So why don’t more people come here to take advantage of what the city has to offer?
That was the question a group of business people and academics attempted to answer in an all-day session Friday at the University of Richmond’s downtown campus.
The program, Frontier Sessions, was hosted by The Frontier Project, a Shockoe Bottom-based consulting company that specializes in leadership and strategy.
The focus session was done as part of the company’s pro-bono mission of donating 15 percent of its work to the community, said Frontier Project founder Scott Wayne. This is the first Frontier Sessions program the company has done, he said.
The panel consisted of eight people invited in and four principals from The Frontier Project.
“We did not invite the mayor’s office, or the governor’s office or Venture Richmond,” Wayne said. “It’s not that we have anything against them, it’s just that we wanted to take a completely fresh look.”
Panelists brainstormed on why people might not want to come to town, what can be done make the city more attractive for them, and at the end of the day came up with a recommendation list of things that can be done to change the behavior.
Members of the group didn’t know each other before Friday’s meeting. They were picked because they had knowledge or experience that would enhance the discussion, said Corey Dyckman, a Frontier Project principal. They were not there speaking on behalf of their companies, he said.
In a free-flowing conversation, with some nudging from Wayne, the panel was asked to name their favorite cities or describe what qualities they looked for in a city.
Judy Mejia, who heads the downtown UR campus, said Manhattan. “I love the idea that you could be shopping in the middle of the city.” She also cited public transportation, which she said Richmond is lacking.
Derek Mueller, who works at Altria, believes a good city depends on the number of non-chain restaurants.
“My favorite cities are ones that have a sense of localness,” said Chris McDaniel, who works at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. “I don’t want to be on the West Broad Street of a city.”
Dyckman mentioned that the city lacks a central gathering place. Others joined in on that theme and as the conversation careened from one topic to another.
The group determined Monroe Park and other city parks are treasures but they are underutilized. They pointed out the attraction of the river downtown but said it would lure more visitors with things such as bike and kayak rentals and food concessions.
There was talk of taking Boston’s Freedom Trail model and using it here with the slave trail and other historical sites connected to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Civil Rights and religious freedom. Like with the Freedom Trail, the thinking was that it could be a good idea to paint a line along the route for visitors to follow.
The ideas on why people don’t come into town ranged from parking issues, safety fears, not having good central place for getting information on many of the things that are happening here, and annoyances like having to walk by street musicians who are asking for money.
A recommendation came out of that to have the city create stations for musicians on the Canal Walk and other parts of town and get sponsors to pay them to play instead of having them rely on donations.
As the day went on, the group went through various break-out sessions where they identified target groups – such as young professional women, retirees, families with children, quiet intellectuals, teenagers, outdoors types, sports enthusiasts, art lovers – and came up with strategies on how to attract them to the city.
Here are some of the recommendations the group came up with. More will be finalized in follow up meetings.
• Ask Mayor Dwight Jones to consider building a skateboard park downtown rather than the outdoor ice rink he has proposed. The thinking is this would bring in young people and be a year-round attraction, rather than seasonal.
• Come up with a book-of-the-month for the entire metro area. This would be something to create a common interest for people from all of the localities. This is something that is being done in Dublin, Ireland.
• Approach GRTC about establishing a circulator that people from the suburbs could ride in to tourist attractions.
• Create the slavery, independence and Civil War trail.
• Get the city to issue permits for street concessions in places such as the Canal Walk and Monroe Park.
• Find corporate sponsors to donate bicycle parking racks for the downtown river area and other parts of town.
“Our job is to make some people change their behavior in a positive way,” Wayne said.
He said his expectations for what Frontier Sessions might accomplish is tempered but “let’s say we come up with 15 recommendations and three happen. Wouldn’t that be terrific?”
Wayne said it is key that the group set its sights on small goals that can be quickly achieved with little expense.
“This is a city where people get caught up in baseball debates, which is fine, but in the meantime let’s build a skate park.”