The Big Dome

Words by Penny Neef
Photos by David Sullivan
Featured Image Courtesy of The Norfolk Housing and Redevelopment Authority

Scope Arena is a landmark in downtown Norfolk. It’s hard to miss that big dome of concrete and the 24 midcentury modern flying buttresses that surround it and support it. There have been many impressive arenas built around the world, but Scope remains the world’s largest thin-shell concrete domed building.  The world’s largest, right here in Hampton Roads.

Scope Arena was designed as just one part of Norfolk Cultural and Convention Center, which also includes Chrysler Hall, the plaza that connects the two buildings, a below grade Exhibition Hall and an underground parking garage.

Construction began in 1968 on the north edge of downtown Norfolk.  This massive project was conceived as a post-WW II revitalization of Norfolk. City leaders wanted to “step up” Norfolk’s cultural footprint, and attract sports teams,bigger acts and bigger crowds to Hampton Roads.

Picture of Norfolk's scope arena. A dome with many support legs.

The city leaders, led by Lawrence Cox, Executive Director of Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA), were willing to go cutting edge on design and construction.  They wanted to build something “iconic” that would attract attention (and visitors) to Hampton Roads. This led them to Pier Luigi Nervi, an Italian architect know best for his expertise in using reinforced concrete to create curving forms and domed structures. 

Nervi designed Pallazzetto dello Sport for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.  Basketball was played there.  Americans could see the impressive structure from their televisions.

Nervi worked with Norfolk firm Williams and Tazewell & Associates to use the latest design and construction techniques to made a “superblock of reinforced concrete and glass.” Scope Arena is a premier example of mid-twentieth century Neo-Expressionist architecture.  Neo Expressionism is all about the curves.  It is architecture as sculpture – beauty, form and function. 

David Sullivan was 17 years old on November 23, 1971 when he attended the first sporting event at Scope.  It was an American Basketball Association game between the Virginia Squires and the Carolina Cougars.  The Squires lost, but David kept his “Charter Spectator Award” certificate.

Charter Spectator Award certificate given to Daniel Sullivan by the Scope Arena.

Sullivan was a senior at Kempsville High School when he started taking photos with a Kodak 110 film camera.  Quite a few years, and a few cameras later, Sullivan is a self-pronounced “camera geek.” I first met David when he was the Executive Director of the new Slover Library in 2015. I have been following his photography on Instagram ever since at: dsullivan32.

Scope Arena is one of Sullivan’s favorite subjects.  Sullivan loves the history of the building.  He remembers seeing the Scope under construction. Sullivan and his then girlfriend, now wife, Cindy, got to listen to some of the great 70’s bands at Scope, like Chicago, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rare Earth and Guess Who. He’s always “been in awe of the Scope Arena and it’s interior dome ceiling, the way it opens up to a massive space when you walk in from the concourse.”

View of the sun rising on the side of the Scope through its side pillars.
Norfolk’s Scope Arena Sunrise

 Sullivan is a “fanboy” of architecture and architects. He has been taking “thoughtful” photos of Scope for the past 15 years.  He comes by morning, afternoon and night, in all seasons, to capture the beauty of Scope.  There are the “curves, the geometry, the textures and the details present when you take time to look close the way photographing something commands your focus and attention.”

Pre-pandemic aka life before Covid, the city of Norfolk was talking about a new arena. The 10,000 seat Scope Arena is now considered too small to attract the major sporting events and conventions the city wants.  Feasibility studies show that the almost 50-year-old arena has no room to expand.  Of course, all talk of a new arena is on hold right now, along with many other things.  Sullivan wishes that Norfolk could find a way to “invest in Scope and make it last another 50 years.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Scope is beautiful, unique and historically significant.

Scope, by the way, was not named after a person or the mouthwash.  Scope is short for Kaleidoscope.  The Scope Inaugural Souvenir Magazine of 1971 says the name was chosen to “convey the myriad of activities which will be taking place under the coliseum’s domed cover.” Take another look at Scope.  Clean up that dome and those gorgeous flying buttresses and it’s still a beauty.

