A 'revolving door' ends in Richmond's economic development office [Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.]By Robert Zullo, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Aug. 13--RICHMOND, Va. -- Before Mayor Dwight C. Jones took office in 2009, 14 different people in 15 years had worked as directors of Richmond's economic development department.
The constant turnover at the key city post had hampered progress in broadening the city's tax base and keeping and attracting businesses, among the department's major goals.
"When you have a revolving door like that, it's obviously challenging to have a focus and direction," said Kim Scheeler, president of the Greater Richmond Chamber. "One of the things business people are looking for is some certainty."
And though it took two years to find him, Peter "Lee" Downey Jr. comes to the job with nearly two decades of planning and economic-development experience.
The 42-year-old, who started as Richmond's director of economic and community development in May 2011, has undergraduate and master's degrees in city planning from the University of Virginia.
Jones said Downey is the man to capitalize on Richmond's potential for growth and business expansion.
"On the economic-development front, we have many things on the horizon and Lee is an important member of our capable team," Jones said in a statement. "Lee brings the kind of energy and action that I want our restructured Economic and Community Development Department to have. He has a passion for the city and is the right fit at the right time."
Downey, who grew up and went to high school in Colonial Heights, said he's landed the job he wants after years spent with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and private firms such as McKinney & Co. and McGuireWoods.
He plans to stick around.
"When you're doing economic development, you love economic development for what it is, but you're also selling a product. I'm marketing and selling Richmond. It's easy for me because I believe in it. Richmond's home. I want to be here," Downey said. "I've found where I want to be. This is it. My family is here. I have three young kids. I want my kids to grow up in Richmond."
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Downey said Richmond is poised for big things, positioned nicely to capitalize on a nationwide renewed interest in urban living, the return of outsourced manufacturing jobs to the United States, a relatively low cost of doing business and the creativity and energy of Richmond residents and business community.
"I see this as a moment to seize. Richmond internally and Richmond externally are riding a wave of enthusiasm and opportunity," Downey said. "Richmond's not a tough place to market right now."
The city is an attractive spot for logistics and manufacturing -- half of the country's population is within a day's drive, and there's easy access to major rail lines and the Port of Richmond.
Lower overhead costs than Northeast cities make Richmond a good location for headquarters and other operations for companies large and small.
For instance, packaging company MeadWestvaco announced plans in 2006 that it would move to the Richmond region from Stamford, Conn., and eventually picked a spot along the banks of the James River for its nine-story, 310,000 square-foot building. Companies such as New York-based Tumblr, a blogging and social media website that opened an office in the Manchester area of South Richmond in early 2011, capitalize on what Downey calls Richmond's "energetic, creative workforce."
"The sense you get is that you've come to an area that's on the move," Downey said, adding that nationwide recognition, such as the recent Outside Magazine contest to name the "Best River Town," and cheerleading for the city by its residents and business community make his job easier.
"It's the people in Richmond and the attitude of Richmonders, saying, 'Hey Richmond is a great place to be,'?" he said.
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One of his office's biggest success stories of the past year is Health Diagnostic Laboratory, a Richmond-based medical testing company that started less than three years ago with a handful of employees.
The company is now expanding its downtown Richmond headquarters and is expected to employ 850 people by 2014.
President and CEO Tonya Mallory said the company had outgrown its current space and was considering a move.
But Downey's team put together an attractive incentive package, including a $1.35 million city grant, in exchange for keeping the company in the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park and hiring a certain number of workers.
"We were committed to the city. We already had operations here. Moving is always inconvenient," she said. "They understood what our needs were, what was important to us, what was needed to keep us in the city. ... They talked our language."
"He's amazing," Mallory said of Downey. "Most cities, governments, you expect a lot of red tape. ... He made it very efficient, very quick, something you don't necessarily expect from government."
Downey said his office helped guide the company through various planning and permitting stages, serving as a single point of contact.
"The city's a big machine," he said. "They like to have one department they can go to guide them through the process."
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And though the city faces the same challenges as other urban municipalities, including struggling schools and crime, Downey lauded Jones' holistic approach, which has focused on transforming communities, not just promoting business.
"What we're trying to do -- and what Mayor Jones has always talked about -- is mixed-use communities," Downey said. Jones is pushing to transform the city's traditional housing projects into new neighborhoods with a range of incomes and anchored by businesses, as well as developing the potential of the James River, allowing people to live, work and play close to home.
Likewise, injecting housing into traditional business districts to create "24-hour" neighborhoods also provides new vitality to areas that shut down after 5 p.m., Downey added.
"It creates a sense of activity and security and makes it a place people want to be," Downey said. "All over the city that's what we're trying to do."
Downey called it "a symbiotic relationship."
"If you have good neighborhoods, (if) you have healthy housing and healthy neighborhoods, that makes a city attractive to business. And when you attract the business, you bring in the tax base and the jobs to support the ability to nurture these healthy neighborhoods," he said.
The chamber's Scheeler said he's been impressed by Downey's "focus and energy."
"He's got a lot of excitement about what he's doing and the potential for downtown," Scheeler said. "I think we're lucky he took the job."
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