Hall into shape, to meet people who are there and see if they are able to craft the kind of development I want to see happening.
I think we need to find a way to retain and bring in new businesses. You can’t go wrong when you’re attracting MeadWestvaco, but I think also small businesses really drive the train. The economy is going to be very difficult, so you start talking about incentivizing. That may not be possible right off, but eventually I think that we need to find a way to incentivize the retaining and attraction of new businesses.
A lot of attention is going to be paid to bringing retail and underpinning services to the influx of people who are moving into downtown. But I think we also need an economic plan for our neighborhoods, so I’ll be pushing for that.
RBS: Is there anything more specific about the type of agenda that you’d like to push?
DJ: I want it to be aggressive. I don’t feel as though our economic development agenda has been aggressive – I think it has been rather passive, as a matter of fact. Now I’m on the outside, and once I get on the inside I may find something different.
RBS: We’ve been hearing more and more about Richmonders starting small businesses and working for themselves. What do you think government needs to provide small business owners to help them thrive?
DJ: I think we ought to help them get permits. We ought to be able to make the services we provide accessible, courteous and friendly.
My idea is to streamline the process and to develop a strategy where people are able to get in and get out. Mayor Bloomberg in New York has come up with a timeline for people to get permits and stuff in New York. I’m not sure whether if its seven days or 30 days, but it is some reasonable expectation that people ought to have to be able to navigate the permitting process. If it can be done New York, I’m fairly certain it can be done in Richmond.
RBS: Some people say the city has a marketing problem, in particular parking and crime. What do you think you need to do to address the issue?
DJ: If your desire is to be able to pull up to the place you are going to visit, then we have a parking problem. If you recognize that in an urban environment that parking decks are the way we do parking, then we don’t have as much of a problem. We need to develop more parking. The parking probably needs to come under some kind of authority that handles the parking issues for the city and makes sure we’re on target with the proper number of spaces for the events and venues that we have.
Crime certainly has decreased, but we have to be ever vigilant on that. That’s not something you take a gold star for and quit.
RBS: People are buying less and tax revenues are shrinking. Richmond is likely no exception. Faced with the possibility of a budget shortfall, where do you plan to look for savings, and how do you plan to increase revenue?
DJ: We’re going to go through the budget line by line and determine what we have to have and what we don’t have to have. We’re going to look at the auditor’s suggestions and see if they are viable suggestions. Just because he says it doesn’t mean it’s true. But we will look at them, and if we can implement some of the auditor’s suggestions, that is a good thing. I understand, or at least the word is, there may be $25 million worth of savings that can be achieved.
RBS: The proposal to build a stadium in Shockoe Bottom has a lot of moving pieces that need to work in concert. How important is it to Richmond’s future to have baseball, and what are you willing to do to move that process along?
DJ: The deal is not done. That’s the first thing. The proposals were dumped on everybody’s lap five days before the election, which probably is not the best timing in the world. If I was a developer, I would be horrified at the timetable. That’s still not decided, whether the stadium will be downtown. The proposal was very interesting and the pictures are very pretty, but that’s something we are going to have to vet and make a decision on.
There are a lot of ways to bring excitement to the city that is not baseball. I want baseball, but there are some things that can be done, including getting VCU to do football. That could bring a lot of interest, money and excitement to the town.
RBS: Do you have a position on the Echo Harbor project? Should the city buy land for a park in line with the Downtown Plan, or do you think the current owners should be able to develop it commercially? If so, what limitations should be put on the project?
DJ: The river is not for just a few people or people who can afford to buy property on the river. As Echo Harbor is presently drawn, I could not support it. If they could draw it so the riverfront is preserved for the public and the view sheds for those who are in the city can be protected, then it’s possible to look at it.
RBS: How far has the city come and how far does it have to go to become a livable and prosperous downtown?
DJ: I remember going to meetings 10 years ago that said in order for downtown to come back you have to have residential, you have to have people living downtown – and doggone it, we got that going on now. Now we got to develop the services necessary for life downtown to be meaningful. And that means you need insurance people downtown, you need lawyers downtown, you need cleaners, you need grocery stores downtown, you need shoemakers downtown, and so all of those things have got to be developed. The restaurants are there, but you need the delis, and you need entertainment.
The age group is a younger age group in some instances, so you got to develop the type of entertainment venues that are attractive. You need bicycle paths, and we need more open spaces and parks. There is a lot of work to be done, but we’ve moved mountains in the last several years.