The bike race: A chance and a challenge for local businesses

Richmond is gearing up for a massive September bike event. Photos by Jonathan Spiers.

Richmond is gearing up for a massive September bike event. Photos by Jonathan Spiers.

When the UCI Road World Championships comes to town, will Richmond be open for business?

Depends on who you ask.

If you talk to the folks at Richmond 2015, the group promoting and coordinating the Road World Championships for Union Cycliste Internationale, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

“Downtown is open for business. We cannot stress that enough,” said Monica Callahan, the group’s community engagement director.

That’s been the message emphasized by Callahan in a series of meetings with businesses and the public that continues through next week at locations across the area.

Sponsors of the event – described as the pinnacle event put on by UCI – have similar responses. Dominion Resources, WestRock Co. (formerly MeadWestvaco), McGuireWoods and others say business won’t be altered by the races, which are set to take place Sept. 19-27.

“We are going to have business as usual,” Dominion Vice President Roy Grier told a gathering in June. “We have 2,500 employees in three locations who will be coming to work during their normal times – not telecommuting.

“This is a very accessible event. It’s not going to be a logjam,” Grier said. “We’re doing everything we can to encourage people to be downtown, to come see the race, come to work, and keep things as normal as possible.”

Christopher's Runaway Gourmay will shut down operations during the race.

Christopher’s Runaway Gourmay will shut down operations during the race.

But food cart veteran Chris Zechini wouldn’t use “normal” to describe the effects of the event, which will significantly restrict access to parts of downtown. A five-block stretch of East Broad Street will serve as the event’s ground zero and finish line, and most race routes will encircle a 30-block area between Broad, East Main, Second and Governor streets.

While most street closures will be lifted after each day’s race, East Broad Street between Third and Eighth streets will be closed to all traffic between Sept. 11 and Oct. 1 to allow for setup and cleanup before and after the event. That news, mentioned Tuesday at a meeting at VCU, earned a collective, groan-like “wow” from several attendees.

Zechini, who has operated Christopher’s Runaway Gourmay food carts for 30 years, said he decided a month ago that during the week of the race, he’ll pack up his carts and get out of town – literally.

“I gave up. I rented a house at Nags Head, so I’m kind of happy about it actually,” Zechini said with a laugh. “As soon as I saw the race routes and knew what the rules were, I made this decision to close down for the week. I just don’t care at this point. I think (the race) is a huge mistake.

“You’re shutting a business down, a tax-generating business – I generate a lot of food tax – and this thing is completely shutting down downtown,” he said. “The city can say all they want to say, ‘Richmond’s open for business.’ How is it open for business if you can’t get anywhere downtown?”

Getting around

Accessibility downtown is a primary concern for business owners like Zechini, who said the only way he could keep his four carts open would be to set up before roads close around 8:30 a.m. and wait until they reopen, potentially after 5 p.m.

“Why would I do that? Leaving food out in the heat for nine hours?” he said. “Even if I could get to my locations, nobody’s going to be downtown … You’re not going to be able to get there. They’re going to have certain places where you can cross the routes.”

Those crossing locations – for vehicles and pedestrians – and other transportation details are set to be shared with the public today. A navigation feature on the Richmond 2015 website is scheduled to go live at 3 p.m., officials have announced.

Today’s new information comes weeks later than officials had said the plans would be shared. The delay has been attributed to final reviews by the Richmond Police Department and other agencies involved.

The new feature will map out details including road closures, parking decks, satellite parking and no-parking zones.

Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson, co-owner of downtown restaurant Citizen, said he has been frustrated by the delay but pleased with the city’s communication this year compared to last, when it hosted a similar but smaller event: the CapTech USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships.

This year, Johnson and his wife Sherri created an email group to communicate with businesses and coordinated a meeting with event organizers in June.

“One of the problems we had last year was downtown was basically shut down,” Johnson said. “The message was: ‘Don’t come downtown.’ And no one did. My sales were down 50 percent. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.”

Johnson said he and others whose businesses depend on deliveries need time to assess the event’s transportation plan – hence his frustration with the delay in detailed information.

“The message we’ve heard from the city is: ‘Prepare to be flexible.’ The biggest question we have is: How are we going to do that?

“I’m planning on being very, very busy. Other businesses are waiting to see what happens,” he said. “I’m more concerned about what the office situation is going to be.”

