The Power Issue: Our annual look at C’ville’s movers and shakers

Mayor Nikuyah Walker. Photo: Eze Amos Mayor Nikuyah Walker. Photo: Eze Amos

Our annual, and always subjective, look at the movers and shakers around town is a mix of stalwarts and surprises. Here’s our take on the people shaping our city and county this year, for better or worse. We hope it gets you talking. 

 

Politics

Nikuyah Walker

Since Mayor Nikuyah Walker was elected in the wake of the horrifying violence of Unite the Right, she’s made good on her campaign slogan: “Unmasking the Illusion.”

Unlike many previous mayors and city councilors, Walker — the city’s first black woman mayor and the first independent to win a council seat since 1948—was born and raised in Charlottesville and attended city schools. And while some wish she’d stop trash-talking the town in national media outlets (meanwhile refusing multiple interview requests from C-VILLE), Walker is keen to point out the ugly history and lingering inequities that exist beneath Charlottesville’s lovely façade.

When not arguing with constituents on Facebook or throwing shade at Baggby’s sandwich shop, she’s making forthright calls to change the status quo—from replacing Jefferson’s birthday, as a city holiday, with Liberation and Freedom Day, to taking a closer look at how nonprofits use their city funding.

Walker’s confrontational style hasn’t gone over well in this conflict-averse city. As she told The Guardian in August: “I feel like the majority of the City Council, when I walk in the room the conversation shifts…I’m kept out of a lot of discussions.”

But it’s still worth it, she says. “They are no longer in control of the narrative. Whether they exclude me or not, I’m in the story.”

 

Michael Bills and Sonjia Smith

Michael Bills (A photo of Smith was not available).

Hedge fund manager Bills and attorney Smith have plowed millions into political campaigns, usually for Dems, with an eye lately to younger, more progressive candidates. The couple met at Hampton High and went to UVA before heading to New York, where Bills worked for Goldman Sachs. Later, back in Charlottesville, he managed investments at UVA and co-founded Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Last year, Bills started Clean Virginia to encourage candidates to eschew Dominion Energy donations with funds from his PAC instead, and in this year’s election, with all 140 seats in the General Assembly on the ballot, he’s gotten 76 candidates to swear off Dominion donations. In 2017, Bills put $500,000 into Ralph Northam’s campaign for governor, while Smith favored Tom Perriello with $650,000 for his run.

In a Roanoke Times piece, Smith said reproductive rights are a top issue for her because two aunts had to drop out of high school because of unplanned pregnancies. She has contributed over $2 million to candidates, and in the past year, favored UVA professor Sally Hudson with a $100,000 check over incumbent Delegate David Toscano (before he decided against running for re-election). She’s shared the wealth with 22 other legislative candidates so far in 2019, according to Virginia Public Access Project. And Smith made an eye-popping $50,000 donation to Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney candidate Jim Hingeley, and supported City Council candidate Sena Magill and Albemarle sheriff’s candidate Chan Bryant, both of whom won their primaries.

 

Hate-Free Schools Coalition and Matt Haas

Members of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition protested at Albermarle County School Board meetings for over a year, advocating for a ban on Confederate and other hate symbols. Photo: Eze Amos.

It took six arrests, more than a year of steady, determined protest, and one decisive action to ban Confederate imagery from Albemarle County schools. The Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County, a grassroots group of local parents and activists, refused to be ignored, even after several citizens were arrested and one father was knocked to the ground by a cop. (That parent, who was taken to the emergency room with a sprained wrist and other injuries, was later charged with a felony for assaulting a police officer.)

After months of waffling by the school board, Superintendent Matt Haas announced that imagery associated with white supremacy, racial hatred, or violence is disruptive to learning, and that Confederate and other hate symbols would be banned from county schools. The policy, presented as a reinterpretation of the dress code, didn’t require a vote. “You’ve already given me the authority by hiring me,” Haas told board members.

While the board can still enact a formal ban, the announcement was a hard-won victory for activists and a clear example that sometimes, actions speak louder than words.

 

Roger Johnson

Photo courtesy subject.

There was a time when Albemarle County was seen as unfriendly to business: Its first economic director departed shortly after being thwarted in an attempt to add land to the growth area for Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery in 2015.

