NEWS- Inside story: Madame Hook reveals secrets of 2010

It's hard to believe how much can change in a single year. This year, the Hook's favorite holiday visitor, Madame Hook, was the personification of change. As readers may recall, at the end of 2008, our beloved soothsayer was hospitalized– the stress of the bottoming out economy having sapped her of everything save her indomitable will to live. 

Our fears that Madame Hook's health might still be poor this year, however, proved most unfounded. In fact, we dare say on her brief visit through our office she seemed to reflect a health and exuberance even we– decades her junior– don't enjoy.

"Yoo-hoo! Darlings!" we heard her cooing as she swished down the hall. It was the Madame Hook of old, the twinkle restored to her eye, her silver hair full and glorious, even her sateen robes shining as though new.  If we didn't believe in the power of magic, we'd have to think that the good Madame had dabbled in a nip and tuck (or two or three).

"In our darkest hours," she whispered conspiratorially, "we must remember that there is a light. And my dears, oh, my darling, darling dears, 2010 is that light!" 

"Light? Good news? Oh, Madame Hook," we cried, leaping from our seats to gather round her, hoping some of her optimism would rub off on our work-worn, downtrodden souls.

Admittedly, not all of her news was good. But even a glimmer of hope for good times ahead is enough to sustain, and believe us, if what she says is true, there are good times indeed ahead for many of us.

But before we share the Madame's predictions for the coming year with you, let's look back and see how she fared in 2009:

•"I see a man with flowing hair on bended knee, proposing," whispered Madame Hook, her eyes widening for a moment before she gasped slightly, asking, "but why are there five would-be brides? And why are four of them men?" Moments later, she understood the vision. "It's Halsey Minor," she exclaimed. "He's asking city council to 'marry him' in the completion of his Landmark Hotel." As the crystal ball clouded, Madame Hook clucked disapprovingly and shook her head. "Remember the Omni," she whispered. "Public-private ventures are dangerous affairs, and Mr. Minor will be heartbroken by the city's rejection." 

Well, internet millionaire Halsey Minor didn't ask City Council to marry him, a la the Omni, but the shadow of what should be the now-complete Landmark Hotel certainly looms large over the Downtown Mall, and Minor himself has experienced several heartbreaking professional "divorces"– from the project's former developer Lee Danielson, from at least two banks, and, as several lawsuits seem to allege, from  someone named Christie and someone named Sotheby. Still, Madam Hook somehow knew that Minor and his hotel would be big news in 2009, and she was right. Well done, Madame!

•"Plates, all of them empty!" gasped Madame Hook. "Where will we dine?" The empty plates, Madame revealed, represented local restaurants that would close in larger numbers than ever before in 2009. Much as we pleaded, she refused to name the establishments that would fold, just– she said– as she would never tell an individual of their imminent demise. "The anticipation and fear would rob the doomed of their hope," she said, adding cryptically, "Hope may be all we have now."

At first glance, the Madame was wrong. Only 16 restaurants closed in 2009 compared to the 19 that closed in 2008. But we have an admission of sorts to make. When Madame voiced this prediction last December, the Hook took her vision seriously. So seriously that for the first time ever, we deliberately undertook an effort to change the future, despite understanding the risk of rips in the space-time continuum. In July, a sleepy time for restaurants (and newspapers), the Hook sponsored the first ever Charlottesville Restaurant Week, featuring $25 prix fixe dinners at eight high-end area eateries. The event was such a screaming success that it'll become semi-annual, with the next planned Restaurant Week planned for January 25-31 and featuring 18 area establishments. Sorry Madame; bad news for your accuracy is good news for our local businesses!

•"Foreclosures will soar," said Madame Hook. "Builders, too, will be ravaged by the times," she predicted, guessing that at least two other major local construction companies would close their doors in the next year. But the news was not all dire. By the end of 2009, Madame Hook promised soothingly, first signs of economic repair would appear. 

