The Value of Online Listings and Review Sites to Small Businesses

Remember the distant days when we flicked through the text-heavy pages of a phone book to find a plumber or a vet? As evidenced by the uncollected and unloved piles of these books that we sometimes see left in the rain outside homes, like the relic of a forgotten civilization, the days of tangible Yellow Pages are long gone.

Today Yellow Pages is primarily an online listing; just one of many services and review sites that offer another marketing tool for your business. There’s also White Pages and Yellowbook but no trees were harmed in the creation of these listings.

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As a local business, you should consider your presence on online listings and review sites, even though it can be difficult to know where to start or where to spend your hard earned dollars.

In the past small businesses found it hard to compete online with the big multinationals. However, Google recently leveled the playing field for small, local businesses with its “Pigeon” update in 2014, that recognizes the importance of local search engine optimization (SEO). Google has been positively oozing with love for local businesses of late. Google’s “Venice” update of a few years ago means if a searcher in Lynchburg seeks “tractor supplies,” for example, the first results to come up will be local ones rather than a company in Richmond, which may have happened before the update.

You don’t need to know the intricacies of Google’s updates but you do need to know Google remains the most important search engine out there and it likes local online listings and review sites.

Here’s what you should know about local listings and review sites.

1 They May Be the First Exposure People Have to Your Business

As anyone who has Googled a restaurant knows, the pesky Yelp review that gave it one star and mentioned the cockroach in the burrito has a habit of standing out from the crowd. Google+ listings of your business invade a lot of real estate on searches as they provide a map and a star review system, so make sure to claim them.

2 Concentrate on the Best Listings for Your Business

Yelp remains an important site and reviews on the site are integrated on Bing – the second largest search engine. But more people are going to search for a restaurant on Yelp than for a dentist. In the same way, professionals such as estate agents and lawyers, have dedicated listings that carry more weight in their professions, such as Super Lawyers and Avvo in the legal profession.

3 Maximize Free Listings

Be wary about paying a lot of money for a Yellow Pages listing that the sales guy tells you will “kill the competition for SEO.” There are a lot of free local listings, including YP listings, that may provide as good a bang for your buck. The VerticalResponse blog provides a suggestion for the top 20 places your business needs to be online. Even if listings are free they’ll eat up a lot of your marketing time in setting them up one by one. If you use citation services such as Yext or Moz Local, they will get your business on a considerable number of local listings for an annual fee. These services also clean up the listings you already have, ensuring the consistency that reassures the search engines.

4 Local Listings Will Provide Backlinks

Backlinks (also known as inbound links) are links to your website. They are described as one of the building blocks of SEO because if sites are linking to yours, it must be worth checking out right? Local listings are a good way to get more backlinks to your site and Google gives more credit to sites with good backlinks. In recent years, it has become more important to get “quality” backlinks that are relevant. So if you run a hat store, links from directories in the fashion industry are a lot better than a link from your friend’s bait and tackle shop website.

5 They Send Referral Traffic

Your listings are not just good for the backlink. That link sends people to your site where they may contact you online or pick up the phone. By being listed on multiple sites, you are increasing the chances of a potential client or customer finding you.

6 Reviews are Influential

A recent survey by Search Engine Land found 88 percent of people trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. That’s a lot of faith to put in strangers who post online but it highlights the importance of getting the positive experience that we hope you are giving customers, out on the Internet.

If you don’t have listings on directories and review sites it’s high time to do so. That’s not to say you should go crazy but you should dip your toe in the water. Consider taking out a paid listing as well as some free ones and monitor them to see what works best. Ask people who contact you where they saw your business and encourage them to write positive reviews.

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Miracle Baby Learns of Her Birth 40 Years On

Woman learns of her miracle birth when her mother died in 1957 bus crash

  • (Left)The bus that left the road and rolled down a hill, killing Milagros Abab's pregnant mother in rural Puerto Rico in 1957. (Right) A nurse holds Abad at a hospital in Puerto Rico in March 1957 after Abad was rescued from inside her dead mother.
(Left)The bus that left the road and rolled down a hill, killing Milagros…
October 20, 2010|By David Macaulay, dmacaulay@dailypress.com | 247-7838

HAMPTON — Milagros Abad always wondered why she was named “miracle” in Spanish.

This summer, at the age of 53, she found out and the revelation has changed her life.

Abad, who is an administrative assistant with Liberty Estates Apartments on Cunningham Drive in Hampton, had been told her mother died in a bus accident in Puerto Rico in 1957. But her family left out the dramatic details of her birth.

It took an e-mail five decades later and from the daughter of the man who saved her life in the aftermath of the crash for her to realize the truth.

On March 11, 1957, a bus hit a car in the town of Aibonito in Puerto Rico and crashed into a ravine, killing three or four people, according to accounts. Don Julio Cruz who lived nearby, ran to the ravine and saw dead and wounded passengers. Then he heard what sounded like the crying of a new born baby.

Carmen Soto-Abad was eight months pregnant and had been en route to the hospital for a routine check-up when she was run over by the bus and killed.

Cruz found her on the ground. Her stomach was ripped open and the baby was still alive inside her. Cruz reached in, cut the umbilical cord with his finger and rescued the infant.

Abad said Thursday she knew her mother had died and that she was born prematurely and taken to a hospital in New York, but her family shielded her from the circumstances of her birth.

“I believe they were trying to protect me and raise me as a regular child in the Spanish community, because this was a big story to them,” she said.

