by J. CLAYTON BARBOUR
photography by TODD WRIGHT
Years of building up Virginia’s economy creates volumes of pressure, even for high-energy Rita McClenny. When this tourism czar wants a break, she narrows it all down – to herself, her clays, her shotgun, and a single moment.
It’s a process, when she shoots.
Rita McClenny approaches the stand, her shotgun in the broken position. She slides a pair of cartridges into the empty barrels and takes her stance. Her breathing is measured and steady. The field is silent.
The shot master gives her a “look,” firing off one of the sporting clays so she can mark its trajectory before her turn. She notes the height and arc, and then briefly visualizes the coaster-sized projectile exploding into a thousand orange pieces.
“Ready,” she says. “Pull.”
In that moment, McClenny’s Richmond office disappears. The work piling up, the meetings, the deadlines, are gone. All that’s left are the farmer’s daughter and her target.
“Being in that moment where nothing else can enter into your mind is very calming,” she says. “You’ve reserved something that’s only for you.”
Skeet shooting. Trap shooting. Sporting clays. Call it what you want, but the stationary sport is not the activity most would associate with Virginia’s tourism czar, a tall, slender woman almost universally described as “high energy.”
But then, maybe it is. As Martha Williams says of her youngest sister, “Once she sets her sights on something, it’s done.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell tapped McClenny in November 2012 to lead the state’s tourism department, a job that is part politician, part cheerleader and part field general. She trained for the position as head of Virginia’s film office for some 20 years.
Under her leadership, the state started offering tax breaks and became a major player in the industry. Funny then to think that McClenny’s original target took her in a completely different direction.
McClenny was one of five children (three girls and two boys) raised by Theodore and Portia McClenny on a farm in Ivor, a small community about 45 miles northwest of Norfolk.
“It was full-service,” she says of the 100-acre spread. “We raised cattle, sheep, pigs, horses. Crops too. It was a lot of work. I fed the cats and dogs and horses. I also pulled weeds, which I hated.”
McClenny excelled in school. She was a cheerleader and played tennis and basketball. After graduation, she earned an economics degree at Fisk University in Nashville. After spending several years working in Atlanta with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and Eastman Kodak, she returned to Virginia for a marketing job with the state’s office of economic development. She worked on a team that recruited Canadian companies.
“It was perfect for me,” she says. “I understood the concept of packaging the state and its workers. I knew what would appeal to businesses. And I loved what I was selling. It was my home.”
McClenny soon met and befriended Laura Oaksmith, the state’s film office director. Oaksmith, a recruiter in New York, often jokes that her first great steal was persuading McClenny to work for her. “It was clear to me from the beginning that Rita just had ‘It,’ ” she says. “She was politically savvy, intelligent and very passionate. She makes an impression on everyone.”
McClenny wanted to approach her new job the same way she did economic development. “I said, ‘Let’s go to L.A. and knock on doors. Let’s make it really aggressive. Come up with the sales list. Come up with the targets. Come up with the people who have a need for our product and get them to come here.”
When Oaksmith left the film office in 1991, McClenny was the obvious choice to replace her. She flourished in her new role, bringing a business mindset that helped her persuade state leaders to use financial incentives to lure film crews to Virginia.
And McClenny quickly developed a reputation for handling the prickly egos of Hollywood as well as she did those around the statehouse.
“They ask for the moon,” Oaksmith says of the film industry. “Rita was good at giving them what they wanted, but also holding them to their word.”
The Lifetime television network came to Virginia in 2009 to film Unanswered Prayers, a TV movie inspired by the lyrics of Garth Brooks’ popular country song. In return for the production’s receiving tax breaks, Brooks was supposed to attend a reception in his honor and film a tourism PSA with Gov. McDonnell. The country star backed out at the last minute.
“It got down to 1 or 2 in the morning on the day of the shoot and they were still saying Garth wasn’t coming,” McClenny says. “Finally, I said, ‘If he doesn’t come to Virginia, you guys are not getting the incentive.’ Sometimes you have to play hardball.”
She did so well in her job that when Alisa Bailey left the Virginia Tourism Corp., McDonnell asked McClenny to take over. It was a new and bigger job, but for McClenny it seemed a natural transition.
“I went two doors down the hall,” she says. “The goals are basically the same. This world of tourism is made up of people engaged in creating jobs and bringing economic prosperity to their communities.”
She is still trying to get people to come to Virginia, only now the goal is to attract families. Instead of flying to Los Angeles, she’s crisscrossing the state attending beer festivals and resort openings. And instead of catering to the needs of Spielberg and Reitman, she is courting the bigwigs at Condé Nast and Frommer’s.
It is a hectic schedule, so she likes activities that help her relax and refocus.
McClenny started skeet shooting in 2006. She was familiar with guns and thought it looked fun. Since then she has periodically gotten away to indulge in the sport.
“There is a ritual to it,” she says. “It’s ceremonial almost. Your stance. Your posture. Firing the shotgun. The flow of action. You can’t think about anything else. You have to concentrate on the target. It’s impossible to think of anything else in the moment you’re about to fire. And that’s what I love about it.”