A street lamp with globe lights beside the Scope arena.
Norfolk’s Scope Arena lamppost

Black Lives More Than Matter Mural – Norfolk NEON District

Interview by BA Ciccolella.
Photos courtesy of Nicole Harp, Clayton Singleton, and Norfolk Public Schools.

Last July, two local Norfolk high school Fine Arts teachers, Ms. Nicole Harp of Granby and Mr. Clayton Singleton of Lake Taylor, answered an open call to artists from the Neon District Public Art Committee. Their newly completed piece, Black Lives More Than Matter, the mural on the rear of O.J. Wholesale, also home to Black-owned business Furious Styles on the second floor, is a reflection of the current cultural climate. It is also their first large project collaboration together.

Harp and Singleton are professional artists with extensive resumes, and both show an obvious passion for their creative callings. Spotlight News was lucky enough to sit down with them for an interview where we discussed (among other things) their projects (past, present, and future), their collaboration, and their ideas on how art can be used for communication and activism.

You can reach Nicole and Clayton online using the following links:

Nicole Harp:Clayton Singleton:
Instagram @EcoDogH2O
Twitter @NicoleCHarp1
Instagram @ClaytonSingletonArtist
Twitter @ClaytonCanPaint

Norfolk’s mural projects are in partnership with several long-standing and diverse neighborhood businesses, showcasing the wide range of community involvement and investment.

Hopefully we will have the opportunity to see more of Harp and Singleton’s collaborations in the future!

Nauticus Lauds Teachers: Offers Unlimited Free Admission

Museum Rolling Out Red Carpet for Educators

Words and Images by Nauticus

Licensed teachers throughout Virginia and North Carolina will receive free admission to Nauticus starting October 1 and continuing indefinitely.  The declarative move serves as a sincere “thank you” to regional teachers who have adapted, innovated, and persevered throughout the course of a very difficult year. 

“Our entire organizational focus is education,” said Nauticus executive director, Stephen E. Kirkland.  “And I can tell you as the parent of a third grader, I have a very personal appreciation for how critical our teachers are, especially right now.” 

A woman teaches a group of children at Nauticus.

Nauticus’ commitment to education has also led to the creation of new virtual demos for students, teachers, and families, and through a grant from the Student Access Program, Nauticus is serving more than 3,000 Title 1 students in the Norfolk Public School system by providing free education programs. 

A Nauticus docent shows a horseshoe crab to a Mother and child.

With free admission, teachers will have the opportunity to enjoy Nauticus’ newest exhibit, Voyage To The Deep, making its United States debut at the museum through January 3rd.   The STEM-based experience (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) transports guests into the deep sea, where they can take the helm of a submarine, encounter mythical sea creatures, and pilot their own underwater robot.  Nauticus admission also includes access to the Battleship Wisconsin, the largest and last battleship built by the United States Navy.   

For more information, visit

2021 Model NATO Challenge

Words and Images by the Nikki Nieves & Norfolk NATO Festival

Applications for the
2021 Model NATO Challenge Scholarship Program & Press Corps Program Now Available!

The Model NATO Challenge is a unique scholarship opportunity for your students to develop skills in leadership and diplomacy while learning about one of the world’s most successful alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Application Form Deadline: December 18th!

30 Student Diplomats (along with six alternates) are chosen to represent each of the 30 NATO Member Nations during the Model NATO Challenge simulation, modeled after NATO’s highest decision making body, the North Atlantic Council. Student Diplomats are assigned mentors, military officers from each of the 30 countries, who assist in preparing the students for the challenge while teaching them about their culture, national military resources, and political backgrounds. This mentoring relationship is a very unique feature of the Model NATO Challenge, as students have the opportunity to work with mentors who are Officers at NATO-Allied Command Transformation.

To apply for the Model NATO Challenge, students must complete the application and select either the essay format or panel interview format to be considered. Based on their performance in the Challenge simulation on March 17th, the Top Three Finalists are awarded scholarships to use toward the College or University of their choice!


  • Option I: Essay Format – January 8, 2021 (application, teacher recommendation, and essay to be submitted)
  • Option II: Panel Interview Format – December 18, 2020 (application and teacher recommendation to be submitted)

*Panel Interview Date: January 7, 2021 between 5pm-8pm; students must receive their confirmed reserved timeslots in advance from Festival staff, no walk-ups will be accepted.