“I was adopted by my grandmother. All I knew was that my mother had died in a bus accident on the way to a check up at the hospital,” she said.

Abad grew up in the Bronx and didn’t return to Puerto Rico until she was 10. But the circumstances of her birth remained a mystery.

“Nobody talked much about it, other than the fact it was an accident,” she said.

Then in July she was contacted on the Internet by Nellie Cruz Fuentes, the daughter of her rescuer.

“She told me she was the daughter of the man that rescued me when I was a baby. She contacted me because she was going to write a book in honor of her father,” Abad said.

“She said her father had always kept me in his prayers and talked about me like I was part of the family,” Abad said. “She said ‘We grew up knowing your name. Every holiday you were mentioned.'”

At 86 years old and in poor health, Cruz wanted to again see the girl he had rescued. Abad still didn’t know the full details of her birth until she received a newspaper article about the rescue.

“When I started to read the article it touched my heart,” she said.

In September, Abad was invited to Puerto Rico for the launch of the book and that’s where she met Cruz.

“You could look at him and say ‘that’s a good person.’ There was something about him,” she said. “He met me, put his hand on my face and said ‘you’re the baby.’ I’m thinking I don’t look like a baby,” she said. “I just broke down and cried because I was so overwhelmed.”

She met nuns, priests and townspeople in Puerto Rico as well as one bus passenger who was severely injured in the crash.

Abad said the revelation has changed her life. “With that experience, I realized I needed to do something, instead of sitting around and moping,” she said.

She has lived in Hampton for 18 years but said she has felt disaffected since her 33-year-old daughter died more than a year ago. “I was beginning to feel sorry for myself,” she said.

Ironically buses have proved a catalyst for Abad to change her life.

As a HRT rider, she said she has had drivers in Hampton pull off before she could board. She also took up the case of a handicapped woman who she said was forced to get off at a stop some distance from her home. So she contacted Hampton City Council members and started to get involved in Hampton politics.

On Oct. 13, she was appointed to the Hampton Citizens’ Unity Commission by the Hampton City Council, and says she wants to run for council one day.

“I guess this has brought me peace that I didn’t realize I needed,” she said.

“You have to make it better for yourself,” she said. “It brought out another side of me. Even though you don’t think you are here for a reason, there has to be a reason.”

“It changed something in me and made me more vocal,” she said.

 

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From Repression to Hope : Portsmouth Teacher Returns Home to Albania with New Mission

By David Macaulay

(The Currents section of the Virginian-Pilot, October 2012)

By the winter of 1978, Klementina Shahini had lost hope. She was 19, and  every day she was forced to report to a “special place” at 6 a.m. and trudge through bleak, snow-covered hills to work alone with a shovel and a pick until sundown, digging holes for trees to be planted.

The work was punishment by Communist authorities in her homeland of Albania, Shahini said. The idea she would eventually escape to a new life in America was inconceivable. Now, at age 53, the former Portsmouth teacher has returned to Albania where she has set up a Christian school.

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Klementina Shahini at her new school

The scenario had been so different when she fled. Although Shahini grew up in an impoverished nation closed to the west, in which she said an “apple was a privilege,” she got accepted to a top language school in the capital Tirana. But her sister upset the Communist Party when she reported an official who was abusing government money, and the state moved against the whole family. Shahini was removed from the school and forced into a life of hard labor.

God played a pivotal part in her resolve, Shahini said. But religion was outlawed under the regime of Marxist leader Enver Hoxha who led Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. In 1967 Hoxha had proclaimed Albania the world’s first “atheist state” and sanctioned the destruction of mosques and churches.

The Communist state fell apart in 1990 when the People’s Republic was dissolved.

In 1991 Shahini discovered Christianity when a group of Mennonites showed up in her town.

“The summer of 1991 was the turning point of my life,” she said in an interview by email. “For the first time in my life I heard the words Bible, God, belief.”

By then she was married to Dini Shahini and had two children, Ardian and Kledia. They started to dream about America and moved in 1999 with all their belongings in one suitcase per person.

Growing up in Albania, kids aspired to be teachers, and Shahini was no different. She took a job at Cedar Road Christian Academy in Chesapeake a week after she arrived in the United States. Within two months she was teaching kindergarten and started classes at Regent University in Virginia Beach in 2000, graduating with a master’s in leadership in education.

In 2002 she started teaching English and American History at Cradock Middle School. She described the school as a “challenge.” She found many of the students did not believe in themselves.

Three years later she transferred to Churchland High, where she became chairwoman of the English Department in 2009.

But the idea of setting up a Christian school in Albania burned inside her. Shahini had been involved with the Virginia Mennonite Missions for more than a decade, and with its support was able to make her dream come true.

In 2011 she became the principal and executive director of the Lezha Academic Center in Albania.

“It is an American school, where teaching is completely in English, based on American curriculum,” she said. “All the teachers are Americans and have a heart for teaching and mission.”

But she faces a raft of new challenges in Albania. Although free of Communism, Albania remains mired in poverty.

“What I am doing now is a mission. The education system in Albania is going through a lot of tough times. There is a lack of school buildings, quality teachers, materials, quality education. There are 50 students per class,” she said.

There are also inherent challenges in running a Christian school in a Muslim country.

“Teaching is a mission itself but teaching in Albania is a big mission. You are operating a Christian school in a country where 75 percent of the population is Muslim,” she said. The Albanian school system remains riddled with corruption. “You pay the money and you get the grade,” she said.

She said students and parents in Portsmouth and beyond often fail to appreciate what they have in the American school system.

