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.


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.