Struggling to Revive Business in Jackson Ward

April 12, 2011

By: Ameesha Felton

RICHMOND, Va. — Historic Jackson Ward continues to fight urban blight, despite more than 20 years of revitalization efforts. But a potential boost to this community may not be far away. The Historic Hippodrome Theater, once the soul of this community and a center of African American entertainment in the 30’s, will reopen this month as “The Hipp.” The theater was once a prominent stop for many famous African American musicians. Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, and Ray Charles are just a few of the many performers who have graced the stage.

The long waited revival of this establishment is a welcoming sight to community supporters and city officials who said they want to see Jackson Ward thrive again. However, some residents said efforts to save this community are a little too late.
The revitalization of Jackson Ward, has been a part of Richmond’s master plan for decades and with some success, several critical historical structures were successfully rehabilitated. But, despite these accomplishments the neighborhood still struggles to regain the vibrancy of its past.

Many buildings still remain empty and very few commercial and retail businesses have returned to the district. John Taylor, planner for Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority said the revitalization of The Hippodrome will be the catalyst for business growth in Jackson Ward.

“The property owner, through city incentives has renovated the Hippodrome and it will be coming back to life and that will be the catalyst where everything else surrounding it will come on line,” said Taylor.

Richmond endorsed the renovation contributing $600,000 to Ronald Stallings, the developer of the $12 million project.

Mary Lauderdale works in the community as a manger of the Black History Museum. Lauderdale said the revitalization of the Hippodrome gives her hope that more business is soon to come.

Hear why Mary Lauderdale, manger of the Black History Museum thinks the revitalization of The Hippodrome was worth the wait.

Some residents remain skeptical, concerned that the damage inflicted on this community is irreparable.
“I was here before 95 was built,” recalls Jackson Ward native, Leon Burton.
“It disrupted the community and everybody they moved, they moved to a project development and that’s how they destroyed this community,” said Burton.

Community members like Burton, said the moral and structure of this community suffered a heavy blow after the highway plowed through it. More than 700 homes were destroyed. The section of the neighborhood that was cut off by I95, also known as North Jackson Ward, became desolate. Now the RRHA wants to restore this area of Jackson Ward.

John Taylor of the RRHA, explains Richmond’s renewed interest in the revitalizing North Jackson Ward and transparently admits to poor policy decisions during a segregated era.

The restoration of North Jackson Ward, is still pending more approval from the city. Even though this portion of the neighborhood is just starting to get some attention, Historic Jackson Ward on the other hand has been on Richmond’s agenda for quite some time.

Richmond gets on board to restore Historic Jackson Ward

Richmond City’s 1984 master plan, was the first plan to include the revitalization of Jackson Ward.
Some of the key goals in the 1984 plan include:
1) Revitalizing Second Street
2) Commercial development between Second and Fourth Streets stimulated by the
Richmond Convention Center
3) Public improvements, including convenience shopping and personal services.

Now, more than 20 years later the primary goals in the current Jackson Ward revitalization plan almost mirror those drafted in 1984. This is not say that nothing was accomplished — in fact a significant amount of rejuvenation of historic structures have taken place in the past 20 years. However, these findings do reveal that although a significant amount of rehabilitation has occurred, many of Jackson Ward goals remain elusive.

Historic Jackson Ward is in a prime location. The neighborhood is in walking distance to Virginia Commonwealth University, The Richmond Convention Center, and the downtown area, all of places that are booming in business. So, why are few businesses moving to Jackson Ward?

Challenges to growth: Crime

Jackson Ward still faces many challenges, which threatens the growth of business in the community. Charles Finley, long time resident, and president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association said misconceptions about crime is one of the looming threats to success in this neighborhood.

“I think there’s still a lot of negative perceptions about the neighborhood that are carried over from the past, and people think Jackson Ward has a lot of crime,” said Finley.
He insist that his neighborhood is much safer, than years past. Data from the Richmond Police Department shows that violent crimes in Jackson Ward have dropped 13 percent since 2005.

“Right now we got an influx of college students, we got more activity, we got more people on the streets and that helps a lot to reduce crime and prevent crime,” said Finley.
Finley also attributes a safer neighborhood to efforts he and other residents have made.

“The Jackson Ward Association and several of our individuals neighbors have forged excellent relationships with the Richmond police department,” said Finley.
Neighboring members of the association invite law enforcement to community programs and also support police sponsored programs.

“They have been very good about developing that relationship that we need to have with the so that when we call they’ll show up,” said Finley.

Challenges to growth: Vacant Buildings

Besides the perception of crime, another deterrent to new business is simply, no business. Abandon buildings remain sprinkled throughout Jackson Ward. Which is one reason Richmond offers the Neighborhoods in Bloom (NIB) program. NIB provides loans of up to $50,000 to businesses who support the restoration of historic neighborhoods.

“The city gives every tool for the revitalization — the proper zoning, the tax incentives, the tax credits, and small business loans,” said Taylor of the RRHA.
But there is something they don’t offer — vision. Chaunda King, owner of Naturals Salon and Spa, said that’s exactly what new business owners need when considering a move to Jackson Ward.

“The building was dilapidated when I first got here, you really had to have a vision, it was just cinder blocks and old wood and you had to walk in basically on a piece cardboard to look at the building, but I just saw it was very promising,” said King.

From Kings window the view is unattractive; her salon sits in between two abandoned buildings. However, King is not worried about the view, but rather its potential.

“In the future, I look forward to all of these buildings to have thriving businesses, you know people walking through here, almost as busy as a New York street, because we have to make this someplace where people want to come,” said King.

Challenges to growth: Support

Most people who live and work in Jackson Ward share a common desire for growth. Each individual has a different perspective on how to get there, but most agree that revitalization is virtually impossible without the joint support of community members, Richmond residents, and city officials. Jackson Ward Resident, Finley said residents can support redevelopment by simply becoming homeowners.

“Ideally I would like to see it be a real residential neighborhood with more owner occupied structures, more families,” said Finley.

He said, “Young professionals move in the neighborhood, but move out once their children reach grade school, and I would like to see them stay.”

Finley said the City of Richmond also shares vital role.

“The city should identify what the community wants, in terms of retail and service and make an aggressive effort to bring people back downtown to provide those services,” said Finley.

“We don’t have readily available some the conveniences we need like a grocery store, even though the Kroger is about a mile up the street, there’s no drug store in the neighborhood, there’s no grocery store in the neighborhood — you can’t go and buy a suit in Jackson Ward,” said Finley.

Laura Bailey, Owner of Ettamae’s Cafe on Second street said she wants Richmonders to look past the stereotypes and patronize business in this community.

“We’re close to the Convention Center, MCV, Maggie Walker House, Black History Museum; I think Richmonders sometimes don’t know what going on in their own city, but there is actually a lot to do down in Jackson Ward,” said Bailey.

The Future

Successfully revitalizing the economy in Jackson Ward is a mutual challenge shared among all who are touched by this community: business owners, student residents, homeowners and even visitors. Burton, an old-timer who has lived here for more than 50 years said people should remember: Jackson Ward’s past success had less to do with economics and more to do with unity.

“See people loved Jackson Ward, it was a love thing — a love and if you can’t love it, just respect it — respect what is precious, because this is precious,” said Burton.

Map of Jackson Ward: Hot spots and historical buildings


View Jackson Ward in a larger map