“Students in America have an excellent public school education and it’s essentially free. There are school buses, libraries and extracurricular activities …  It’s so easy to forget these blessings, all of which are simply bestowed upon children because they are born in the U.S.”

Families in Albania are often forced to choose between putting food on the table and sending their children to school, she said.

“They want to be nurses, accountants, and writers and they all want to go to university but only a small percentage of them will find the financial means to do so or the opportunity to do so.”

Shahini hopes the school will become self-supporting within five years. If anyone can make it happen, she can, said Don Steiner, the chairman of the school and director of the master’s in education program at Eastern Mennonite University.

“Klementina Shahini has a heart for making the world a better place through education,” Steiner said. She is committed to providing a high-quality academic and Christian education to Albanian students enabling them to become tomorrow’s leaders.”

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Food Lion Hero Gets His Life Back on Track

By David Macaulay

The Daily Press, February 16, 2012

Kelvin White sometimes gets uncomfortable when strangers approach him on the street. But that is not nearly as bad as the dreams he has almost nightly of people out to kill him. Almost four months after White tackled a man accused of posing as an FBI agent in a robbery at Food Lion at Newmarket Square in Hampton and was shot by another man, he is still suffering from excruciating pain from the bullet that shattered his right leg.

 White is a quiet and unassuming man unaccustomed to the minor celebrity status created by interviews with local media. He spends most of his days recovering at his home on Decatur Street in Newport News. He still requires a cane to walk but is more mobile than in the weeks after the incident when he was unable to move his leg.

He remains on leave from his job. A cookout is planned at Hampton police headquarters on Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to raise money for White and his family.
THE INCIDENT White is a sales representative for Chesbay, a job that requires him to deliver beer to some of the toughest parts of Hampton Roads. He said the Food Lion at Newmarket Square did not appear to be as dangerous as other stores.

The morning of Oct. 21 seemed like any other. White arrived at the store just before it opened at 7 a.m. As he sat in his truck, he noticed two men dressed in black walking across the parking lot.

He thought it strange that they were carrying briefcases and wearing sunglasses when it wasn’t fully light. He went into the store to work, and later noticed an assistant manager being escorted to the back of the store by one of the men in black.

The assistant manager appeared tense. White asked her if she was all right. She nodded but he wasn’t convinced. He didn’t know it at the time, but the men were later accused of strapping fake explosives to the bodies of the assistant manager and another female member of the staff. White said the man became aggressive with him and told him he was “special security for the store.” White said the man was wearing a gold badge and a bullet-proof vest. “I said, ‘You don’t look like no security I’ve ever seen,’ ” White said.

White overheard the assistant manager saying the store was being robbed. The man White was talking to called his accomplice on his cell phone. White said the other man showed up with a gun. “As soon as I saw the gun, I grabbed his friend. I took a knife I had concealed and put it to his throat,” White said. A struggle ensued.

The other man started firing the gun, sending shoppers scattering in all directions. White said he plunged his knife into the back of the man he was holding. White ran through the store followed by gunshots.

One caught him in the back of the leg and he fell. The bullets kept coming, White said. “When I got up and tried to run, I saw my leg was dangling. I couldn’t move,” White said. Blood was spreading across the store floor from the wound.

He expected the gunman to come and finish him off as he lay on the floor clutching his knife. But the robbers ran from the store with just a small amount of cash. Two men have been arrested in connection with the robbery. Emmanuel Norman, 27, pleaded guilty in December 2011 to obstructing commerce by robbery, possessing a firearm in a crime of violence, and impersonating an officer or employee of the United States.

FBI spokeswoman Vanessa Torres said a second suspect, Jeffrey Malcou, 29, was extradited last week from Tennessee and arraigned in Norfolk. White maintains he has no regrets about his actions. He believes the men were intent on killing staff in the store, and shrugs off the hero tag. “I did it all to get us home,” he said. He maintains it was a “fight or die” situation.
CONSEQUENCES

The bullet penetrated his leg, shattering the tibia. White said he broke his teeth gritting them because of the intense pain. He still has bullet and bone fragments in his leg. Doctors have told him he may not make a full recovery and may develop arthritis. On Tuesday, his physiotherapist asked him to rate the pain on a scale of zero to 10. “I told them over the past three days it’s been at 50,” White said. White hopes to return to work soon.

He said his employer has been supportive in paying medical bills but he only receives 60 percent of his normal pay. Being a recognizable local face has been difficult for White. He said the publicity and awards have been “hugely overwhelming.” He received a Citizen of the Year award at last week’s crime prevention banquet in Hampton. “The part I had to get used to is people coming up and hugging me,” White said.

“I’m a quiet, laid-back person.” The 48-year-old father of two has faced other problems since the incident. He previously helped coach a baseball team and was a keen cyclist. He finds it hard to be confined to his home for much of the day. “There’s a lack of sleep due to the pain and the constant nightmares of somebody trying to kill you every night,” he said. But he has few regrets about his actions. “I would do it again if I had to.”

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Kate Winslet talks about Iris Murdoch

INTERVIEW WITH KATE WINSLET JAN 9, 2002 – THE EASTERN DAILY PRESS

By David Macaulay

Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch

It is an idyllic day in Southwold, Suffolk. The young Iris Murdoch runs down to the chilly sea hand-in-hand with the love of her life, John Bayley. They throw stones into the water and gawky Bayley dons a scuba mask and wades into the sea in an overcoat.

