Monday, April 28, 2014

Education and Economic Development

What if education was Richmond's top economic development priority?

Current Economic Development Practice

The City of Richmond, through the Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) and Economic Development Authority (EDA), gives money and city resources to businesses (e.g. Redskins Camp, Shockoe Stadium, Boulevard Site) to have them locate within the city. These are priority economic development projects.


These businesses become the anchor, or attraction piece, to obtain more middle and upper income residents. These new residents spend dispensable income (sales and restaurant tax), and invest in property (personal property and assessment taxes), which in turn grows the city’s revenue base to better fund services and infrastructure to the poorest citizens and neighborhoods within the city.
Due to the city being unable to annex county land with jobs and middle/upper income households, the city must grow from within through redevelopment and revitalization. This is different from other examples in the south (i.e. Charlottesville, Durham, and Atlanta) that have been able to expand within the adjacent county to provide the revenue base to pay for services.

The Problem

To survive, these new businesses must continue to attract people from outside their local neighborhood, or even city, because the local economic base was not originally what attracted them to site (i.e. location made possible by government subsidy). The rationale that these businesses would be the linchpin for future development is not realized. The heavy up-front cost of public investment is not realized, and the city is left poorer with no other ancillary benefits from this initial investment in a select few.

One example where this concept was implemented and failed locally was with the 6th Street Marketplace. Further reading on this topic can be found in Roland Wilson’s 1989 master’s thesis assessing the failure of the 6th street marketplace.

The Solution = Education as a Top Priority

More middle and upper income residents need to be attracted, retained, or built-up from within (my favorite) the city to balance the income inequalities within our neighborhoods and grow revenues to fund city services. But, instead of government subsidies for one-time large projects, what if we made education the top priority?

Let’s say we made education our top priority within the budget and direct Richmond’s ECD and other city departments, along with the EDA, to make targeted investments and apply human resources to making Richmond Public Schools (RPS) a world class education system.

More money and emphasis on schools sends the message to middle and upper income families that they should stay within the city. Also, over time children of lower income families will become better trained and more educated, thus providing the opportunity to break family cycles of poverty. Check out this NY Times interactive map of economic mobility to see where these cycles are being broken today.

US Equality of Opportunity Project, Harvard University, 2014
Businesses see median household incomes rise and the development of a local economical base, thus making it fiscally viable for them to locate in the city. A sustainable system of consumer and businesses is created by the market, not artificially supplanted by government subsidies. An example of site selection factors can be seen in the City of Richmond’s VEDP profile.

But, let’s say this doesn't work as advertised and it takes longer for a business environment to be fostered. Are we just left with a vacant failed 6th Street Marketplace? No, because the ancillary benefits would be tremendous!

In the economic pursuit of investing in education, you now are FINALLY providing a world class education system to the numerous working poor and improvised families and children in the city. This would begin to account for past wrongs and degradation, while lowering future government costs to provide services. The fiscal benefits of education investment are detailed in countless academic studies, and are the main impetus behind why my former employer, the City of Hampton, funds “Healthy Family Partnership”. Programs like this are based upon real savings to city services (health care, incarceration, and other government services).

Could we really make this happen?

Yes, of course. Like most things in life, if you really want something to happen, you will find the time, money, or resources to make it happen. Think about that girl or guy who you pined for, and they finally said yes to a date. Did you worry about how much it could cost? I bet you would beg, borrow, or steal to pay for that date. What about scheduling conflicts? Are you really going to let your job or other priorities get in the way? Heck no.

Our City Council and Mayor should support the School Board and Superintendent in going after failing education in the way we would after a first date… minus the stealing part.

They are there to work out the details. We, the citizens, are here to advocate. So let your voice be heard and contact your city councilperson. Together we can advocate for more intelligent spending of public dollars and serve those in the most need, our current RPS students.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dignity for GRTC Riders

Dignity – The state or quality of being worthy of honor and respect

Sitting down on a dirty, slanted metal GRTC green bench with no cover, no information on what busses are coming next, lacking any character, love, or sense of place, is not a fun place to be. It is no wonder that when talking with businesses and residents of the city, many times a closely located bus stop is highly undesirable.

In the short time I worked downtown and was able to commute via bus, I experienced a small taste of what regular riders encumber daily. On Main Street at 9th, where I waited to pick up the #6 bus headed west, almost no one ever sat on the GRTC bench. Most of us hovered around in the shade closest to the building or lingered around waiting for the sight of an oncoming bus.

On days where I did venture out to the bench, I was able to see why this was an island to be avoided. It’s location within 5 feet of the curb provides access to the fumes or debris from passing vehicles. Also, when the GRTC bus swerves over with breaks screeching right, you get a nice adrenaline rush that this might be your end. And what better place than here to go out? Inhaling  idling CO2, being covered in soot or water kicked up from passing cars, and let’s not forget the beer, bird poop, or other questionable substance combination you have been sitting in awaiting your arrival to the pearly gates.

It’s no wonder we see people all over the place along Broad Street, where bus ridership and transfers are concentrated. Where are these people to sit? What are we saying about how we value them with such poor facilities? If these bus stops are the face of GRTC, why are we surprised when its reputation is viewed as a negative presence?  

In general, how we treat our current GRTC riders is without dignity.

But, what if we could change all of this? How about a solution that costs GRTC nothing ($0), would be positively viewed by local residents and businesses, and would restore dignity to daily riders?

The solution: Develop an “Adopt-a-Bench” program between GRTC and local civic or neighborhood associations where commissioned artists design and construct unique bus stops that reflect the local community. Thus, restoring dignity to riders by having bus stops that are valued by the community and provide riders shelter, information on the route system, and create a desirable sense place. Additionally, by developing a relationship with local groups in the design, development, and on-going maintenance, you create a sense of local investment in the bus stop, increasing care for and awareness of the GRTC system.

How would this work?

Funding could be derived through a few sources. Ideally, the entire funding of the project would come from local neighborhood or other local civic associations. Partnering with local faith institutions or running a kick-starter campaign could raise the initial $500-$1,000 per stop required for the commissioning and construction of the individual bus stop. Further investigation of this initial startup cost and on-going maintenance is required.

Public sources of funding may be gained from the Department of Public Works for trash receptacles or street furnishings.  Another possibility is for the GRTC to establish a 1% for public art program to commission of artists to create enhancements, as seen with the City of Norfolk’s light rail system.

Since these bus stops are on public property, a maintenance agreement would run through GRTC, who should already have an agreement with the city for their benches. The agreement between private groups and the GRTC could follow the Adopt-a-Spot program guidelines (City of Richmond Clean City Commission).

Coordination of the artists and designers with neighborhood or local civic associations could operate directly through these individual groups, or could be facilitated through an organization such as the Storefront for Community Design.

Designs would include a range of different ideas. A quick google search of creative bus stops displays a wide range of unique and engaging ways that a bus stop can be reimagined to reflect the local community. Another interesting design could use vertical gardens to combat the unclean breathing situation when sitting on the current benches.  

So, if you want this to happen, get organized locally and contact GRTC. Let’s find out what operating procedures would be needed to start an “Adopt-a-Bench” program. Contact a local artist or art association to see what the start-up price for the initial development of the bus stop would be.

Let’s restore dignity to GRTC riders to further the reLOVEoution of change in Richmond.