Economic development in Richmond has been a tough gig in recent years, with nobody at the helm for more than a year at a time and then a scrapping of the department in favor or a broader bureaucracy.
But now there’s Lee Downy. He’s been in charge for almost a year, and he recently talked with Richmond BizSense about trying to shepherd Richmond toward greater prosperity.
Downy, 42, started his career as a city planner in the Petersburg area and slowly transitioned to economic development. After a stint with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, he went to the private sector.
Below is an edited transcript.
Richmond BizSense: You’ll have been here a year in May. What are your impressions of the job? How did it compare with your expectations?
Lee Downy: Busy is an understatement. It’s been getting to know the staff — we have an incredible depth of experience here, a lot of people who know Richmond. The big surprise for me has been just how quickly things can turn and how much opportunity is out there.
RBS: There has been a lot of turnover in your position in recent years. Do you expect to fare better than your predecessors?
LD: This Department of Economic and Community Development, organized in the past two years — it has been stable. A lot of thought went into how this would be organized. The administration has done a great job making sure the right people were in the right places.
RBS: A frequent criticism of the city is that the permit process is long and the master plans are outdated. Is there a way that these processes can be streamlined?
LD: Any project that comes to us, we are going to really sit down and look at that project — what it means for the project itself but [also] how it fits into a community as a whole. So that drives a lot of what has to happen.
Also, we have a new director of planning, development and review named Mark Olinger. He started this fall, and we spend a lot of time together looking at old ways of doing things and how they can be improved.
RBS: But some of the master plans are more than a decade old. Is there any movement toward getting them updated?
LD: I think the economy threw a hitch into everything. A lot of these plans were done before anybody foresaw the economy tanking the way it did.
RBS: What’s the biggest opportunity you see for Richmond?
LD: I think Richmond is experiencing a new discovery. We are getting more and more looks from people who wouldn’t have given us a glance. We’ve had a lot of successful events happen in the last nine months.
RBS: How are you going about getting businesses to look at Richmond?
LD: I’m a firm believer in targeting your market and not just casting a wide net and see what you can drag in. I think resources are better served if you know who you are going after, why you are going after them and you’re going after someone who is willing or wanting to make a move.
We work closely with our site selection consultants, and they’ve done a good job at getting companies out and around in Richmond and showing them what our assets are.
RBS: So what can Richmonders expect from your office?
LD: Everything we do here we try to do comprehensively with an eye to how it all fits together. I think this office is a new animal, and people are still learning to get familiar with. There is a lot happening that is new, but there is also a lot that’s been on hold until the economy improves. I think once people start seeing the results of what we’re doing and the efforts that went into it, it will be staggering.