Local Government

Lessons on Sticking It to the Little Guy

Cities throw tax money at big deals while small businesses get the shaft for stupid reasons.

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Credit: Dragonimages | Dreamstime.com

City of Richmond, Virginia, officials talk a good game about revitalizing impoverished neighborhoods and alleviating poverty. And they have a decent grasp of how to do it. According to the report from Mayor Dwight Jones' anti-poverty commission, "the most fundamental cause of economic poverty is inadequate access to remunerative employment — that is, to good, steady jobs." Hence one of Richmond's chief tasks should be "increasing employment opportunities in the city."

Jones is happy to work toward such a goal. But his efforts tend more toward grandiose public/private deals like his Shockoe Bottom ballpark proposal, the Redskins training camp and the Stone Brewing development — the sort of projects that let a politico hand out money and cut ribbons and bask in the applause. They're like playing the computer game SimCity — where you can take a God's-eye view of the community and, without ever getting dirt under your fingernails, shape it to your liking.

Though not necessarily to others' liking. Some people in Shockoe Bottom don't much care for the mayor's ballpark proposal. A lot of Richmond-area breweries and restaurant owners are rightfully livid over the millions of public dollars the city is putting up to help Stone build a restaurant in direct competition with them.

Meanwhile, what does the city say to small entrepreneurs who aren't rich already and don't have a lot of political juice? Drop dead.

Exhibit A: 28-year-old Tarek Hezam, a transplant from New York, has sunk tens of thousands of dollars into a convenience store near Jeff Davis Highway where he could sell fried fish and chicken in South Richmond. The building, currently vacant, is a short walk from other businesses, such as a discount tire place, a laundromat, a 7-Eleven, and a sandwich shop called Big Asz Subs. The neighborhood suffers from some of the highest rates of poverty in the city, which is saying something.

Two years ago Richmond gave Hezam permission to open the place. He did. Then some neighbors griped, and the city promptly shut him down.

The city discovered, or claimed to discover, that the building's commercial-use zoning classification expired in 1975. So it yanked the zoning-compliance certificate it had given him. The Planning Commission then voted unanimously against his appeal.

According to Times-Dispatch reporter Graham Moomaw's excellent news story Monday, some area residents say they would be happy to have a convenience store at Hezam's location. But others evidently think it's their job to prevent their neighbors from enjoying such an amenity. If they don't want a convenience store nearby, apparently, then nobody should have one.

The malcontents are worried about trash in the streets. And who is responsible for that? Five bucks says Hezam doesn't spend his spare time throwing garbage around the neighborhood. Nor, for another five bucks, do people drive in from North Side or Westover Hills to toss their empty chip bags and soda cups on the ground. If litter is a problem, then the solution is to tackle littering head-on. Fighting a convenience store because some people can't be bothered to use a trash can makes as much sense as closing a Ford factory because some drivers tailgate.

Another opponent complained the "community will be preyed upon by someone who wants to bring in food that is not healthy." Please. A guy who walks into a convenience store and orders some fried fish and a lemonade is not being victimized. He's having a snack. If enough customers ask for a salad bar with organic tomatoes and free-range eggs, they'll get one.

Rosa Jones, president of the Oak Grove Civic Association, suggested Hezam should "bring a shoe shop or something that we could use." Jones hasn't sunk tens of thousands of her own dollars into the project. Until she does, she has no business telling the person who has invested his own money what to do with it. If she really wants a shoe shop in the neighborhood, then she's welcome to open one herself—if the city will let her, that is.

On Monday night Hezam took his case to the City Council. It summarily shot him down. So instead of holding a jobs- and revenue-creating local business, the little brick building on the corner of Harwood and Keswick will stay empty. 'Twas a famous victory.

Hezam's ordeal will serve as a warning to other small-business men who might consider opening a shop in Richmond: Despite the crying need for jobs and economic development, they are not welcome. Not unless they have a well-known brand, the money to transform an entire city block or two and some friends in the mayor's office, that is. Then maybe they have a shot.

Some of those would-be small investors probably will go somewhere else. And then some Richmonders will wonder, once again, why nobody ever seems to give the city a chance.

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  1. The city of Richmond is a shithole. I considered opening a branch there and immediately decided that putting it outside of the city limits would a be a far better idea.

    1. Actually it’s a festered sh*thole; much worse than a clean, healthy regular brown-eye.

    2. Ouch, guys. You’re right, of course, but still ouch. More seriously, Richmond has a lot going for it but the leadership constantly sabotages anything that might take the city in a new direction unless there are kickbacks for the mayor, or benefit to his donors.

      And the racial politics are unreal.

      1. Exactly, if not for the voters, then Richmond would be a great place to do business.

      2. Woops…I thought you were talking about Detroit for a minute.

    3. I blame it on Grant. Or Lee. Or Abe, or that Davis guy.

      One of those dead white guys.

    4. Branch of what?

      1. First Bitcoin Bank of the Commonwealth?

  2. Another opponent complained the “community will be preyed upon by someone who wants to bring in food that is not healthy.”

    Evil businesses cause obesity by forcing poor people to eat cheap, unhealthy food!

  3. I’ve been scoffed at by progressives, who care about the poor more than me, for suggesting that some of the biggest hurdles to the poor getting ahead were zoning laws and licensing laws. Of course the real hurdles are lack of welfare checks.