Pursuant to CDC Guidelines for COVID-19, we are currently planning to proceed with this scholarship program in person and will be taking all necessary safety precautions. If we are unable to safely gather physically for the program’s scheduled dates, we will still proceed in a virtual format.

We hope that you encourage your students to apply for the 2021 Model NATO Challenge Scholarship Program! Please encourage students to visit our website to download the application and schedule of events today.

Applications are available online at Norfolk NATO Festival
If you or your students have questions about the Scholarship and/or Press Corps Programs, please feel free to contact us at 757-282-2801 or We look forward to receiving your students’ applications!

VSC and NSU Theatre Company Present Virtual Performance of The Parchman Hour: Songs & Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders

Information courtesy of Virginia Stage Company.

Virginia Stage Company launches a virtual presentation of The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders, a collaboration with Norfolk State University Theatre Company.  After its triumphant run as part of Virginia Stage Company’s 39th Season, The Parchman Hour journeys through the Deep South with the pioneers who fought discrimination and paved the way for the future. Written and directed by Mike Wiley, this play is adapted from real life accounts of the 1961 Freedom Rides and shares these struggles through music that ranges from spirituals to Bob Dylan.  This production will include recorded Zoom performances from the original VSC cast, as well as archival production footage from the 2017 production.

With history deeply rooted in racial tension, The Parchman Hour is produced in Norfolk, Virginia at a critical time. “This play is about a time in our recent past when men and women of all backgrounds came together to fight racial injustice,” says Tom Quaintance, Producing Artistic Director of Virginia Stage Company. “It was a country divided, with widespread protests gripping the nation. It is a play that speaks directly to our time’” Through song and storytelling, The Parchman Hour shadows our country’s past while sparking conversation about the present.

The Parchman Hour has streaming performances starting Thursday, October 8th through Saturday, October 10th at 7:30pm and a Sunday matinee on October 11th at 2pm.  Tickets are $15 per household and can be purchased online.

This play contains racially charged language and scenes of violence and is recommended for ages 13 and older.

A Community Conversation will kick off the week of performances as part of Virginia Stage Company’s Wells-ness Wednesday series On October 7th at 7:30pm, Barbara Hamm Lee will lead a virtual panel: Theatre as Society’s Mirror. Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland joins playwright Mike Wiley, Norfolk Chief of Police Larry Boone and panelists engaged in contemporary racial justice protests to discuss the resonance The Parchman Hour has to our country today. This panel discussion is free but registration is required.  To learn more about this event and other Wells-ness Wednesday series, visit:

Virginia Stage Company is southeastern Virginia’s leading theatre destination, normally serving an audience of over 58,000 annually both at the Wells Theatre and throughout the community. Since the shutdown in March, 2020, the Stage Company has pivoted to online content and has shared over 7,000 hours of free virtual content that has served more than 13,000 participants across the country.  Virginia Stage Company’s mission is to “enrich, educate, and entertain the region by creating and producing theatrical art of the highest quality.”

Mike Wiley headshot

Mike Wiley (Writer and Director) is a North Carolina-based actor & playwright whose compelling works of documentary theatre yield powerful journeys through milestones and turning points of a shared American history. With a remarkable ability to inspire dialog, his creative vision and talents are broad and magnetic, leading audiences and communities to begin to peel layers and barriers to true “community.” When a curtain comes down on a Mike Wiley performance, the experience has far from “ended.” It’s more likely that light may have seeped through, that a stubborn door may have just nudged open.

His ensemble and solo-actor plays include The Parchman HourDownrange: Stories From The HomefrontDar He: The Story Of Emmett Till, the theatrical adaptation of Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name, the epic Leaving EdenBreach Of Peace and more. The film adaptation of Wiley’s Dar He, in which he portrays 30+ roles, received more than 40 major film festival awards around the globe. The Parchman Hour was selected as the closing event of the official 50th year anniversary commemoration of the Freedom Riders in Jackson, MS and his plays have been selected for showcase by juries at a majority of performing arts conferences across America. His ensemble plays have been produced by major regional theatres in the US including Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Hatiloo Theatre in Memphis, Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC, Virginia Stage in Norfolk and Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, NC.

