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Richmond business owners expect more transparency, fewer potholes from next mayor

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond business owners will get a good look at the mayoral candidates on Tuesday evening during a forum at the Virginia Historical Society. Ahead of this business forum, representatives of local business groups said they wanted a mayor who will increase government transparency, support business tax reforms, and overhaul city infrastructure funding.

"Certainly many of the local brewers got upset at the level of largesse that was provided to [Stone] Brewery," Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Partnership for Smarter Growth, said.

Schwartz was referring to the $31 million received by Stone Brewing Co. from the city for locating its East Coast headquarters in Richmond. Schwartz saw this as indicative of a larger trend.

"They’ve gutted the planning function of the city and the planning department literally and elevated economic development above all else," he said. "When they’ve done that they haven’t even necessarily made good economic development decisions."

The Richmond Economic Development Authority (EDA) is often at the center of transparency complaints by business owners as it is authorized to initiate and develop business opportunities on behalf of the city. The EDA is not required to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, nor disclose its activities likes city government departments.

"I would like to see the next mayor, whoever that is, rely less on the EDA," said Michael Hild, owner of Church Hill Ventures, an organization dedicated to revitalizing Manchester. "And make it more transparent and work it through the natural regular channels."

Camille Bird, president of the Carytown Merchants Association and owner of Sacred Waters Holistic Spa, echoed others saying that she wanted to see comparatively less effort spent trying to attract outside businesses. Another often heard criticism of the EDA was related to the quality of the deals they made.

"Nobody’s saying we don’t want to encourage investment in the city," Hild said. "At the same time we don’t have to give away the store.

"Richmond’s a great place," he added. "We have to act like it instead of feeling like we have to bribe everyone to come and do business in the city."

Another key issue business owners will be looking for in the mayoral election involved infrastructure spending. Many business owners wanted to see major improvements to Richmond’s roads and sidewalks.

"There are a lot of existing businesses here sitting on land that have some neglected streets sidewalks, things like that," said David Gott, vice operations manager for Legend Brewing Company.

Hild also criticized the the poor quality of streets and sidewalks as barriers to economic activity in the area.

Business taxes are another area sure to be discussed at Tuesday’s forum.

According to Hild the business tax is too high, making Richmond city less competitive that the surrounding counties.

Gott said the meals tax continues to draw ire from himself and other restauranteurs.

But on the whole Richmond business owners seemed to be hopeful about Richmond’s future and the outcome of the election.

"We’re optimistic provided that coming out of this mayoral campaign we end up with the sort of leader who is inclusive and transparent and brings excellent management to our city," Schwartz said.

Tuesday's event was expected to draw between 200 and 250 attendees. Candidates confirmed to attend the forum are Jon Baliles, Jack Berry, Bobby Junes, Joe Morrissey, Michelle Mosby, Levar Stoney, Bruce Tyler, and Lawrence Williams. The forum will consist of opening remarks by each candidate followed by questions asked to each candidate by the moderator and the audience.

The mayoral forum, which is hosted by local business organizations, takes place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday at the Virginia Historical Society at 428 N. Boulevard. If you want to attend the forum, please RSVP at http://rvabusinessworks.com/ or on Facebook

By Greg Kremer and Amelia Heymann (Special to WTVR.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported this story.