In another scene she stands in a bright blue beach hut rattling with pebbles and shells, wearing a mischievous smile as wide as the cloudless Suffolk horizon.

The movie Iris is a tale of enduring love between the prolific and promiscuous novelist and the awkward Oxford don Bayley. It is an intellectual love that’s at times childish.

For Kate Winslet, the actress cast in the role of Murdoch, life was not imitating art. As she passionately embraced her co-star, Hugh Bonneville, her husband Jamie Threapleton was holed up in  hotel nearby. Four months later they split up.

Does Winslet still believe in enduring love? She falters briefly during a press conference at the Dorchester Hotel.

“I’m not a cynical person and I live for the moment. Yes, of course it can exist. Absolutely,” she said not totally convincingly, before heading for the safe ground.  “Iris and John were a true love story. They made each other extremely happy.”

While Winslet sidesteps the question of her own romances, she glows when she talks about her daughter Mia. She did not mention Threapleton or new love Sam Mendes, the film director.

Winslet made her name in the blockbuster movie Titanic but surprised the movie world by eschewing further Hollywood blockbusters to accept roles in smaller, more offbeat British-made films.

Richard Eyre’s Iris falls into this category but looks set to be one of those rare movies that will prove to be a success on both sides of the Atlantic without receiving the Titanic treatment.

On the face of it, a raw film about a novelist’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease does not sound like a recipe for box office success. But these are not normal times, and post September 11 cinema goers are looking for something different from the traditional diet of action movies.

 Iris is a profound and moving film in which Winslet sparkles as the vivacious young Murdoch, a woman with a lust for life, not to mention a series of men and women while she is with Bayley, even though he is the man she gives her mind to.

 But it is Dame Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent as the older Murdoch and Bayley who steal the show by taking the relationship to a new bittersweet level. They are tipped for Oscar nominations.

 The autumn and winter of Murdoch’s life rather than the spring days of bicycle rides and skinny-dipping in Oxford’s rivers make the most compelling viewing. From being a distinguished scholar and a woman of books, one of England’s most accomplished writers, Murdoch was transformed by Alzheimer’s into a rambling wreck incapable of reading the word “dog.”

For those of us who remember the media reports about Murdoch suffering from “writer’s block,” watching Iris feels somewhat too close to reality for comfort.

Eyre uses the juxtaposition of Winslet and Dench to devastating effect, nowhere more so than in the scenes filmed at Southwold.

 While the novelist as a young woman frolics on the sand before Bayley’s friend Janet Stone (Penelope Wilton), Dench stares moodily out to the sea that spawned her most famous novel and places smooth rocks on slivers of notepaper. When Janet asks her to sign a copy of her latest novel, she throws it angrily to the ground. Janet is also seriously ill with cancer, her face set in a mask of pain.

But later that night, outside the candle-lit beach hut there is a moving scene in which Murdoch responds to an old tune and holds Janet tight in a last dance to the music of time for both women.

In an era of escapism and magic depicted by The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it is sobering to see a film that does not flinch at the grim realities of mortality and old age, a film that addresses the degradation and sheer horror of Alzheimer’s head-on.

There is an abyss between Winslet’s wild, young character and the sad old woman played by Dench, which is the simple but effective key to the movie’s poignancy.

Winslet is well attuned to growing older. She’s made a living in acting since she was 13 and is fast becoming a British movie institution. She was nominated for an Oscar for Titanic at the age of 22. When she shot Holy Smoke two years later, she said she felt as though she was in her mid 30s. “God, I don’t know how to be young anymore,” she said.

Now in her mid-20s she has the attitude of a woman in her 30s. She says she is bemused by her current status as a mega star and prefers to talk about Murdoch.

“I knew about Iris Murdoch but I didn’t know about her work,” she said. “I had to be very selective about the research I did because the film was not about the novels but about the material from John Bayley’s books. I simply read his books over and over again and spent some time with John Bayley. I did not feel the need to go out and read all her novels.

“It confirmed things I knew and felt about her. She loved people, she loved things and had an incredible zest for life.”

Despite the close interweaving of the young Murdoch and the older writer in the film, Winslet did not discuss her portrayal of the role with Dench beforehand.

“When I first saw the film I remember thinking ‘Thank God we pulled it off.’ We did feel similar, even though from the outside we’re nothing alike- I’m about five inches taller than Judi and there are a lot of obvious differences. I was relieved that we did feel like the same woman.”

Winslet found few problems dealing with the two very distinct plots going on in the film that splits Murdoch’s life in two. “They really were two separate stories. I was giving the sense of the young Iris as an absolute stick of dynamite, which is what she was,” she said.

She recalled how Eyre told her it had been wonderful to work with Dench and Broadbent but he was glad to move on and shoot the scenes of the younger Murdoch because “it’s so much happier.”

“Richard has experience of losing somebody to Alzheimer’s and it was nice of him to get involved in some of the spingtime stuff,” she said.

Water was very important to Murdoch. The novelist and her husband were keen swimmers. One of the last entries made in her journal in 1996 read: “We swam in the Thames, in our usual place for this time of year.”

The film opens with a scene in which Winslet swims naked underwater. “I love it. I do love water and I always have done,” she said. “If you ask my father who was first to go in the sea, it was me tearing down the beach,” the Titanic star said.

 Nudity is an issue the actress shrugged off with a laugh. “If anyone is used to taking their clothes off it is me,” she said. “You never get used to nudity and I certainly don’t look forward to it. This was something that was key in John and Iris’s relationship. When they were young they did a of skinny dipping, so to me it was another extension of their relationship.”