Wiley has more than fifteen years’ credits in documentary theatre for young audiences plus film, television and regional theatre. An Upward Bound alum and Trio Achiever Award recipient, he is an M.F.A. graduate of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and is a former Lehman-Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. He has conducted numerous educational residencies funded through grant programs of the North Carolina Arts Council and has performed across the US and in Canada. He is a 2017 recipient of the University of North Carolina’s Distinguished Alumni Award. His most recent large-scale ensemble-cast plays are Leaving Eden and Peace Of Clay (co-written with Howard Craft.) Wiley’s overriding goal is expanding cultural awareness for audiences of all ages through dynamic portrayals based on pivotal moments in African American history and, in doing so, helping to unveil a richer picture of the total American experience.  

Cast members include: 

Benjamin Curns^*Bill Savanoe/Forsyth
Jonathan Cooper^Freddie
Samantha Fabiani^Joan Mulholland/Mrs. Forsyth
Daniel S. Hines^*Stephen Green/Elwood
Teddy Holmes^James Farmer
Christopher Lindsay^Stokely Carmichael
Zonya Love*Lucretia Collins/Pearl Green
Phillip Martin^Deputy Tyson/Bull Connor
Reed Miller^Janie
Jeremy Morris^John Lewis
Meredith Noël^Mimi Real
Isaiah Roper^Hank Thomas
Anthony Mark Stockard^*Pee Wee
Wallis Quaintance^Carol Silver
Ja’Keetrius Woods^Pauline Knight
*Members of Actors’ Equity Association the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States
^2017 VSC production cast member

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TRD New Academy Director Jaime Simpson – Keeping Creative Energy Present

Words and Images courtesy of Jaime Simpson.

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach one of our TRDance students a virtual private lesson. She was at home, I was at the TRDance Center, and we were each logging in to Zoom to embark on an hour and a half ballet lesson. I had everything set up and had admitted her from the “waiting room.” Her video and audio came on, we smiled and happily said our greetings. What she said next definitely got my attention… she said, “This is the first time I’ve been able to see your whole face!” 

I had my mask off for this lesson since I was the only person in the studio, and I had the door shut. She had started taking classes at TRD earlier this summer, and until that particular lesson, she had only ever seen me with a mask on. I said, “Wow, that’s true! I didn’t realize that!” We smiled at each other again and started dancing. 

I have thought about that moment several times since. About how much has changed… in the dance world and everywhere. 

At TRDance specifically, many adjustments have been made to keep opportunities to dance and perform going, with health and safety being of utmost importance: we have specific cleaning processes in place; a mask policy for dancers, staff, and guests; limited class sizes; temperature checks; and more. We are offering many of our classes as hybrid options, giving dancers the opportunity to join the class virtually from home. In addition, all classes are set up so that they can shift to be fully virtual if we need to do so temporarily; the instructors are all experienced with teaching virtually and are ready to transition if that becomes necessary. 

In my third month as Academy Director, I have many goals. The most prominent of which, for the foreseeable future, is to keep as many dancers dancing as possible, as safely as possible. The art of dance has such an uplifting and healing effect, infusing joy and vibrancy into the spirit. It is so important to keep that creative energy present and glowing. Our Fall Structured and Open Class Programs are underway, and I am excited to announce that we have just added three new classes to the Open Program. In November, we will be holding weekend Master Classes in various dance styles. 

We are also currently building our new Pod-Style Dance Class Program which offers dance classes to children who are already working within a pod group for academics and other activities. These classes take place in the afternoon, prior to our evening Open and Structured Program classes. 

Regarding Academy performances, the Todd Rosenlieb Dance Ensemble and Virginia Ballet Theatre Ensemble came together this summer for a successful Virtual Solo Concert made up of 12 newly choreographed solos. Though the process was unique for the Ensemble groups, the dancers and choreographers were thrilled to be creating, and the results were everything that was hoped for. The Ensembles will soon be moving into rehearsals for another virtual show to be presented in December. 