Things are looking much more promising for new hire Johnson, who came to the county from Greenville, North Carolina, and has been busy pushing the Board of Supervisors to codify policies and tools to make a more nimble economic development office. He’s showing up everywhere: at Governor Ralph Northam’s announcement for Castle Hill Gaming’s 106 new jobs earlier in June, helping Potter’s Craft Cider expand in January, and at WillowTree’s figurative groundbreaking at Woolen Mills last August.

In December, the supervisors adopted Project ENABLE, the county’s economic development plan, which Johnson says will increase the county’s tax base and the number of quality jobs.

We predict we’ll be seeing a lot more of Johnson as business booms in Albemarle.

Counties, Cities and Towns Subcommittee No. 1, Virginia General Assembly

Though Charlottesville’s City Council voted unanimously, more than a year ago, to remove our Confederate statues from the heart of downtown, the fact that they’re still standing is thanks in part to six state legislators you’ve probably never heard of.

For two years running, Charlottesville Delegate David Toscano has introduced a bill to allow localities to decide for themselves what to do with controversial Confederate statues, currently protected by Virginia law forbidding the removal of war memorials. And for two years running, Subcommittee No. 1 of the Counties, Cities and Towns Committee—eight white men, five of whom are Republicans, and none of whom are from this area—has killed the bill before it could even reach the floor for a vote.

Subcommittee members, led by Chair Charles Poindexter, from Franklin County, were unswayed by testimony this January from Charlottesville residents who want the statues gone after they became a rallying point for white nationalists and neo-Nazis in 2017. One Democrat joined the Republicans for a 6-2 vote to kill the bill.

The majority party speaker makes subcommittee appointments, even if that majority is literally the result of pulling a name out of a bowl, as happened with Republicans in the last election. So while Charlotttesville voters may have elected millennial Sally Hudson in hopes of progressive change, what Hudson will be able to accomplish will depend largely on whether Democrats can tip the House this November.


Charlottesville Twitter

It’s mortifying, in the year 2019, to talk earnestly about social media’s power to unite people and bridge gaps between communities. But there is at least one place where the big tech companies’ self-serving rhetoric has moments of ringing true: local Twitter.

Twitter is a sprawling and amorphous thing, but nodes of conversation tend to form within the chaos, and the day-to-day discourse around Charlottesville can be revealing, educational, and even exciting—if you can say that about a scene with a heavy dose of government-meeting content.

It’s important to distinguish Charlottesville Twitter from #Charlottesville Twitter, which is focused on the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. Management at Twitter, the company, tends to be roughly as interested in controlling Nazis as Charlottesville’s government was before Unite the Right, so that particular conversation can be a disaster: Some well-loved Charlottesville Twitter personalities routinely receive credible death threats for their efforts.

Still, (and, yes, that is a very big caveat), it can be genuinely heartwarming to see a loose-knit collection of our neighbors­—appointed and elected officials, local government staffers, socialists, anarchists, internet capitalists, lawyers, musicians, professors, restaurateurs, librarians, desk jockeys, teachers, hospital workers, filmmakers, and so on—hashing out the problems and pleasures of the town in real time.

And, since there’s always a chance of people running into each other on the street, things usually don’t get too rude. It almost looks like a form of that justifiably dreaded concept, civility. The real thing, not the marketing pitch.


Photo: Eze Amos

Business and Development

John Dewberry

The last we heard of the guy who holds the Downtown Mall hostage with the skeletal remains of his unfinished hotel was in a New York Times story earlier this year, about Dewberry and his bride refurbishing a 1920s condo in Atlanta. Dewberry, developer of what was once—more than 10 years ago—going to be the deluxe Landmark Hotel, has pretty much cold-shouldered Charlottesville since December 2017, when City Council voted against giving him a $1.1 million tax break that it had previously favored.

But hark. Daily Progress reporter Nolan Stout discovered that renderings of the Dewberry Hotel on the Dewberry Group website have moved from its hospitality section to the living section and the project is now dubbed the Laramore, “poised to become the city’s premier luxury multi-use property.”

Of course, city staff haven’t heard anything from Dewberry, so hold off on ordering wallpaper for your luxury condo.

Photo by Amy and Jackson Smith

Jeff Levien and Ivy Naté

Want to become the least popular couple in Charlottesville? Try tearing down the Blue Moon Diner. Fortunately for developer Jeff Levien and his wife, artist and designer Ivy Naté, the city’s Board of Architectural Review rejected that idea.