Alas, Madame Hook was right. The Hook's foreclosure listings each week are packed with county and city homeowners on the brink of losing the roofs over their heads. Some builders did close down or simply reinvented themselves in sleeker molds– Jefferson Area Builders, for one– but thank goodness the Madame was also right about the third part of her prediction. There are signs of economic repair: an $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit coupled with how-low-can-you-go interest rates have boosted home sales, builders are building again, although perhaps more cautiously than in the spec-house crazed days of yore, and home prices– at least locally– seem to have stabilized about 15 percent below the peaks they hit in 2006 or so. It's not nearly the catastrophe that other American cities have suffered, although real estate analyst Jim Duncan says we may see a further loss in value of at least "a little bit." The bright side of the decline, says Duncan, is that people are staying in their homes longer and therefore building stronger neighborhood connections. "That," he says, "is really good for the community as a whole." Bravo! Way to look at the bright side, Jim, and good job, Madame Hook!

•"The Crozet Cougar," Madame Hook said, "will return." Would 2009 be the year the elusive feline was captured? Madame Hook looked perplexed. "I think not in a cage," she said, "but perhaps by a camera."

Hmmm. It's tough to see any way in which this prediction could be accurate. There were no reported sightings of the big cat in 2009 (at least of which the Hook is aware), so perhaps Madame Hook misunderstood her vision. If that pretty kitty shows up sometime soon, we'll know Madame simply saw further into the future than she initially thought.

Looks like Madame Hook batted .500 this year– better than last year's 40 percent accuracy– and impressive, we feel, considering she conjures her visions out of thin air (and the pages of our newspaper.)

And now on to this year's predictions.

*"I hear jackhammers and heavy equipment, "says Madame Hook, her eyes closed and her newly plump lips pursed. "There are cars, many cars, traveling north to south, south to north. But strangely, I'm hearing the word 'park,' even though all of these cars are moving." Ahhh, of course! If we had to bet, we'd guess Madame is seeing the Meadowcreek Parkway, and this vision signals that the city, after three decades of strife and inertia, will at last get started on its portion of the road through McIntire Park.

*"I see wine for $3.99," says Madame Hook, "There are organic and international foods of all sorts. The people of Charlottesville wouldn't trade..." She trails off, nodding and smiling knowingly. "Yes, I said trade," she repeats. "You, my lovelies, will have your Trader Joe's by the end of this year." 

*"Dam it, dam it, dam it!" Madame Hook shouts suddenly in a deeper voice than normal, her exclamation jarring our ears, since she has never before used colorful language in her predictions. But it's soon clear Madame Hook is not cursing– she's channeling Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority chief Tom Frederick, whose frustration reaches a boiling point, so to speak, over opposition to his 50-year water plan, which includes at its heart a dam that may cost double what he had predicted. "Just as cursing is frowned upon in public," Madame Hook says, her voice once again her own, "so shall this dam be." And like a mother redirecting her child to substitute a less offensive word, Madame Hook gently suggests another "d" word for Frederick to embrace in 2010: "Dredge."

*"Gaga. Gaga," says Madame to our confusion, and initially, concern. Has Madame suddenly regressed? we wonder. Or is someone prominent expecting an unplanned bundle of joy? But when she turns, and with a glazed expression asks if we, ahem, "want to take a ride on her disco stick," we understand immediately. Lady Gaga will appear at John Paul Jones!

Her predictions complete, Madame Hook gives one last round of hugs, then departs, leaving us with visions of the year yet to come dancing through our heads– and an envelope containing several other predictions she makes us promise not to read until Christmas morning. Nosey reporters that we are, we couldn't wait...

*The Schilling Show host Rob Schilling appears no less than four times on Fox News and sees his radio career take off nationally.

*UVA football fans ditch the "sea of orange" urged by ousted Coach Al Groh, opting to return to the coats, ties and sundresses of yesteryear. A winning season follows!

*Rivanna Solid Waste Authority launches a class action suit against recycler Peter van der Linde, urging the homeless to join them in the class claiming Van der Linde deprived them of their income by making recycling "too easy."

*A wealthy libertarian, angry at the exorbitant cost of this year's downtown rebricking, commissions Weird Al Yankovich to cover the Pink Floyd classic, titling it "Just another Brick in the Mall."