Though so much has changed, I believe two things will always remain the same – the passion for dance, and the desire to dance. Dancers, instructors, choreographers, and directors here at TRD and everywhere are ready and willing to navigate this new path and adjust as needed to be able to safely move forward with this art form. I am at the TRDance Center every day, and every day I see the sparkle 

of excitement in the dancers’ eyes as they arrive for classes. And though their masks may keep me from seeing their smiles, I know that they are there. 

For general information on TRDance, please visit
For specific information on class programs or Ensembles, please email Jaime Simpson at
If you would like to make a donation to support TRDance, please visit

Jaime Simpson began her ballet training at age 6, with opportunities to study at the Virginia Beach Ballet Academy, Maryland Youth Ballet, North Carolina School for the Arts, and Richmond Ballet. She then received her Bachelor’s Degree in Ballet Performance from Indiana University, training with Patricia McBride, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and Violette Verdy. Jaime began teaching ballet while at IU, working with college students as well as students in the youth program. Since returning to Hampton Roads in 2005, Jaime has taught all levels of ballet and pointe at several area schools, and has choreographed ballet pieces for VBBA, Arts Enter Cape Charles, TRDance Center, and the VBT Ensemble.

100 Posts!

Words and Image by BA Ciccolella.

We are so excited to announce that after nearly 7 months, we have reached our 100th post on our website! Most of you know that Spotlight News – Hampton Roads was founded by members of the Theatre Reviewers section of the old AltDaily website. We became an official organization with the state of Virginia and purchased our URL on March 7, 2020, and our original business plan was to take it slow, and to use the reviews that we already had scheduled as our content while we reached out to local writers and slowly expanded to cover all other community content. I’m sure you all remember what happened on or about March 15, 2020 which caused us to have to throw that original business plan right out the window.

After taking a deep breath and reassessing the situation, we decided that though the universe was pushing us into the deep end before we had planned to be ready, we were going to swim. We had some long brainstorming sessions, started reaching out to community members and writers that we knew, and now Spotlight News has a private writer’s group of around 30 people on Facebook, including some of our amazing regular contributors, and also a private group of over 75 community supporters. We have elected officers, and are looking for 3 more board members this year. Apart from myself, we now have 5 other editors training to assist with website posts and social media. We are working on getting some regular columnists coordinated, and even on a possible comics section! Our business meetings are organized though our community supporters Facebook page, so if you are interested in helping, come join the group!

We have received our 501c3 status from the IRS, and we are working on the rest of the registrations needed before we can apply for grants and request donations. We hope to be able to keep expanding, and eventually pay people to edit the site, to write articles, and to manage our social media. We firmly believe that all of the skills that it takes to put together this website are valuable, and we want to work towards the financial stability where we can pay our artists, our writers, and our basic staff to keep the organization running smoothly, and continue to bring you Hampton Roads community news by our own community members.   

Regarding content, we have covered nearly 100 different community organizations, restaurants, subjects, and local persons of interest. We have covered art, bugs, dance, education, film, gaming, gardening, health, music, nature, restaurants, theatre, writers, and more! We want to thank every single organization that has worked with us and supported our efforts so far, every single person we have interviewed, every single person (or organization) who has supplied photographs, images, or videos, and every single person who has shared our Facebook posts – we would not be able to do what we do without you. 

We would be remiss not to thank (by name) Penny Neef, Louise Casini Hollis, Moriah Joy, Denise Bishop, Chris Bernhardt, Frank Connelly, and Aliki Marie Pantas Semones for really holding the company together these past seven months. From writing, to editing, to business work, to technical assistance, to social media coordination, Spotlight is a community news website that is currently run by a community of volunteers. 

If you are interested in becoming a member of our community, please contact us either by sending us a Facebook message, or emailing us here describing your interest! We are looking for board members, writers, editors, social media managers, or maybe you have an idea for something else we haven’t even thought of yet! If you don’t think you have the time for that kind of commitment, you can help us immensely by reacting to our posts and sharing our links on Facebook to help us grow our page and our community!

Again, thank you all for all of your support, and here’s to the next 100 posts!