Their resulting consolation prize is the six-story, 53-unit apartment building hurtling toward completion at 600 W. Main Street, wrapped around the Blue Moon by Bushman Dreyfus Architects. Moreover, Levien is awaiting approval to build up to 55 more units next door, at the less-beloved site of University Tire.

Levien and Naté, who split their time between Charlottesville and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are working together on the 600 W. Main project, and have bought up much of the property on West Main between Fifth and Seventh streets, plus the Market Street Promenade downtown, the building that houses The Artful Lodger.

Levien’s firm, Heirloom, has not announced its intentions for redeveloping the Market Street Promenade. But if its aesthetic follows suit with Six Hundred West Main, Levein and Naté’s contribution to Charlottesville’s urban future will not be clad in red brick.

Jim Ryan

Photo: UVA

The president of the University of Virginia will always be on a local power list, but Jim Ryan is likely to rise above the pro forma nomination. He started last August and has already put his stamp on the job, beginning with an apology for UVA’s handling of the white supremacist march through Grounds in 2017.

He raised the university’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, a goal activists have sought for years (though their most recent calls were for $16.84 an hour). And in May, he debuted his “great and good” strategic plan, notable for its emphasis on values and responsibility to employees, the community, and society in general.

Ryan’s sense of humor and approachability set him apart from his recent predecessors—he’s a lively presence on social media and throngs of students regularly join him for early morning runs through Grounds.

Perhaps that schoolboy charm will help smooth the way for difficult negotiations over UVA’s role in housing, transportation, and other contentious issues. Keep watching.

WillowTree

Photo: WillowTree

 

With 246 employees in several offices on the mall (another 110 are in Durham), mobile app company WillowTree has become a powerful presence downtown­—and now they’re moving. 

In a coup for Albemarle County, WillowTree ditched the city with plans to move its headquarters across the county line. There, the historic Woolen Mills building will be redeveloped with around $4 million in funding from the county and state, with WillowTree plowing in more than $20 million.

The new HQ will “attract the best and brightest from around the country to come here and to work,” says CEO Tobias Dengel. He’s said that he plans to hire an additional 200 people—good news for those who hope to make our area an innovation hub.


Rich guys*

Let’s face it, money is power. Just look at hedge-fund manager Jaffray Woodriff, who is literally reshaping the Downtown Mall, replacing quirky and unique spaces like The Ante Room and the ice rink with a 170,000-square foot office building geared toward tech startups, perhaps one day to be filled with graduates from the School of Data Science he funded at UVA with $120 million.

As Joe Nocera wrote in Bloomberg last year, “What Woodriff really wants to do with his wealth is transform Charlottesville into a place that will attract more people like, well, him.” (It’s worth noting that Woodriff and his wife also gave $13.5 million to build a new home for the Boys and Girls Club on the campus of Albemarle High School.)

One of the richest guys in town is surely Ted Weschler, one of two investment managers (and likely inheritors) of billionare Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which owns The Daily Progress. Weschler—who got his job after paying a total of $5.2 million in charity auctions for two private lunches with Buffett—is also an investor in C-VILLE’s parent company.

He keeps a low profile, so his local impact is hard to determine, but he has reportedly been a longtime supporter of the Free Clinic and many other area nonprofits, and served on the boards of St. Anne’s-Belfield School and prominent businesses like Virginia National Bank. Earlier this year, according to VPAP, Weschler donated $10,000 to the campaign of Republican Delegate Rob Bell, who has an “A” rating from the NRA and recently voted to repeal the “one gun a month” law.

If we could, we’d devote a year and multiple staff members to deciphering the real net worth of our local million- and billionaires (like Forbes does) and where their money goes, or, at the very least, pay a research firm to do it for us (like Washington Monthly did this spring). But the fact is, we don’t have the resources for that.

*Employing “guys” in the general (sexist) way here, to mean people. Rich women can reshape the city, too­—see: Sonjia Smith.


Food and Drink

Will and Priscilla Martin Curley

Photo by Stephen Barling

In a region crowded with vineyards, the most knowledgeable oenophiles have a leg up. Or in this case, four—two each for Will Curley and wife Priscilla Martin Curley, new owners of The Charlottesville Wine Guild, a wine club and store in Belmont.

