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Rethinking Charlottesville

Community works to move forward after violent rally

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The Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau’s
Brigitte Bélanger-Warner. Photo by Mark Rhodes

A violent rally held in Charlottesville last summer hasn’t significantly affected Helen Cauthen’s work at the Central Virginia Partnership, but it has impacted her personally.

“I live near where all that happened,” says Cauthen, president of the partnership, which helps attract new businesses to the Charlottesville region. “It’s still disturbing.”

The “Unite the Right” rally brought white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a city park. The event resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, who was killed by a car driven into a crowd. Two state troopers on the way to assist the city, Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates and Lt. Pilot H. “Jay” Cullen III, also died in a helicopter crash.

Months after the rally, the violent clash of opposing groups in the streets of Charlottesville remains part of the national conversation. The city’s business leaders, however, are working to move forward, stressing that the violence seen in news clips around the world isn’t an accurate depiction of the community.

“I think people … when they keep seeing photographs and negative media, they are just a little leery about coming downtown. We’re now in the process of trying to change that image,” says Susan Payne, president of Blue Ridge Group, a local advertising and public relations agency and head of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville’s (DBAC) marketing committee.

The association is working with City Council on an economic recovery plan in response to the rally and a recent downturn in business. Unrelated to the August events, DBAC also is seeking increased funding for the downtown mall in the city’s fiscal year 2018-2019 budget, which will be adopted in April.

When comparing the latter half of 2016 versus 2017, local data don’t provide a clear picture of how businesses have been impacted by the rally. The latest available figures show a downward trend in sales tax revenue and mixed results in meals tax revenue. Occupancy rates were down from August to October and increased in November. Data may be a mixed bag, but merchants on the downtown mall say continuing publicity about the event has had a dampening effect.

Nonetheless, other developments during the  last half of the year also may have impacted the foot traffic. Paid parking, for example, was in effect in the mall area for 72 days before being suspended by the city. Also, hurricanes and floods on the Gulf Coast, Florida and Puerto Rico may have prompted visitors from those areas to cancel plans to visit Charlottesville.

Letter to consultants
Following the August events, The Central Virginia Partnership wanted to change the narrative about Char­lottesville, so it sent a letter to site selection consultants.

“We are a supportive and inviting community working daily to bring new innovation, build business relationships and provide greater opportunities for our citizens,” the letter said. “Thus, we will not allow the feelings of outsiders to tarnish the region we know can provide wonderful opportunities to companies from across the nation and the world.”

The letter was well received by the consultants. Didi Caldwell, the founding principal at Greenville, S.C.-based Global Location Strategies, says the rally hasn’t changed her perception of Charlottesville. She also hasn’t heard concerns about the city from her clients. 

 “I am confident that qualified location strategy consultants would counsel their clients to not let the events in the news scare them away,”  Caldwell says. “However, there are many projects that are not guided by an experienced professional ... It is difficult to tell how much [this incident] may have had on those types of projects.”

While the partnership is addressing the city’s image among major economic development prospects, Chris Engel, Charlottesville’s economic development director, is focused on small retailers and service providers.

“Longer term, we have some concern that investors and decision makers may think twice before committing to a project here,” which wasn’t an issue before due to the city’s positive reputation, Engel says. “Now, there’s a whole other group of people that have a very different kind of understanding, or perception, of Charlottesville based upon what they saw on the news over the summer.”

Social media campaign
The Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau continues to remind travelers of Charlottesville’s attractions by working with travel bloggers and journalists.

After the August events, the bureau and Virginia Tourism Corp. (VTC) encouraged the public to share the hashtags #StandForLove and #CvilleStandsForLove on social media along with a picture or video.

VTC also installed a giant LOVE sign (tied to the commonwealth’s longtime tourism slogan, “Virginia Is For Lovers”) to Charlottesville’s downtown mall as well as banners displayed on lampposts with the #standforlove hashtags.  Additionally, the state tourism agency helped the visitors bureau craft talking points to help local tourist attractions field questions after the rally.

These efforts aim to build on a positive vibe generated by a star-studded concert held in September at the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium, organized by the homegrown Dave Matthews Band. The free event gathered donations for rally victims, first responders and organizations promoting “healing, unity and justice locally and nationwide.”  The event, attended by thousands of music fans, was  available online through a live stream. 

“It is wonderful to have had so many talented artists take the time to come here and shine a better light on our city and region,” says Miriam Dickler, Charlottesville’s director of communications.  “I would also note that we continue to work with our local convention and visitors bureau as well as Virginia tourism to highlight our area and its many charms.”

U.Va. applications rise
Meanwhile, U.Va., where white supremacists marched with burning torches the night before the rally, hasn’t seen a drop in applications since August. Undergraduate applications to the university increased 1 percent from last year. 

U.Va. formed a working group looking at ways the university could have responded more effectively to the torch-lit march. The university already has taken steps, including increasing safety and security personnel at large public events; hiring outside firms to review its safety and security infrastructure; and prohibiting open flames on campus, or campus facilities, with the exception of outdoor cooking and laboratory equipment.

“In response, the group is also contemplating a number of long-term investments and initiatives to advance our commitment to being a diverse and welcoming community,” says U.Va. spokesperson Anthony P. de Bruyn.  “The university remains confident these efforts will further enhance its learning and living environment as we move forward.”  

Also drawing increased interest is the Tom Tom Founders Festival. Tom Tom hosts a weeklong downtown festival each spring and a two-day block party in the fall. Fourteen thousand people came downtown for the block party in late September, up from roughly 10,000 the year before. Paul Beyer, the festival’s founder, believes the community was looking for an opportunity to come together and celebrate the Charlottesville it knows. That includes a city that, in recent years, has built an identity as a fertile place for startups.

“In light of this, Tom Tom has a renewed commitment to fostering conversations that illustrate economic and entrepreneurial opportunity for all members of society, especially those that have historically been marginalized,” Beyer says.  The upcoming spring festival, for example, will include a panel discussion on how to best honor African-American history. 

When asked whether the community has become stronger since last August, Blue Ridge Group’s Payne says it has in some ways and not in others.  However, she has hope for the future.

“This is a very heartbreaking chapter, but I do think that in the end this community will come together,” she says.


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