Rainbow sequined background with two cartoon wine glasses that says to 100 more... cheers! with the spotlight logo in the top right corner.

Outdoor Cèilidh in the Time of Covid

Words by Penny Neef.
Image courtesy of the Virginia Arts Festival.

The Virginia Arts Festival continues the quest for safe, live performances this fall, while the weather is still cooperative in Hampton Roads. There is a charming Courtyard directly behind the VAF’s Clay and Jay Barr Education Center on Bank Street in downtown Norfolk.

On Saturday, October 10, the VAF and the Virginia International Tattoo will present Courtyard Cèilidh on the outdoor stage in the Courtyard. 

What is a Cèilidh, you might ask? How do you even say it? Cèilidh is pronounced Kay-Lee. It is a traditional Gaelic party that would include poetry, storytelling Celtic music and dancing. It translates from the Old Irish as “companion visit”. There are not a lot of parties and companion visits going on these days, but VAF is able to keep family groups apart, sanitize, limit the number of tickets sold, and provide lots of fresh air to keep it as safe as possible.

Performers will include Rhodes Academy of Irish Dance, US National champion Scottish fiddlers Seán Heely and Colin McGlynn, and Tidewater Pipes and Drums.

Chris Pearcy, the Pipe Major of Tidewater Pipes and Drums calls the Courtyard Cèilidh, a “mini Tattoo”. If you’ve never attended the Virginia International Tattoo in the spring as part of the Virginia Arts Festival, you have missed something spectacular. A Tattoo is a large gathering of military bands. The Virginia International Tattoo brings bands from across the world to Scope Arena each year for the largest Tattoo in North America. 

Here are the Massed Pipes and Drums of the 2019 Tattoo

Pearcy will be bringing 10 bagpipers and 8 drummers to the small stage in the Courtyard. Ten pipers are still a big sound. 

Tidewater Pipes and Drums are one of the original bands of the Virginia International Tattoo. They perform at Scope each year. Pearcy says they love meeting and performing with other pipe bands from around the world. They were disappointed when Covid forced VAF to cancel the Tattoo this year, but the pandemic also made Pearcy’s group “realize how much they missed practicing together and playing together”.

In March, April and May, the band did one-on-one work with technique and expression through Zoom calls. Pearcy is also a professor at ODU, teaching mostly European history to freshmen. He worried at the beginning of the pandemic that the members of Tidewater Pipes and Drums would lose their skills.

By the time June rolled around, the band was “itching to get out there and do something together”. They began practicing outdoors and 6 feet apart. Pearcy was thrilled that “people did not forget how to play.” In fact, they were better than ever. “Covid has been a big rebuilding phase for our group,” Peacy says, “We sound like one great, big bagpipe.” That’s a good thing, if you’re a pipe and drum group.

October 10th will be the group’s first time performing together since St. Patrick’s Day, oh so long ago. Even though the Courtyard Cèilidh will be barely 1/100th of the size of the “big” Tattoo, it will still be great to hear the sounds of the bagpipes, Scottish fiddles and see the high stepping of Rhodes Academy of Irish Dance.

Re-Opening Norfolk – Norfolk City Manager’s Post-COVID Call to Action

Words by Denise Bishop.
Image courtesy of Downtown Norfolk Council.

If you’re anything like me, you don’t remember all of the specifics about when things occurred in Spring 2020. Starting in mid-March, I just have a vague, blurred sense that everything started getting cancelled, one by one, until every demographic felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic spread across the region: office workers, parents & teachers, concert-goers, sports fans. One minute I was working from home, and the next I was heading back to the office as Phase 1 began.

During that time, however- especially the last week of Phase Zero- one group was working around the clock to help reopen one of our cities: OpenNorfolk. As their website states, “OpenNorfolk is a boots-on-the-ground community assistance program through the City of Norfolk that is helping local businesses open safely under The Governor’s Phase 1-3 Guidelines.”

