Early in the year, when the Virginia General Assembly is in session, the State Capitol is busy with action. Legislators and lobbyists race off to meetings, while interns and aides answer phone calls and direct constituents. Organizations gather, eager to present their pitch on legislation or simply raise awareness for their cause.
Two blocks down the street, there’s just as much buzz at UR Downtown. The space, which was partially designed for community programming, has become known as a prime meeting place for organizations preparing for a day at the Capitol.
“The offer of space was in the original plan [for UR Downtown],” says Kim Dean, program director. “Very quickly, word spread like wildfire that there was free space that nonprofits, government organizations, and educational institutions could use. We continue to see an uptick during the General Assembly season, which is fun because we’ve never marketed the space in that way. But apparently word is spreading that this is a good space for that.”
During the session, UR Downtown hosted a number of organizations, including the Virginia Athletic Trainers’ Association, Virginia Mentoring Partnership, Virginia Counselors Association, Nonprofit Virginia, Legislative Coalition of Virginia Nurses, and Virginia Association of School Nurses.
Some use it as a quick gathering place — a handful of people assembling for a half hour to get organized before heading into a day of meetings. Others use it to bring together 50 or more people to share message points and prepare a strategy for communicating with legislators.
The Virginia Conservation Network, an umbrella organization for Virginia environmental organizations working on state policy issues, met twice a week at UR Downtown during session. They used the space, which was directly between their office and the Capitol, as a meeting place to update their varied community about ongoing legislative progress.
“It’s an opportunity to keep people informed and find out if someone needs some extra help,” says Chelsea Harnish, acting chief of operations for the VCN. “A lot of our people are coming right from the General Assembly, over to UR, and back. It’s very convenient.”
It’s not just outside organizations using the space. Throughout the semester, political science professor Dan Palazzolo and his students grab lunch at Richmond on Broad before settling into UR Downtown’s gallery room. The students are all interning with legislators. Over sandwiches and salads, they compare notes about everything from responding to constituent emails for delegates to the negotiations needed to get the votes for a bill.
While the staff at UR Downtown is happy to see the space being used for its intended purpose, Dean also says it’s exciting to feel connected to the work that’s happening just down the street.
“It’s a great energy,” she says. “It’s really fascinating to see them all get organized and figure out how to maximize the opportunity of going over and getting in front of legislators. Downtown is a different place during the General Assembly, and it’s exciting to us to have the downtown energy right in our space.”