But she admitted to having a moment of “Oh, no, here we go again,” when she saw herself naked in the movie.

Winslet’s weight has been a constant source of media interest. After Titanic her weight rose above 11 stone and she was dubbed “Titanic Kate,” in the tabloids. She described the coverage as “hurtful” but seemed impervious to pressure to do the thing the movie industry expects of leading ladies – to lose weight. Then, just as she started to become a role model for women resisting the pressure to diet, she lost weight.

Now she is back to her pre-Titanic weight but sighs when the issue is invariably raised at press conferences. “Awful boring weight questions again,” she tells the reporter who was bold enough to ask.

“Getting my figure back after pregnancy wasn’t easy but I got it back again. I didn’t panic and think I’d lost my figure for ever,” she said.

 Media interest in Winslet’s  weight and personal life remains unabated, becoming more intense after she started dating Mendes.

 “When I feel invaded I carry on as normal, particularly now that I have Mia,” she said. “The press have never forced me to be barricaded into my own home and I never will be. Because of what’s been going on I’m probably followed around more now when I take Mia for a simple walk than I have been for some time, but that doesn’t mean I won’t go on that walk.”

The arrival of  Winslet’s first daughter also curtailed her movie-making.

“In the first year of her life I didn’t want to be away a lot. I have ended up doing two films but only worked about 11 weeks. I feel relatively triumphant about that because she has come along when I’ve been doing these roles. Actresses are very lucky.”

Winslet’s post Titanic roles appear to demonstrate a desire to do different. She turned down blockbusters to film the modestly budgeted Hideous Kinky in Morocco and Holy Smoke in India.

“I don’t have a specific agenda as  such, she told me. ” I haven’t turned down the blockbusters because I don’t want to do the films. It is simply that after Titanic I have done the things I felt most passionate about and the most challenged by.”

Hideous Kinky was her only specific choice. “I wanted to do something that was British and small,” she said. “I was mindful of the fact I am a young British actress and it’s quite important to set an example.”

Many critics are saying Iris brings the best of British to the screen, bu it Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent or the writer of whose life this film is a poignant celebration of.

 Bayley saw his late wife in the depiction of Iris Murdoch in the film and it made him cry. He won’t be the only one.

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Harbor Square – A deal that cost Hampton taxpayers millions

Daily Press Watchdog report, Feb 19, 2012

By David Macaulay

The owners of a run-down apartment complex in Hampton faced possible default on a loan before the city bought the property and paid off the debt. Tipped off about serious conditions at Harbor Square apartments in downtown Hampton, the Virginia Housing and Development Authority served notice on its former owners saying they would be in default on a $12.6 million loan if a plan of improvement was not made. The state housing authority gave Olde Towne Associates LLC 15 days to come up with a plan to remedy the situation or face default.

 That notice came Nov. 10, 2011, less than a month before the city of Hampton purchased the property for $13.4 million, according to documents obtained by the Daily Press under the Freedom of Information Act. A portion of a $6.5 million loan made by the VHDA in 2000 to the Harbor Square owners – $1.85 million – was to make improvements at the 368-unit complex.

Ten years later the complex was deteriorating and in serious need of repairs. Olde Towne took out an additional loan of $8 million in 2005. The city maintains it was not aware of the full extent of the problems at the apartment complex when, in a 4-2 vote in August 2011, the Hampton City Council decided to buy Harbor Square.

It wasn’t until the city was allowed in for pre-purchase inspections that the extent of the problems became known. Conditions found at Harbor Square included failing roofs, black mold, flaking asbestos, lead paint and structural problems on stairways, according to Hampton city inspection reports. As part of the $13.4 million purchase of the crime-ridden complex, the city assumed the VHDA loan and announced it would raze the property. The former owners walked away and the city’s taxpayers picked up the tab as well as the responsibility for $12.6 million in loans.
THE VIOLATION LETTER

The VHDA in its Nov. 10 letter cited the original deed of trust made on Jan. 31, 2000, and referred to Olde Towne’s “failure to operate, or cause the development to be managed and operated in all respects in a manner satisfactory to the authority.” It said Olde Towne was in violation of the original loan documents because it had failed to maintain Harbor Square in a “clean, attractive, safe and sanitary condition.”

Neal Rogers, a manager of asset management with the VHDA, wrote to Aubrey Layne, president of Olde Towne Associates and Great Atlantic Real Estate-Property Management. In the letter Rogers cited “numerous deficiencies in the physical condition of the development.”

The letter said the owners had failed to restore, repair or rebuild structures, had permitted the deterioration of the property and created conditions that rendered it less valuable or marketable. The authority gave Olde Towne 15 days to produce a plan to correct the deficiencies to its satisfaction, or it would declare a default. “If the owner does not produce a plan that will correct the deficiencies … identified on the attached exhibits in a timely manner appropriate to the type of the deficiency to the satisfaction of the authority within 15 days after the date of this notice, then without further notice the authority shall declare a default under the regulatory agreement and deed of trust,” the letter from Rogers stated.

Contacted on Jan. 23 Layne said he had “no interest” in answering questions about Harbor Square. Questions emailed to him from the Daily Press went unanswered.

The letter refers to the original deed of trust which said in the event of default the full debt would “become at once due and payable.” The deed said in the event of a default, the property would be sold at an auction for cash.

An auction never happened because the city stepped in via the Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority. “City officials considered several strategies once the decision was reached to purchase the Harbor Square property and convert it to usage consistent with the citizen-led Downtown Master Plan,” said city spokeswoman Robin McCormick.