Will earned his wine chops in Chicago, where he worked at The Purple Pig, a Michelin-recognized restaurant. In Charlottesville, he served as general manager and wine director of Brasserie Saison. Priscilla, a certified sommelier, is the wine director at Tavola, which has held a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence since 2016.

Charlottesville is crowded with wine experts, including Erin Scala, formerly of Fleurie and now proprietor of In Vino Veritas; Gabriele Rausse, the local “king” of wine; and influentials including star winemaker Michael Shaps and Joy Ting of the Virginia Winemakers Research Exchange. But with Will and Priscilla’s recent purchase of the Wine Guild—and the upgrades they’ve put in place—they have landed firmly in the designated driver’s seat of local wine.

 

Simon Davidson

Photo: Eze Amos

In a food-obsessed town, the foodiest foodie of them all might be Simon Davidson, a lawyer who runs the Charlottesville 29 food blog and each year bestows black and white “29” road sign stickers upon the 29 restaurants he deems the best. Davidson, who used to write the “At the Table” column for C-VILLE, is cozy with a number of local chefs, and clearly has his favorites (a generous portion of his Instagram is dedicated to pricey steakhouse Prime 109 and its sister restaurant, Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria). But he posts only positive write-ups to his site, on principle. With a few thousand followers on each of his social media accounts, plenty of folks look to Davidson for info on what’s cooking around town.

 

The Smith family

Elizabeth, Hunter, and Tony Smith. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

It’s well known that Hunter Smith is a player in the local craft beer industry: The 33-year-old mogul-in-the-making opened Charlottesville’s Champion Brewing Company taproom in the fall of 2012. Since then, Smith has parlayed the success of his popular Missile IPA (and more recently, Shower Beer pilsner, which The Beer Connoisseur calls “a gem”) into a 15,000-barrel-a-year business, with
a second brewpub in Richmond as well as retail distribution in nine states, including the recent additions of Michigan and Kentucky.

But for Smith, beverage industry success is a family affair. His parents are Tony and Elizabeth Smith, owners for 10 years of the small but increasingly influential Afton Mountain Vineyards. Larger wineries may tend to dominate the conversation, but after a decade of methodical growth, sustainable winemaking practices by French import Damien Blanchon, and the addition of an events pavilion and four wedding-party-ready cabins, Afton Mountain is poised for wider recognition.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Hunter Smith is also making a move. He recently took sole ownership of Brasserie Saison on the Downtown Mall, announced a spinoff brand and gastropub, Selvedge, which will debut soon at The Wool Factory complex, and began consulting for the new micro-distiller Waterbird Spirits, at Water and Second streets.

Elizabeth Smith confirmed that she and her husband had acquired additional acreage adjoining their vineyards—but demurred when asked about a possible joint venture with her son. In any case, Hunter Smith recently told C-VILLE Weekly that he and Brasserie chef Tres Pittard had visited Afton Mountain Vineyards, surveying the site for culinary events. Is it too soon to add Afton Mountain to the list of marquee Central Virginia wineries? Perhaps. Does the Smith family appear to be moving into fresh territory? Yup.


Culture

Kristen Chiacchia

Although Second Street Gallery already had a claim to fame as Central Virginia’s oldest nonprofit contemporary artspace, their bragging rights grew further in 2016, when Kristen Chiacchia became the gallery’s executive director and chief curator. Coming from years of experience in New York galleries, she’s used her big-city expertise to compile memorable and diverse exhibitions—from a Joan Mitchell–inspired collection (featuring paintings by Mitchell herself!) to a selection of Aboriginal Australian works. Since arriving in Virginia, Chiacchia has also established herself as an activist for the arts, joining organizations such as the Americans for the Arts Action Fund and Washington, D.C.’s chapter of ArtTable.

DIY Music

House shows give Charlottesville music fans choices beyond the mainstream. Photo: Tristan Williams

Charlottesville’s corporate-sponsored music spots get all the attention (and the big names), but if we’re being honest, big venue crowds kinda suck.There are a few too many people paying good money to sip rosé or a local IPA and catch up with friends (or gather content for their Instas) while the same rotation of touring acts provide the backing track.

For a welcome alternative, there’s the DIY music scene, fueled by a small but committed group of local musicians, their friends and fans.