    1. The real hurdles are those teh RACIST college kids.

      A troll told me so.

    2. I’ve argued the same with progs and get vacant stares. They only care enough as long as it touches big ticket items like entitlements, which don’t do sh*t to solve the underlying problems. If I don’t blame white people, Bush, or the rich in the same sentence, they don’t want to listen. I just bought a house in Richmond City and this article gets me pretty mad. There are plenty of vacant store fronts just a couple of blocks from my house and now I’m wondering if government stooges have prevented anything from opening in those locations.

      1. Welcome to Richmond, RW.

        Anyone up for a Reason meet-up here?

        1. Count me in.

          1. I could make it.

    3. Welfare checks? You need an ID to cash checks! Welfare cash! That’s real wealth!

      1. Especially since we know IDs are RAYYY-CIST!

        *sigh*

  4. Rosa Jones, president of the Oak Grove Civic Association, suggested Hezam should “bring a shoe shop or something that we could use.” Jones hasn’t sunk tens of thousands of her own dollars into the project. Until she does, she has no business telling the person who has invested his own money what to do with it.

    Exactly. That is what the C.R.A. 1964 and the A.D.A. are for – to tell people what they can do with their own money that is something else besides what they want. Not some Civic Association president.

    1. Because spending money on crappy shoes is a much better use of one’s money than crappy food?

      1. No kickbacks or graft available for Rosa Jones from a small convenience store, but she’ll try to get a free pair of shoes anyway.

        1. No doubt they better be free or Rosa Jones will bitch about the price gouging for the shoes next.

          Sounds to me like the residents chased the businesses away first, and the government is just making sure the residents get the shithole they want.

      2. Can you blame the lady? A meeting is held on what’s to be done w that property, so she gives her opinion. She didn’t come up with the premise that that’s how things are to be decided, she just figures she’s doing her civic duty by giving an answer to the question that was elicited.

  5. Zoning is utter bullshit and abused by commissions. Other than zoning for residential, light/heavy commercial and light/heavy industrial, there shouldn’t be anything else. As long as the owners comply with nuisance laws — which I also think are bullshit and over broad currently — there shouldn’t be a problem.

  6. If enough customers ask for a salad bar with organic tomatoes and free-range eggs, they’ll get one.

    $5 says that if such a shop did open up on that corner, there would be complaints about gentrification.

    1. +1

      Especially if it has Fair Trade organic coffee served by baristas with unironic beards.

    2. If it were a shoe store, somebody would ask for a food store.

      1. I checked it out on Google Maps & street view. It’s at one of those funny 5-way intersections that form when a street is a boundary between one grid pattern & another when communities collide. Across one street is a church, everything else nearby is residential, but this is a triangular lot that’d be unattractive for any purpose other than commercial, and I can hardly imagine what the bldg. will turn into.

  7. Hezam’s ordeal will serve as a warning to other small-business men who might consider opening a shop in Richmond: Despite the crying need for jobs and economic development, they are not welcome.

    It is time people realize that such cries are NOT sincere in the least. I remember watching an episode of Crossfire with Michael Kinsley and Pat Buchanan where some community organizing lady was crying about the lack of jobs for the homeless in most cities. Buchanan and the guest at the right suggested working at McDonald’s or any of the other places where they would be more than welcome, and the nice advocate for the homeless said “Those jobs do not provide the income that the homeless requires to live.”

    When it comes to investing your own dough, disregard the cries for jobs coming from people too attached to the government teat. Those cries are not sincere; they’re like the cell phone sounds coming from the flesh-eating flowers in The Ruins.

    1. ” I remember watching an episode of Crossfire”

      Now, that’s taking one for the team, OM!

    2. Jesus, that movie was fucking terrifying. How about a trigger warning next time?

  8. Yep – why is there a dearth of grocery stores and big-box stores in Detroy-it? Yep – “we don’t want ’em! RACIST!!!1111” where “we” = the local City Council.

    They may smarten up with the current admin, who has not [yet] proven to be [totally] corrupt – but I won’t hold my breath….

    1. Don’t forget the next breath will be their whining about ‘food deserts’ because there aren’t any grocery stores.

      They they’ll blame conservatives for being racist.

      If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, is it still Bush’s fault?

  9. Yeah, that area is one of the poorest in Richmond. I don’t see the residents demanding healthy food, they want that Southern comfort food they’ve always eaten. Civic association lady is full of shit; obviously not getting her kickback or whatever.

    Thanks, Bart, for this article. I a regularly lambasted in the pages of the local free weekly for daring to claim that Mayor Jones is hostile towards small businesses unlikely to expand his power base.

    1. Southern Comfort…food?

      1. I’ve seen recipes, or at least a link to them.

  10. He briefly touched on it… but I’m still pissed at Stone Brewing for this stunt they’re pulling with the city council. And of course, the craft beer hipsters don’t care because business assistance from the government is a-ok as long as it isn’t Wal-Mart or Koch Industries. Wanna expand? Cool. Do it, but only on your own merits/income.

    1. I brew my own beer and have always dreamed of going into business for myself. It’s instances like this that kill that idea. I don’t want to be pissed off and go bankrupt kissing politician a$$ and having to worry if my business offends someone’s sentiments because it doesn’t conform to the business they approve of..

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