“The goal was to acquire the property quickly and at the lowest possible cost,” she said. “Risking legal delays, uncertain outcomes and a bidding war with at least one known competing purchaser would not have been prudent.”

Another bidder, the Merrimac Group, was interested in buying Harbor Square to rehab it. Last month, Tim Slagle of the Merrimac Group said he believed it was possible but not certain the price would have been lower at an auction without the burden of a loan. Several city officials were “aware VHDA was considering serving a notice” on the owners of the complex, McCormick said.
THE BACK STORY

The city agreed to purchase Harbor Square for $14.5 million in August 2011, subject to inspections. At the time, city officials said Harbor Square was crime ridden, deteriorating and that the troubled apartment complex did not fit in with the overall master plan for downtown Hampton.

The city’s housing authority was only able to inspect rentals of apartments leased by Section 8 tenants. City code inspectors were able to inspect the outside of properties but do not have a legal right to enter units not leased under Section 8. After they entered into a purchase agreement with Olde Towne, inspectors found substandard living conditions, and based on those inspections, the city came back with a lower price for the complex and cited a plan to raze the entire development.

On Nov. 21, 2011, Hampton City Manager Mary Bunting said the city agreed to buy Harbor Square for $13.4 million assuming the $12.6 million VHDA loan as well as a sum to cover some outstanding bills. The loan had been reduced to $12.6 million because of monthly payments on the principal and interest, according to the VHDA. Bunting said Olde Towne Associates LLC, would receive no income or profit from the sale.

An agreement with VHDA assured Hampton that the state would waive a penalty for payoff of the loan before 2015. The Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority closed on the property for $13.4 million on Nov. 30. On Dec. 22, the Hampton City Council voted 4-2 to pay off the VHDA loan.

Councilmen Ross Kearney and Donnie Tuck dissented. Unhappiness about citizens footing the bill for the poor state of Harbor Square was expressed by Kearney, a former Hampton mayor, at the Dec. 14, 2011, City Council meeting.

Kearney had previously backed the purchase but changed his vote in a resolution to pay off the loan. “We’ve got here a situation where we have a piece of property that has been allowed to deteriorate over a number of years to the point where it is sickening to all those involved who went in and inspected it,” Kearney said.

He estimated the price paid by the city of Hampton was inflated by about $5 million and that the planned demolition would cost about $2 million. “We are dealing with a group that actually went to the VHDA and got a loan of over $8 million based on Harbor Square and never put the money into it,” Kearney said.

“It’s like they got a home equity loan to send their kids to college and none of them went and they still had the money so they did other things with it.” Hampton Mayor Molly Ward and some of her relatives are beneficiaries of the trust that owned the complex. Olde Towne Associates LLC was largely owned by Great Atlantic.

Declaring an interest as a “passive beneficiary” of a trust created by her father’s will, Ward did not take part in any city deliberations or votes on Harbor Square. In a press release last November, McCormick, the city spokeswoman, explained the mayor’s role. “That stake has passed to a family trust that includes Hampton Mayor Molly Ward and other family members as beneficiaries who are not authorized to manage the property or make business decisions for the trust.”

The original $6.5 million loan taken out in 2000 included a sum of $1.85 million that was to be used for repairs and held in escrow for that purpose. Olde Towne Associates took out an additional loan of $8 million with the VHDA in 2005, according to VHDA documents. The second loan did not contain a repair clause.

Documents disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the original mortgage was subject to a receipt from Olde Towne and acceptance by VHDA of a plan to replace all roofs, HVAC equipment, windows, parking areas, Dumpster pads, sub metering and plumbing lines.

In a Feb. 1, 2000, letter to Layne sent to Olde Towne at the offices of the Great Atlantic management company, E. Bennett Atwill, a development officer with the VHDA, said the authority was not satisfied with the level of detail provided by the borrower as to the scope of work and did not consider the special condition of the mortgage was met.

However, Atwill said the VHDA would agree to proceed to closing on the loan as long as work samples were provided before the work was carried out. Judson McKellar, an attorney for the VHDA, said all of the $1.85 million was used by Olde Towne.

The VHDA produced receipts showing roof replacements and replacements of items such as HVAC systems carried out in 2000 and 2001. By the start of 2011, evidence of the deterioration of the complex, is apparent in correspondence between Layne and the VHDA. On Jan. 20, 2011 Layne wrote of monthly deficits and the need to replace two roofs at the cost of $40,000.

A workout agreement was discussed between Layne and the VHDA to help finance repairs in February 2011. In October 2011, a condition report carried out by the city of Hampton revealed serious problems including bad drainage of roofs.

“The lack of roof drainage and damaged/worn roofing membrane is causing widespread damage, via water infiltration, to the interior surfaces of the apartment building,” the condition report stated. In his Nov. 10 letter to Olde Towne, Rogers of the VHDA said the owner “ultimately declined the terms of the workout agreement.”
ASBESTOS ISSUES

There were other problems at the apartment complex that were highlighted in the 1990s. A letter from the VHDA to Layne sent on Jan. 27, 2000, suggested asbestos at the complex should be abated.

Atwill said Olde Towne should maintain an asbestos program prepared in 1996 by Drucker and Falk Properties. Failure to do so would have been considered a default under the loan documents. Drucker and Falk had identified tile mastic under some kitchen and parquet floors as an “area of the building where highly friable asbestos materials are present.” Friable asbestos is considered the most dangerous type because it can become airborne and lead to a form of lung cancer called mesothelioma.