Working with their partners (the City of Norfolk, WPA Architects, Yard & Company, and Team Better Block) and the Downtown Norfolk Council, OpenNorfolk began with an incredible push to assist local restaurants reopen for seating (outdoor only, at the time). City streets and parking spaces were turned into patio seating; free parking was added on Boush Street downtown to offset the loss of metered parking on Granby and to encourage visitors to dine at Norfolk restaurants; and a blanket Letter of Permit was sent to Virginia ABC law enforcement so these new outdoor seating areas could be approved to serve alcohol. This was no small feat: the idea for OpenNorfolk was pitched and approved on May 11. Phase 1 began on May 15. 

Groups of volunteers built patios and parklets, set up bike racks and other partitions to mark outdoor dining areas, stenciled sidewalks (“Do your part keep 6 feet apart”, reads one) and distributed laminated signage to Norfolk restaurants. I should note that, while I heard about this initiative through the Downtown Norfolk Council (I’m a member of the Downtown100 and receive their newsletters), this was city-wide. Ocean View, Riverview, 35th Street, and Ghent were included in the initial push.

In late August, I attended a virtual forum through the Downtown100 with Mel Price from WPA Architects and Norfolk City Planner George Homewood. I was very excited to learn more about OpenNorfolk and the hard work it took to get up and running and how big the project has become. There are now 20,000 square feet of parklets throughout the city. The OpenNorfolk restaurant guide took 60 pages of government rules and turned it into just 3. And with the help of three hired interns from the community and almost $100,000 in volunteer services, three new Neighborhood Spots were envisioned and built in St. Paul’s (partnered with Teens with a Purpose), Five Points (including a Food Bank pantry and pop-up local vendors), and Broad Creek (including mobile haircuts, yoga, and virtual learning workshops with Norfolk Public Schools).

I really enjoyed hearing Price and Homewood talk about the use of rapid implementation in this process. Rather than spend months and years researching and doing market studies, they had to get it out there first and then see what worked. It gave them the opportunity to experiment, to see what could be made permanent. And it also allowed them to be more confident in their successes.

In early September, I attended the Downtown Norfolk Council’s first (virtual) monthly Member Briefing since the pandemic struck in March. The guest speaker was Norfolk’s new City Manager, Dr. Larry H. “Chip” Filer, II. By launching in the smart manner it did that sent a message of safety, Filer said, OpenNorfolk had a clear positive effect on restaurants and retail. The public response has been quite positive, residents and stakeholders are asking if parts of the initiative can become permanent. In addition, Norfolk’s hotel occupancy was strong, leading the 25 largest markets for 8 straight weeks. (More recently, Norfolk/Virginia Beach was the only one of the top 25 markets to exceed 60% occupancy for Labor Day weekend, according to For an urban area, our COVID-19 numbers have been low, and it helps that the city and downtown employers have made a commitment to telework options in order to keep people safe.

Later in the briefing, Filer shared his “Post-COVID-19 Call to Action” plan for Norfolk, a plan with four central points on which to focus once we are able to shift our focus away from COVID-19.

First, we need to create a family-friendly city. With telework on the rise, workers and their families can live anywhere and telework in New York or San Francisco. We want them to live here. In order to attract them, we will need to look into housing development and redevelopment (Is it all multifamily? Is it a mix? Is it single family but urban-feeling?). We will also need to increase walkability, bikeability, and yes even scooter-ability across the entire city, not only downtown. And finally, in order to attract families, we have to provide quality schools.

Second, he would like to create a culture of local business and land ownership across diverse industries. This would involve training and mentoring local business owners across a wide range of industries such as retail, food service, tech, and family/day care as well as training, mentoring, and funding for residents interested in land acquisition and development.

His third focus is to enhance Norfolk’s status as a university town. He referenced Campus 757, which is a talent development initiative of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council. Norfolk would need to further embrace its role in the “town and gown” university campus/partner city relationship it has with NSU, ODU, VWU, and TCC. This focus would also include an increase in offerings of arts, culture, and lifelong learning. “I don’t think we’re Boston,” Filer said, “but we can be great.”

Finally, he posits, Norfolk should focus on enhancing its status as an arts and culture hub. We should increase public-sponsored art across the city and invest in and enhance our arts facilities. We should work to attract an arts and culture workforce, the “creative class.”

