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Richmond Mayoral Candidates Lay Out Plans for Pandemic Recovery

Richmond mayoral candidates
Richmond's mayoral candidates laid out their competing views for the city at the ChamberRVA Mayoral Forum. One area of contention: how to help the city recover from its economic woes. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News; Graphic: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

Richmond hasn’t been among the hardest cities hit by the pandemic: of the nearly 160,000 cases in Virginia, the city accounts for less than 5,000. But no locality has avoided the economic impact of the state-mandated shutdown. 

Renee Haltom, vice president and regional executive at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said initial hopes for a quick recovery are beginning to fade.

“Policy makers and businesses were hoping this was just going to be a short thing, the so-called V-shaped recovery,” she said. “Now the longer that goes on, the less likely it seems like that might be possible.” 

Haltom said in-person service industries have fared the worst, which is bad news for foodie towns like Richmond.

“Not surprisingly, reservation bookings [collected by OpenTable] went to basically zero when COVID hit until about mid-May or so when things started to open back up,” Haltom said. “At best, we’ve recovered to about 30 percent below normal levels.” 

With the pandemic dragging on and future federal relief uncertain, businesses and workers have looked to state and local governments for help. So how do candidates running for Richmond mayor say they’d address the economic recovery?

As the incumbent, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is relying on his record as he runs for reelection. At the recent VPM/NBC12 forum, he highlighted money his administration has committed to helping residents and businesses.

“I would just look at our record during the pandemic,” he said. “We provided $14 million to rental assistance, eviction diversion and mortgage relief.”

Stoney also touted a local disaster loan program for small businesses.

“We also provided a recovery grant. We allowed for restaurants and businesses to turn those loans into grants as well,” Stoney said.

While the city allotted $3 million in federal funding for small business grants, only about half has been given out. That’s something City Council Member Kim Gray, who’s also running for mayor, has repeatedly nailed Stoney on.

“The mayor and his administration dragged their feet on getting those applications out,” Gray said. “We are still struggling with just failed processes in city hall.”

Gray has also criticized the Small Business Disaster Loan Program for only providing up to $20,000, which she says doesn’t meet the need.

But what would Gray do differently, if elected? She said she would set aside some of this year’s nearly $14 million budget surplus for more local relief.

“I talk to restaurant owners every single day who are at the tail end of their PPP funding and the supplements for unemployment are going away,” Gray said. “I think people need all of the help and assistance that we can afford them at the local level.”

Mayoral candidate Justin Griffin, a small business attorney, has run a campaign focused on what he sees as waste and inefficiencies in city government. Asked about his recovery plan, Griffin continued to hammer that point. 

“Richmond is the hardest locality to deal with, at least in my experience,” he said. “So what I would be doing, is streamlining the processes at city hall, making it work efficiently and effectively.” 

Griffin hopes that streamlining city functions would spur new development and business. Griffin’s recovery plan also includes a one-time cash payment to the newly-unemployed. It’s not clear how he would pay for it, since he’s also pushing to lower property and business license taxes.

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was the final candidate to enter the race back in June. 

Rodgers, who is also the former head of the Virginia Young Democrats, has focused her recovery plans on advocating for universal paid sick leave at the state level. She says she would work closely with Richmond’s nonprofits to provide direct relief to families.

“I think you need a mayor that is going to be thinking about seeking out that kind of support in a way that brings everyone along with us, regardless of your status, regardless of your race, your identity, where you live, whether you’re a renter or a homeowner,” Rodgers said.

Tracey McLean, a lesser known candidate polling in the single digits, has also suggested the city provide support to businesses and set up virtual job fairs.

A potential problem with most of these plans is that they rely on the city having money to spend on top of funding essential services.

Tom Arnold, a finance professor at the University of Richmond, said local governments are hurting right now, just like everyone else.

“They’ve received a lot less tax revenue and a lot less business activity as a result of the pandemic and they don’t have the good fortune of being able to run a deficit,” he said.

That means voters may be turning to local governments for aid at a time when they can least afford to provide it.

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