The James River is one of the top regional priorities and “probably the defining feature for our community” according to a presentation from members of the Capital Region Collaborative, which has been entrusted to encourage an efficiency of efforts for Richmond area localities in regards to development and planning.
President and CEO Kim Scheeler and executive director Bob Crum made a presentation to the a crowd of about 15 people at the James River Outdoor Coalition meeting Wednesday evening at the nearly reopened James River Park visitor center.
“People have said to us we need a brand, an identity for the region,” Crum said, referring to the region at times as “RVA.” “This is what separates us as a city. Probably 90 percent of the groups we’ve spoken with point to the James River.”
The James has plenty of great natural and civic features, Scheeler said. “How do we take advantage of these assets? How do we educate people to emphasize this great resource?”
A potential stumbling block with the James River being considered the identity for our region is safety, Crum said. Not safety while playing on the river, but alleged safety issues at the river — crime. “It is an issue of perception becoming reality for some.”
“The crime issue is bogus,” said Ralph White, manager of the James River Park. “We need to focus [promotion] on good people doing good things in the park. That is what protects our reputation.”
Chris Hull, JROC president and a constant user of the river, said that there has been a lot of work done in the parks and “perception has changed in the past five to 10 years…there are more families, more recreation.”
While access to the river has improved and increased over the years, people have told the Collaborative that public access is still an issue. Groups like JROC, Friends of the James River Park, Richmond Mid-Atlantic Off Roads Enthusiasts and others have provided funds and free labor to the city to provide more access, trails, signage, etc., and more are on the way from the parks department.
Before those efforts get too far, maybe the Collaborative can help get counties like Chesterfield and Henrico involved, suggested JROC’s Greg Velzy, who also works for Chesterfield County Parks & Recreation. “Signage at the river is important…we need to get other jurisdictions together now.”
Maureen Egan, president of the Friends of James River Park, pointed out that popular parks like Pony Pasture and Belle Isle are overcrowded in the summer. “It would be great to spread the wealth into the counties,” she said. “Henrico has parks on the river worth going to,” like Deep Bottom Park and Osborne Landing in the eastern portion of the county. Chesterfield has Dutch Gap Conservation Area to the south and Robious Landing Park in the western portion of the county.
But a larger quantity of parks and access points in the city could mean a degradation in the quality, White said. “Is more is better? We should be careful with access. While we could be using more areas to spread the crowds…we need to develop in a user-friendly fashion” to help preserve the natural state of the James.
Biking is another popular hobby/lifestyle for many river enthusiasts, said park trails manager Nathan Burrell. “Transportation in Richmond is focused on cars…in the James River Park, we are focused on trails for bikes, walkers, runners.
“We are missing a huge opportunity for rails-to-trails,” he said, referring to the practice of converting unused railroad beds to linear parks and safe places to commute without a motor vehicle. “The ability to move people without a car…Greenways are a major piece of the puzzle we are missing in the region.”
Richmond has a large fitness community with many large-scale outdoor & adventure events that focus on the river like Dominion Riverock and the SunTrust Richmond Marathon, Crum said. “We’re great with those areas, but we need to see what we can do to go further.”
With the City of Richmond replacing the Parks & Recreation slogan “It Starts in Parks” with “Health, Wellness and Livability” and Mayor Dwight Jones’ administration placing a priority on bike and pedestrian friendly street designs it is reasonable to expect that greenways and blueways can become a reality.