View from ‘the Island’

While most corporate offices and high-rises downtown are located outside the 30-square-block finale loop – “We call it ‘the island,’” state spokeswoman Dena Potter said – most every business downtown, large and small, will be affected in some way by the race routes. But most that BizSense spoke to said they are planning not only for business as usual, but encouraging their employees to take part in the event.

“We’re not changing our schedule at all. In fact, we’re going to encourage our employees to take in portions of the races when they have time to do so,” said Calvin “Woody” Fowler, CEO of Williams Mullen, which is also sponsoring the event.

“I think that the plan will be good and we can expect things to go well. Will there always be some inconveniences with an event like this? I’m sure there will be,” Fowler said. “But I think the inconveniences will be minor compared with the benefit we get from hosting such a neat event.”

The most downtown biking will occur Sept. 24-27 on the Road Circuit course, one of four routes.

The most downtown biking will occur Sept. 24-27 on the Road Circuit course, one of four routes.

ThompsonMcMullan, a smaller law firm located in Shockoe Slip, is likewise planning to be open for business but will assess the situation as more information is released, said firm administrator Mary Ellen Cleveland.

“We may need to make adjustments for our clients,” Cleveland said. “But we don’t plan to shut down … We are a little concerned about parking, because we do park in three different parking decks here around Shockoe Bottom. We’re doing kind of a wait and see.”

The Martin Agency, also in the Slip, is planning to keep its office open for its more than 450 employees.

“We do not plan to have any formal changes in our office hours or to recommend telecommuting or that kind of thing,” Martin Agency spokesman Dean Jarrett said.

“On the contrary, it’s going to be nice for our people to walk just a couple of blocks and see world-class cycling downtown.”

Courts and the Capitol

The federal district court building, in the middle of “the island,” will be closed the last Friday of the event – Sept. 25. Richmond Circuit Court will be open all week but is keeping its court dockets light, said Clerk of Court Edward Jewett.

“The judges have tried to keep theirs very light that week, so that there won’t be conflicts where jurors won’t be able to get in and things like that,” Jewett said. “We’ll be working with the city to make sure employees have access to their controlled parking, which we’ve been assured they will have. And also the public, we’re hoping, will be able to get here.”

Potter, the director of communications for the Virginia Department of General Services, said the Virginia Capitol building and other state offices will remain open throughout the event. She said the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is working on a plan for restaurant deliveries, and she said those plans will be dictated by today’s new traffic and parking details.

“We’re encouraging state employees to come to work as usual and take advantage of the fact that they have not only a front-row seat, but also a reserved parking spot for all the action,” Potter said.

Potter said state employees are being briefed on the latest developments through the state’s own race website.

“Our theory is, with a little planning, we can make it a very enjoyable experience,” she said.

Alternate routes

Not every downtown business is taking that approach. Dementi Studio, for example, which is located on the Second Street side of the race route loop, plans to have its two in-house employees do field work or work from home during the event.

“I’ll be doing proofing from home, working remotely,” said Shaun Aigner-Lee, Dementi’s studio manager. “We’re keeping coming in early as an option.”

On a much larger scale, VCU has pushed up its annual reading week to coincide with the event. Classes on its Monroe Park campus will not be held Sept. 19-27, but students will be encouraged to observe reading days. Classes on its MCV campus will be determined by department.

Runaway Gourmay’s Zechini, whose daughter attends VCU, pointed to those plans as proof that the city is indeed shutting down.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller

“Forcing them to take their breaks that week – it just goes on and on, the negatives of this thing,” he said. “I would just love a true accounting of this when it’s all done that includes all the negatives, as well as the positives. I know that maybe it’s good for the city, its image – I get all that. But to be so disruptive.”

Tim Miller, director of operations for Richmond 2015, said any disruptions will be minimal compared to the benefits of hosting an event on a world stage.

“There are going to be a lot of businesses, a lot of individuals, coming into the area to take part in the event,” he said. “When they come to these events, they’re eating out, they’re spending money, they’re being tourists.”

Miller said the group is by no means suggesting that there won’t be an impact to some businesses, their employees, traffic and the general flow of the normal work week. But he argues there’s a huge potential upside.

“This is going to take some effort on the part of local business owners to make those visitors aware that they’re there and they have something to offer,” he said. “They can’t just sit back and expect people to come and spend money.”

“People tend to focus on the negative side of the impact,” Miller said. “But there is a tremendous upside with this event that sometimes gets lost in that analysis.”