The report said floors should be capsulated. The city’s inspection in October 2011 concluded: “Asbestos may be exposed in areas where flooring is damaged or missing.” “Asbestos removal was not included in the scope of work approved by VHDA,” McKellar said in an email.

Brian Matt, a spokesman for VHDA, said upgrades to the floors were part of work handled over a four-year period from 2000. “This scope did not call for the removal of asbestos flooring,” Matt said. “Common practice would have included overlaying the floors with luan underlayment and covering them with sheet vinyl. This approach would have prevented any asbestos tile from being abraded and becoming friable.”
INSPECTING THE UNITS

Building permits highlight a large number of problems at Harbor Square going back at least a decade. The city of Hampton has maintained it was not aware of the extent of the problems inside apartments until it entered the due diligence period in the fall of 2011.

It entered a “fully executed agreement” to buy Harbor Square on July 27, 2011, but a council vote to proceed to buy in August, in which Donnie Tuck and Angela Leary voted no, was subject to due diligence. “We did not have access to the interiors of the apartments,” City Manager Mary Bunting said at a council meeting on Dec. 22, 2011.

She was referring to city codes compliance officers who she said could only deal with exterior issues. But inspectors with the Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority were routinely granted access to inspect the interiors of units occupied by Section 8 tenants.

The inspection reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that 373 inspections were carried out in 2011. In total, 200 apartments failed and 119 passed. Inspection failures include water damage to parquet floors. The glue under parquet floors was identified as an area where asbestos was present in the 1996 report. “City and HRHA officials knew the condition of the Section 8 units due to those inspections and also knew that deficiencies were being corrected,” McCormick said.

“Building permits would also indicate that, while there were problems, repairs were being made,” she said.
OTHER PROBLEMS

“What the city didn’t know until it began due diligence for the purchase was that the two-thirds of the units we were not able to inspect were in worse condition – sometimes significantly worse – than the units under the HRHA inspection program,” said McCormick, the city spokeswoman.

“At that point,” she said, “concern for the safety and care of residents added to the need for an expeditious sale.” Building permits on Harbor Square are also held by the city of Hampton. On May 5, 2011, a contractor reported a caller said her apartment had been full of black mold for three months and the ceiling had collapsed.

Another ceiling collapse was reported in May 2010. The resident said mold and mushrooms were growing in her apartment and her children had respiratory illnesses.

A rat infestation was reported in an apartment in 2007 as well as broken pipes that were leaking. In the same year, one resident said her daughter was getting headaches from the mold build up.

Water running down walls and a floor caving in were reported in 2006. In July 2000, an inspection said a roof “was not properly repaired” and caused water damage in an apartment. Layne, representing Old Towne Associates, would not comment for this report. But McKellar with the VHDA said that with the sale of the property, the company is no longer obligated to the state or the city for making any repairs at Harbor Square.

“The owner of the development no longer has any contractual obligation to VHDA under the loan documents for making repairs to the development,” he said. In an effort to close down and raze the complex as quickly as possible, the city has offered relocation assistance and financial incentives to Harbor Square residents. Earlier this month, almost seven of every 10 apartments had been vacated.
THE PROPERTY

*An 18-acre, 368-unit complex of garden-style apartments located near downtown Hampton. *Built in 1969.

*The apartments housed many residents who receive Section 8 subsidized housing, but there were also market-rate units.

*Hampton officials say the complex is not compatible with the city’s master plan, which calls for streets to be extended through the area and higher-value housing and public spaces. A new Circuit Court and parking are also planned.

THE CONDITIONS

*Inspection reports obtained by the Daily Press revealed numerous problems including asbestos, mold, lead-based paint, roaches, stairways that were rusting and failing, a broken sanitary sewer system, and furnaces leaking exhaust directly into units.

The city estimated it would cost $4.5 million to $5 million to repair Harbor Square. *Interviews with residents, who spoke to the Daily Press on the record, highlighted problems with mosquitoes, trash, damp, sagging ceilings, malfunctioning heating systems, broken sinks and a large hole in the wall of one apartment.

THE MONEY

*The City of Hampton purchased Harbor Square for $13.4 million assuming a $12.6 million Virginia Housing Development Authority loan made to the previous owner, Olde Towne Associates LLC.

*Olde Towne received a $6.5 million loan from the VHDA in 2000, $1.85 million of which was to make improvements. Olde Towne took out an additional loan of $8 million in 2005. *The property has been assessed at $17.18 million with buildings on it

WHO’S INVOLVED

The City of Hampton: The city purchased Harbor Square, with plans to demolish the buildings and redevelop the land. Olde Towne Associates LLC: Former owners acquired the property in 2000. Hampton Mayor Molly Ward and some of her relatives are beneficiaries of the trust. Ward has removed herself from related discussion and votes. VHDA: Nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people find affordable housing. It provides mortgages and other services. It was created by the Commonwealth, but doesn’t use taxpayer money.

