Enormous ship parts once flew through the air at Riggers Loft, a renovated port building named for the hoisting cranes built there during the war effort in the 1940s. Imported and puzzled together in under a month, these parts—assembled with steel and sweat—would quickly become something much larger than their sum, massive ships exported to different theaters of war.
Almost 75 years later, Richmond’s port is still producing, still a direct gateway across the Pacific. Along with Subarus and Hondas, friendship with Richmond’s sister city Zhoushan, on China’s easternmost coastline, has become a cherished import.
But the relationship has also long been a target of critics who say that Richmond has precious little to show for it.
So far, the Richmond-Zhoushan partnership has indeed been mostly symbolic, with plenty of cultural delegations going back and forth, young cohorts studying abroad, a joint art exhibition, and one carefully crafted medical donation from Kaiser Permanente, but little direct financial benefit to Richmond itself.
Councilman Tom Butt supports the relationship, which is steeped in history and culture and international goodwill, but says it has yet to live up to its business potential.
Watch President Eisenhower’s 1956 White House Conference on the inception of the transnational people-to-people program.
Now this may change. Two weeks ago a Zhoushan business delegation visited the port, and this time they came to do more than shake hands. According to Richmond port director Jim Matzorkis, a new Chinese-based development, built in part with Richmond’s participation, is on the immediate horizon.
Matzorkis says that once the political climate in Zhoushan settles, a joint venture automobile distribution facility, co-owned by the cities of Richmond and Zhoushan, will rise in the Chinese port. “We’ll provide consulting and expertise, sharing profit 51-49 percent [favor, Zhoushan],” he says.
There are also development projects at different stages of realization popping up here in Richmond, the most promising of which is scheduled to come to the newly repurposed Riggers Loft building next year.
R & B Cellars, an Alameda-based winery, has had its eye on the historical port property—part of the former Kaiser Shipyards—since Matzorkis showed co-owner Kevin Brown around building No. 6 in the Point Potrero Marine Terminal a year ago. The 25-foot tall space is currently home to the port’s operations and security center.
Brown says he was initially attracted not only to the “amazing view right there on the water,” but the lucrative possibilities of working with foreign investors on what’s called the “EB-5 Visa,” a direct avenue of obtaining a green card for investors staking at least $500,000 in an underemployed region.
Tom Butt says that’s clearly “one of the main motivations for Chinese investment” into a city like Richmond, with an 11.6 percent unemployment rate as of 2012.
Over the years, Brown has found a valuable client in the Chinese market, where he exports a couple of containers of wine every year.
He says R & B Cellar’s planned East Bay location—a 21,000 square foot loft space that will house a full winery, tasting room, and visitor’s center—is in the last leg of lease agreements, in which the Zhoushan investors are putting up $2 million to help get the site up and running.
The agreement is set to go before the city council in late October. Brown plans to be operational with more than a dozen employees by the beginning of next year.
He says the building is a great example of creating “commercial enterprise beneficial to Richmond and the Bay Area,” and is indicative of what the port and the entire city can become.
“The port is bringing actual businesses into Richmond,” Brown says. “We wouldn’t have necessarily considered Richmond if Jim’s [Matzorkis] office wasn’t so proactive.”
Matzorkis thinks the winery should be one of many examples of a stronger bond with Zhoushan. He says talk of additional retail, commercial and residential projects are churning. And depending on whom you ask, investments in the Hilltop Mall and Point Richmond homes may be next down the pipeline.
These kinds of deals, Butt says, would be “frosting on the cake.”