Johnson of Citizen said he shares that outlook.

“I’ve already heard people griping or saying they’re going to take vacation that week. This is a world stage,” he said. “Take a long lunch.

“Offices that close, I think that’s silly,” Johnson said. “You miss out on that opportunity.”

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Tom Holton
Tom Holton
5 years ago

Mr. Zechini’s business sense is severely lacking. I image with a little thought and flexibility his carts could get where he needs them. As far as his comment about no one being downtown…..I’d suggest he pull up a few YouTube videos of this event. This isn’t Tuesday Night at Bryan Park. If he doesn’t think 1000’s of people watching a world class cycling event don’t get hungry or spend money impulsively he is really missing this boat. Sad because his style of food has a nice euro flare and I’m sure he would sell a cubic ton of that chicken… Read more »

Tim Parker
Tim Parker
5 years ago

It makes me sad to know that some business owners (especially food service) aren’t excited about this week. There is so much potential for this event, and coming from someone who lives 2 blocks away from the finish line I can’t wait to take it all in. I am happy to hear that so many downtown businesses are encouraging their employees to participate though. I think the naysayers just haven’t realized the best thing to do is embrace the event and try to make the best of it. By doing that I think a lot of places will find that… Read more »

Bruce Anderson
Bruce Anderson
4 years ago

I’m planning to bring my family downtown to watch the racing at least one day and probably more. I guess we’ll be eating off other food trucks….. You’re going to be missing out on a lot of business, Chris.

Brian Ezzelle
Brian Ezzelle
4 years ago

My wife and I attended the last week of last year’s TDF. We witnessed the Hautecam, Bergerac, time trials, and the final day into Paris. We said to ourselves “Can Richmond really get it together to put on something like this in 2015?” Our cost for this trip was around $10k, worth every penny. And then I look at the cost they are charging for some of the VIP events here, $400- $800 a pop. While I am very excited about the races being here, paying 1/10 of a week at the TDF to experience an afternoon of racing here… Read more »

Tim Parker
Tim Parker
4 years ago
Reply to  Brian Ezzelle

Don’t go to the VIP events. This doesn’t have to be an event you have to spend a lot of money at! Just go watch some world class cycling, get some lunch/dinner and maybe some drinks. Sounds like a great inexpensive event to me.

Alice Rainey
Alice Rainey
4 years ago

I say wah, wah, wah and good riddance to Mr. Zechini and his business. Make no mistake, Mr. Zechini is choosing to shut down his business and ultimately affect his employees, not the other way around. God forbid that he use any creative juices left in his self-centered head to work creatively and collaboratively to make these 9 days a success story as we, Richmond, VA, host the world! Really, during the months leading up to this honor, hosting UCI, a guy this smart could have come up with a plan. Hopefully, the beach house will make him happy, but… Read more »

ella wozniak
ella wozniak
4 years ago
Reply to  Alice Rainey

Just a thought, Ms. Rainey, that perhaps Mr. Zechini understands his business demographics and the likely adverse effect this shutdown will have on them perhaps slightly better than you do?

Tim Parker
Tim Parker
4 years ago
Reply to  ella wozniak

Maybe he does, and maybe it is smart for him to shut down (I personally think he’s loosing out on a ton of money), but he doesn’t have to complete bash and talk so negatively about a great opportunity for the city and a lot of other companies. Yes maybe he is shutting down but a lot of companies see this as an opportunity. I think this is the self centered nature the post is talking about.

ella wozniak
ella wozniak
4 years ago
Reply to  Tim Parker

I found Ms. Rainey’s remarks to be rather more bashing and offensive to Mr. Zechini personally than his own pointed but unfortunately rather accurate observations that this supposedly world-class event is being handled in a something less than world-class manner by the city’s leaders and managers.

Mark Andrews
Mark Andrews
4 years ago

I don’t think the Richmond city government has truly grasped the magnitude of this event. My brother-in-law is a semi-pro cyclist and he described this event to me as being second only to the Tour de France. This is a huge deal for RVA. Let’s just hope we don’t screw it up–especially since the world will be watching. Incidentally, Richmond-Petersburg metropolitan area was named the “Happiest” in an article in the British newspaper The Daily Mail. Although C’ville was name the happiest city:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2702168/How-happy-city-Study-says-Richmond-Americas-contented-area-New-York-unhappiest-say-people-come-money-anyway.html