DEEDS OF OWNERSHIP 1969: Land owned by the Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority is sold to Albert T. Brout for $122,455 for the building of an apartment complex “to prevent recurrence of blight.” 2000: Harbor Square is sold to Olde Towne Associates LLC in January 2000 by Thora Brout Pollak (daughter of Albert T. Brout), who had 90 percent ownership and Edwin A. Joseph II, who had 10 percent ownership. 2011: Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority purchases the property for $13.4 million. Sources: VHDA documents, and Joseph v. Pollak (1992 U.S. District Court)

WHO IS OLDE TOWNE ASSOCIATES? Hampton Mayor Molly Joseph Ward has said she had no influence over the trust. “I have no authority or control whatsoever with regards to my ownership interest,” Ward said in an email to the Daily Press. In 2005, the Virginia State Corporation Commission listed six trusts or individuals as comprising Olde Towne Associates: * Joseph Asset Management * the Antonia Lawn Joseph Trust * the Mariella Joseph Trust * Pal Investments LLC * Harbor Square Manager Inc. * George B. Joseph Three of the names match those found as surviving children in the obituary of Edwin Joseph, who died in December 2005. Sources: Virginia State Corporation Commission and Daily Press Archives

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A Case for Curbing Eminent Domain?

By David Macaulay, The Daily Press, Jan. 3, 2012

Frank Ottofaro

For years, Frank Ottofaro has railed against Hampton for its purchase of his property at what is now the Power Plant development. His voice may finally be heard. Frank Ottofaro’s distinctive outbursts against Hampton officials for their use of eminent domain in taking his property have been a feature of Hampton City Council meetings for the better part of a decade. And while his recent plea for a Christmas present in the form of compensation he claims the city owes him wasn’t realized, there’s evidence his persistence may be paying off in other ways.

 The Ottofaro case has helped set the scene for a constitutional amendment proposed by the General Assembly. The change in Virginia law would lead to local authorities paying more in compensation for condemnations. Ottofaro’s case has also been used for academic research papers at law schools. Ottofaro, 77, suffers from gout. But he still makes the trip to City Hall every month to make his case. “I support it,” his wife, Dora, said Thursday.

“But I’m sure sick of it.” She says her husband will keep on going to City Hall. “That’s the type of person Frank is,” she said. “If he thinks he’s been done wrong, something’s going to have to happen before he gives up … that’s his nature. You do him wrong and you’re on his list.” During the Dec. 14 public comments session, Ottofaro again railed against the city when he referred to “a wrong that was done to me and my family.”

His property at 11 Pine Chapel Road was demolished for a road in 2000. The city wanted the land for what would become the Power Plant development. Ottofaro says other landowners were offered more money by the city and that some owners received two-and-a-half times the appraised value of their property. He wants about $1 million from the city. “I was hoping to have my check by Christmas, but I haven’t got anything yet,” he told the City Council.
WHAT HAPPENED?

Ottofaro was offered more than $189,000 in 1996 by the original developer of the Power Plant for a rental property he owned on Pine Chapel Road. The developer later upped the offer to $195,724 using a different formula. In 2000, the city told Ottofaro it would purchase his property for $164,000. By the time the case was heard in Circuit Court, the city’s offer had dropped to $122,000. A Hampton Circuit Court jury awarded Ottofaro $170,000 in 2001 for two lots and a house that Hampton demolished in 2000. Ottofaro appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court but lost his case.
‘A TEACHING TOOL’

Ottofaro attended the Hampton City Council’s evening session on Dec. 14. Had he been at the afternoon work session, he would have heard City Attorney Cynthia Hudson explain that his case may be the one highlighted in discussions in Richmond on changing state law. Lawmakers are expected to discuss possible changes that would restrict the ability of authorities to use eminent domain.

Hudson said the city has received information Hampton may be used as a “teaching tool in support of this amendment,” because of the Ottofaro case. But Hampton has joined the Virginia Municipal League, the cities of Newport News and Norfolk, and a number of other authorities in opposing the amendment.

Hudson said on Dec. 14 Ottofaro’s property was not taken for purely economic purposes, but for a road that had been in the city’s comprehensive plan. Ottofaro’s case has attracted academic interest. “Regardless of whether the full factual record of the Ottofaro case proves the landowners’ claims, it is at least an instructive example of the potential harm inherent in the condemnation power when political entities have broad discretion in its application and commercial development is in play,” wrote Donald J. Kochan, a visiting professor at George Mason School of Law in an article for the Virginia Institute for Public Policy. “The Ottofaro case is used in many law schools today,”

Hampton City Councilman Ross Kearney said on Dec. 14. He said the city only needed 150 feet for a road but took 780 feet. Councilman Donnie Tuck wanted to re-open talks on compensation. The move was defeated in a 4-3 council vote. Mayor Molly Joseph Ward pointed out the issue had been the subject of litigation. She said reopening it would raise the possibility of other litigants demanding their cases be reopened.
LOCAL CONSTERNATION

Hudson said many local authorities are alarmed about possible changes in state law on eminent domain. “There’s a good deal of local government consternation and concern about the potential impacts of the proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution on eminent domain,” she said. The amendment has a “just compensation” element that would give the property owner the fair market value of the property the government seeks to take plus any potential damage to the property left in terms of how it may have been devaluated by the seizure, she said.

Hudson said lost profits and loss of access to a landowner’s remaining property are not factors under the compensation equation at present. “Certainly under current law, property may only be taken when there’s a public interest and the public interest is greater than the private gain in the taking,” she said.

The amendment is also a reaction to the case of Kelo v. New London, Hudson said. In that 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the court upheld a Connecticut town’s taking of private property for redevelopment. Hudson said the amendment could increase the cost of public projects and deter local authorities from pursuing road projects. For example, under the proposed change in state law, if a new bypass led to a loss of profits by businesses, they could have a claim for compensation. But distinctions between economic and infrastructure needs cut little ice with the Ottofaros. “They did it for meanness,” Dora Ottofaro said. “To show power.”

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