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Overheard at lunch…

The Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, of which our company is a member, has tapped into a program called “Connect 4 Lunch.” You sign up and based on your general stated interests and profile, you get matched to three Chamber members you don’t know and the four of you meet at a restaurant for lunch.

It’s a great concept…power schmoozing and networking for an hour, and you don’t even have to worry about juggling the plate of food or spilling your drink. I went on a “Connect 4” yesterday. Among the things I heard from three other businesspeople in Richmond:

The economy remains troublesome. One guy said he thinks 2010 will be more difficult than 2009. Reason: Real estate projects in process last year will be completed and there’s nothing in the pipeline to replace those jobs.

As a result, architecture firms have been laying off their associates. There’s no work, in part because…

It’s harder to build. Government red tape, at both the federal and local levels, has gotten worse in the past year, according to my colleagues.

Government measures intended to “help” don’t.

Case in point: The new RESPA guidelines, designed to aid consumers, make it harder to complete real estate transactions. Our Peter Vieth apparently hit it on the head with his RESPA story in our Jan. 18 issue. Sources said in that piece that the new regs actually may slow down the recovery (I brought audio-visual aids and passed out copies of the paper in addition to my business card).

With layoffs, many businesses have been forced to do more with fewer people. One guy said he has a colleague who said he actually made more money in ’09 than previous years by cutting expenses, including personnel. But my companions worried that with cuts like those, important details will get missed, overworked employees will make mistakes and the level of customer service will suffer.

Despite some of this gloom and doom, there is reason for guarded optimism. The table was confident that the proverbial pendulum, which seems to have swung in one direction in the past year, would swing back toward the middle. We came back to that image about four times.

And businesses are being creative in their efforts to respond to the current reality. For example, some banks have thought up new products designed to get people into houses easier and still satisfy all the new requirements.

I cited the UVa Law Foundation survey of lawyers we wrote about last year and its basic conclusions: When a recovery comes (and it will), law practice will have changed. But no one knows what that looks like yet. Nods around the table to that one.

One last thing: No one at lunch liked the name “Flying Squirrels” for the new baseball team in Richmond. But the management group behind the new team gets points for its energy and its approach to building up a new operation.

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