What Will it Take to Make Richmond Virginia a Top Ten Place to Live?

Over the past few years Richmond Virginia has and is experiencing a bit of a resurgence, even a renaissance.  There are many factors that have played a role.  The rapid, dynamic and exciting growth of Virginia Commonwealth University is clearly a major factor along with strong, rapidly expanding technology driven employers like Capital One and CARMAX.  A broad attempt by the community to create an attractive environment for Millennials and Gen-Zers to live and work downtown.  The creation of rapid growth and gentrification zones in the city like, Tobacco Row, Scott’s Addition and Manchester.  Zones, created by forward thinking city leaders, that are attracting commercial, residential and dining/entertainment development.

A significant factor that has drawn national attention to Richmond is the food scene.   The quantity and quality of restaurant choices has been a major contributor to Richmond consistently being named a Top Destination for food travel.  Here are a few other recent bits of recognition for Richmond as a destination for many good reasons.

  • Southern Living Magazine names Richmond one of the South’s Best Cities in 2017.
  • Realtor.com lists Richmond as one of the top ten up-and-coming tech cities. in 2017.
  • Richmond is ranked the 24th best place to live by U.S. News & World Report, February 2017.
  • Richmond named to ‘Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker, 2017’ by MovieMaker.
  • Richmond ranked a Top 10 City for Global Trade in the United States by Global Trade Magazine, September 2016.
  • Richmond named one of 20 best places in America to start a business by CNBC.com, August 2016.
  • Richmond named among America’s 50 best running cities, by Runner’s World, August 2016.
  • Richmond named a top city for creatives, by Thrillist, July 2016.
  • Richmond named a “top destination” for food travel in 2016 by National Geographic.
  • Richmond named the 28th best place to live in the U.S. by U.S. News & World Report. March 2016.
  • Richmond earns #3 ranking of “Best Places to Travel in 2016” by Travel & Leisure, December 2015.

With many nationally recognized positive attributes, what is holding Richmond back from its full potential? For example, Richmond as a realistic contender for such honors as Amazon’s second headquarters city.  Many of the blemishes are the result of the same affliction that affects so many of the world’s great cities; bloated, inefficient government. The problems impact both government services functions and the school system’s ability to produce top performing student populations.  Both are high profile failures of decades of ineffective leadership.  But visitors don’t see the root causes, they see the manifestations; crumbling infrastructure (roads and bridges are a complete embarrassment) and inadequate public transit.

So why must this be the case; why can’t they get it right?  Two primary problems, inadequate revenues and inefficiency.

Revenues are inadequate primarily due to a shrinking tax base and low yields.  The city benefits in many ways by having state government and the rapidly expanding Virginia Commonwealth University within the city limits.  But property taxes are not one of the benefits.  This negatively impacts yields and requires the city to impose higher tax rates on the remaining taxable property.  It creates the perception the city imposes its lack of sound fiscal management on its property owners.  A tax rate nearly 40% high than surrounding communities; essentially a tangible cost of “city living”. 

Richmond city government is notorious for the perception of inefficient and ineffective city services. A recent example is a news report with local contractors complaining about delays and errors in acquiring permits.  This one among a litany of historically consistent grievances in a wide-ranging list from leaf collection service to crime.  But city leadership, all elected officials, must attempt to address the dichotomy of wishing to eliminate waste, so funds can be diverted to areas of great need, and the public perception of heartlessness in weeding out inefficiency; including eliminating positions that are also held by city voters.  Many of these potentially disenfranchised city workers would be significantly challenged to find new comparable work.  Attempts at gained efficiencies with deep personnel cuts can be carcinogenic to a politician’s future even though it may be the exact right thing to do for the greater good.

So, what will it take to break this cycle?  It takes courageous city leadership.  As painful as this prospect sounds, those who chose to live in the city must do it with the understanding that they must do the following.

  • A willingness to pay higher tax rates in order to mitigate the state government/VCU impact and fund improved infrastructure and schools
  • To elect city officials who will do what is necessary to wring out waste and bring greater efficiency to city government while balancing these efforts with the human impact
  • A top priority must be to reverse the increasing trend of failure in the results produced by the city school system – for the future of the city nothing is more important
  • Demand more from city departments to improve the effectiveness and efficiency in working with city procurement of goods and services while providing improved services to the public/businesses
  • Support community planners to bring more residential and commercial development into the city

As astute a politician as there may be in this state, Mayor Levar Stoney has courageously proposed just such a plan.  May he find the level of success with his proposals necessary to put the city on a path of improving a devastatingly weak school system, equally poor infrastructure and the attractiveness of the city to outside interests of many varieties.

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