Southside lacks crucial infrastructure. Are city priorities, history holding it back?
Development scarce following second failed casino referendum.
Between sips of coffee, outgoing Richmond City Councilor Mike Jones recalls a ribbon cutting ceremony he attended in March for the opening of the Starbucks at Chippenham Parkway and Hull Street.
A ribbon cutting for a Starbucks might have people in Carytown or the West End scratching their heads. But Jones said, it’s a pretty big deal.
“This is the first coffee shop that I could sit in and have a cup of coffee in my district, save for McDonald's,” Jones said. “This was working with the Strelitz family that owned Haynes Furniture and our own economic development department. And we've been working on this for about four years.”
It’s an arrangement he said doesn’t come often or easy in the 9th District.
“When I first came on council, I did a tour with the president of Richmond Association of Realtors, Laura Lafayette, and another developer. And the developer’s like, ‘Mike, I can't bring anything here unless some things change: crime, safe and clean neighborhoods, litter.’”
Progress isn’t just a matter of drawing businesses to Southside, but keeping them here.
“Where [if a] Scott's Addition building closes — business leaves — someone's coming back in, right? Max’s on Broad shut down. Guess what? And Dim Sum is in there,” Jones said. “Something closes over here, it’s going to be shuttered for a while.”
Meanwhile, Southside residents look on as new desperately-needed grocery stores, banks and green spaces pop up in other areas of the city.
A tempting solution
Those residents know what they need to make their neighborhoods safer, healthier and more liveable. But many of those needs continue to be unmet.
Some say it’s a lack of big investments. Others say it’s a matter of priorities, aggressive leadership and vision.
VPM News spoke to some of those residents at the polls earlier this month. Christine Gibson, who lives in Southside on Wimber Drive, was like many of her neighbors, betting on a new casino and resort to finally turn things around.
Gibson was looking forward to what the Richmond Grand Resort and Casino promised to bring: food, entertainment, jobs, a 55-acre park for residents to enjoy.
“On Southside, you want to go to a restaurant, you got to drive out,” she said. “We don't really have any place else, and this will have 15 under one roof.”
The casino was projected to bring in nearly $30 million dollars in new tax revenue for the city — mostly from gaming and gambling revenues. It also promised a $26 million dollar lump sum payment to city coffers. City leaders who supported the project, including Jones and Mayor Levar Stoney, promised to put much of that payment toward childcare.
It was tempting, said Anna Miller, another Southside resident who spoke with VPM News following the election.
“I did feel the pressure in my neighborhood that everybody wanted it,” she said. “And I felt like I should go along with that.”
She said a lot of crucial infrastructure is missing in her community. She’s a vegetarian and finds it hard to find affordable, fresh produce.
“There's a Food Lion way down the road. But it doesn't have much,” she said. “I go to Carytown because I used to live in the Fan for 20 years, so I'm familiar with it.”
In the 8th District’s Davee Gardens neighborhood, Southside ReLeaf, an environmental justice organization, recently planted some trees. But co-founder Amy Wentz pointed to standing water and mud along the nearby sidewalk.
“They were promised [a] stormwater and drainage fix like 30 years ago,” she said. “And then it was reconfirmed 20 years ago, reconfirmed 10 years ago and they still haven't gotten it yet.
Wentz said the organization focuses on creating green spaces in the community but they also spend time with neighbors and connect them with resources.
“People are tired,” she said. “They've been talking for years and years and years. And the things that they've been advocating for, the things that they've been promised, haven't been delivered.”
In 2019, when Southside ReLeaf launched, Wentz and her partner Sheri Shannon worked alongside city officials on the Richmond 300 master plan.
Looking at citywide data, Shannon said they noticed Southside lagged in just about every measured category.
“There's higher concentrations of poverty, there is lower educational attainment, we have higher rates of chronic illnesses, such as asthma. We also have lower home ownership. And on top of that,” Shannon said, “not everyone lives within a 10-minute walk to a park or playground, which is something that the city says that they want every resident to do.”
Shannon said the city should have more equitable priorities and invest in community infrastructure in areas that need it most — not chase after big development projects.
Some of Southside has gotten more attention from the city in recent years, including Jones’ district, where there’ve been improvements to Hull Street Road, new schools and housing developments.
But Wentz and Shannon said the 8th District isn’t getting enough of the pie.
Wentz wanted to help change that in 2020 when she challenged longtime 8th District Councilor Reva Trammell, who's represented the district for more than two decades.
“Areas with the greater need should be given priority over areas that don't have it,” Wentz said. “And so, it takes somebody to say, you know, we've invested in this part of town, probably more than enough.”
VPM News reached out to Trammell by email and phone to talk about the status of maintenance projects in her district, as well as future economic development plans. Trammell declined an interview — but did say by text that she was disappointed voters rejected the casino.
“There’s always room for additional revenue to come in,” Wentz said. “But I think that there's been a lack of just investing the money that we do have in these areas for a long time.”
Jones, who’s leaving City Hall to represent Southside in the Virginia House of Delegates next year, has a hard time with the suggestion that the money just needs to be prioritized, moved around.
“Show me,” he said while sitting at Starbucks. “I've done six budgets. It's not there.”
He said economic development is a business decision, and right now, much of Southside is bad business.
And he doubts a deal like the casino will come around again in his lifetime.
“The footprint has been set,” Jones said. “They have set the Southside on a course, through zoning, redlining and everything else, that it's not going to come back. It's just designed not to.”