Filer’s Post-COVID Call to Action is lofty and lengthy, it will not come to fruition without years of planning and hard work, but I’m glad he shared them with us. He seemed so passionate about how much potential Norfolk has to be successful on the other side of the pandemic. It was refreshing to join him dreaming far into the future instead of dreading tomorrow’s COVID numbers.

The next Downtown Norfolk Council (virtual) Member Briefing will be Wednesday, October 7 at 8:30am and will focus on returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Member Briefing is a benefit of Downtown Norfolk Council membership. However, in light of these novel times, the October Member Briefing will be open to non-members at no charge.” You can RSVP here to attend.

Do you have any great ideas to help Norfolk continue to open smoothly? As we transition into autumn, and subsequently winter, what do you want to see added, grown or stopped? Let them know here.

Are you under the age of 40 and live or work in Downtown Norfolk? You could be eligible to join the Downtown100! Visit their website for more information and scroll down for the Membership Application link.

Looking for a specific organization mentioned?
Downtown Norfolk Council:
City of Norfolk:
YARD & Company:
Team Better Block:
OpenNorfok’s photo gallery:

Norfolk Botanical Gardens Upcoming Events

Words by Penny Neef.
Images as credited. Feature image courtesy of
Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

The Norfolk Botanical Garden is my happy place. NBG never closed down in 2020. When the Covid pandemic reared its ugly head in Hampton Roads, NBG took an immediate right turn. They closed down their buildings. They went to online ticket sales with contactless entry. They cut back on hours, but never closed their gates.

The Garden is 175 acres of wide-open space. The flowers kept blooming. The turtles kept basking in the sun. The butterflies kept fluttering. I wrote all about it right here. NBG was my sanctuary the third week of March, when there was so much uncertainty and anxiety.

Well guess what? There is still so much uncertainty and anxiety, more than 6 months later. We’ve all adapted and adjusted, at least most of us. Virginia’s largest Botanical Garden has also adapted and adjusted. It is still my happy place. They’ve opened up the restrooms (thank you). The Marigold & Honey Café is open for limited hours. The Gift Shop is open with limited capacity. Ticket sales are still online. You can read the NBG “Commitment to Safety” here.

The botanical gardens, a statue in the middle of a brick walkway, bushes and plants surrounding it.
Photo courtesy of Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

Education is part of the mission of Norfolk Botanical Garden. NBG is offering a number of outdoor classes and other garden experiences, with social distance and safety considerations. There is Sunset Kayaking, outdoor yoga and Garden Walk and Talks, led by the horticultural staff.

There are also indoor classes for both children and adults. The complete calendar of classes and events, including flower arranging, worm composting, digital photography, and water colors are listed here.

It is a great advantage to be a NBG member. Classes and events are discounted for members and there are some members-only events. Information about NBG membership is here.

NBG also celebrates the arts. The Garden is hosting a series of three concerts for members only this fall. Artists from Virginia Opera will perform outdoors in the Garden’s Renaissance Court for an audience limited to 100 members. This is a beautiful area of the Garden that feels like it was transported from a castle in Europe.

The view from under a light up tree at the NBG Lights extravaganza, strings of small green and gold lights come up to a point about center of the image that glows bright white.
Photo courtesy of Penny Neef.

The Garden Staff are already wrapping the trees with over a million lightbulbs in preparation for the annual Garden of Lights extravaganza. This year it will be online ticket sales and drive-through only. Garden of Lights begins November 13 through January 2, nightly from 5:30 – 10:00. It’s an annual tradition in our family.

The wildly popular Lantern Asia will be back in April, 2021. If you’ve never seen this event? Display? Art installation? Not quite sure what you call it, because it’s all of that and more; it is not to be missed. If you have seen it in past years, it’s worth going again. Lantern Asia grows larger and more innovative every year.

The Asian Lanterns exhibit at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, a lit up whale swims over lit up mushrooms and fish
Photo courtesy of Penny Neef.

There is always something new and different to see at Norfolk Botanical Garden. Something is always blooming, even in the dead of winter. Things are always happening. It is a big wide open, beautiful space, full of fresh air. You can be far away from anyone and enjoy it all. It will soothe your soul, guaranteed.