Hip-hop, hardcore punk, experimental noise made on homemade synthesizers, electric cello, no-nonsense garage rock…there’s plenty of great music under the radar, and these folks make sure you can hear it, likely in a dim room with a bunch of attentive strangers (some of whom will probably become your friends). Finding out about it isn’t impossible, either: to start, ask a local record store clerk, or keep your eyes peeled for show flyers on cork boards and telephone poles.

Alan Goffinski

The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative has a simple mission statement: “To bridge diverse communities through the arts.” In his tenure as its executive director, Alan Goffinski has realized this goal in impressively creative ways, using the small but mighty space to host everything from improv comedy events to community concerts to a “Gallery of Curiosities” last Halloween. He’s also bridged Charlottesville’s two largest and most separate communities—the student body and the townies—through the innovative Telemetry, a music series co-founded with Travis Thatcher, the technical director of UVA’s music department. The monthly program features both student and local performers and, like the vast majority of The Bridge’s events, it’s free.

Emily Morrison

Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

The Front Porch, a music venue and roots music school, is still in its infancy. But executive director Emily Morrison, who founded it in 2015, hasn’t dawdled in those three years. The organization has already moved twice—from her own home to Mountaintop Montessori to its current location on Water Street East, a roomier venue which allows for larger class sizes and better jams. The events and classes offered at Morrison’s nonprofit bring together diverse cultures and celebrate their differences, all through the power of music.

Leslie Scott-Jones

This actor, director, producer, singer, radio host, poet, and playwright has been working for years to make space for artists and audiences of color in Charlottes-ville. Scott-Jones shares her skills and knowledge with other theater artists, giving roles to actors who’ve never been on a stage, guiding new directors through their first productions, and effectively broadening the scope and the reach of local theater.

Leslie Scott-Jones. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

She recently directed a powerful production of The Royale at Live Arts, and among her current projects is the revival of the Charlottesville Players Guild, an all-black theatre troupe first active in town in the mid-20th century. The company is now in the midst of staging all 10 of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays, and last summer it presented the very spectacular Black Mac, a telling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a black aesthetic. We hear there’s another CPG-does-Shakespeare coming this summer, too.

Brad Stoller

Brad Stoller

Among such a rich selection of arts-related venues, the Piedmont Virginia Community College might not seem like the obvious destination for theatre, but Brad Stoller is working to change that. As assistant professor of theatre arts at PVCC, he’s made a name for himself and the college by organizing fresh, creative reinterpretations of Shakespeare plays like As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet. Stoller also explores the ideas of the theatre of the oppressed and theatrical improvisation, hosting workshops locally and around the globe on both concepts.

Brian Wimer

Where to begin with Brian Wimer? He has many accolades to his name—he once provided the voice for the Taco Bell chihuahua and is the “primary instigator” of production company Amoeba Films—but locally, he’s known as the co-creator, executive director, and self-proclaimed “wizard” of IX Art Park. The open-air event space is home to weekly yoga and salsa classes, music festivals, the upcoming LARPfaire (which promises to be fun), and such iconic Charlottesville sculptures as the Bumper Buddha and Love Butt. Basically, it’s just as eclectic, fun, and endlessly creative as the man himself.

 


Arts Powerhouses

These folks appear on our list almost every year, but they still have an outsize impact on the city’s arts scene.

Paul Beyer Love it or hate it, Tom Tom is the festival that just keeps growing, and Beyer, its creater, is the reason why. Founders Fest, with its overwhelming array
of talks, panels, parties, and performances, celebrated its eighth year this April, and is seeking to grow beyond its tech-focused roots into something more inclusive of the community at large.

Coran Capshaw This media and real estate mogul, whose name is attached to everything from the 5th Street Station shopping center to The Jefferson Theater, is the OG of our power list, and perhaps of Charlotteville itself.

Andrea Douglas The executive director of The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center for almost ten years, Douglas is a formidable force who shows no signs of slowing down. This year, her projects included co-founding the civil rights pilgrimage and hosting Jamelle Bouie’s first-ever photo exhibition. 

Jody Kielbasa It’s easy to forget—or rather, hard to believe—that Jody Kielbasa is both the director of the Virginia Film Festival and UVA’s vice provost for the arts. Between the two roles, he facilitates a head-spinning amount of humanities-related events, and is often the man who brings Hollywood to Charlottesville.

Levien blurb updated 6/27 to correct an error regarding the proposed development on the site of University Tire, which is still awaiting approval for a Special Use Permit, and 6/28 for word choice.