Hometown feel

Chesapeake retains a sense of community as it continues to grow

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

It was shaping up to be a classic David versus Goliath battle. Sentara Healthcare sought Chesapeake City Council’s permission to build a free-standing emergency medical center less than three miles from Chesapeake Regional Medical Center, which opposed its competitor’s plan.

Several hundred Chesapeake residents attended the council’s meeting last May to support Chesapeake Regional, which had just completed a $6.5 million emergency room expansion. Sentara, the region’s largest health-care provider, was eager to increase its presence in Chesapeake and compete with Hampton Roads’ last independent hospital.  In the end, though, Chesapeake Regional emerged victorious as the council unanimously denied Sentara’s proposed ER.

Community support, which brought the hospital to fruition 35 years ago by holding bake sales and lobbying for legislative backing, helped Chesapeake Regional stave off Sentara. “It’s largely through the support and meeting the needs of the community that we exist,” says Wynn Dixon, who became Chesapeake Regional’s third CEO last August. “We are here because of the community. We are fiercely independent, especially because the community likes for us to stay that way.” 

That sense of community is widespread throughout this young city, which marks its 50th birthday in January 2013. (Chesapeake was created in 1963 in the consolidation of South Norfolk and Norfolk County.) Although it sits in the middle of a region known for its transient population, Chesapeake has retained a hometown atmosphere.

The city had a population estimated at 222,500 in 2009 and is expected to grow to 230,500 by 2015. Poised to overtake Norfolk as the state’s second-largest city (after Virginia Beach), Chesapeake offers a wide range of living spaces, from farms to townhouses.  And, its residents’ persistence in monitoring everything from health care to education to new businesses has strengthened the city’s quality of life.

The FBI has ranked Chesapeake consistently as one of the five safest U.S. cities with a population more than 200,000, while CNN Money Magazine named Chesapeake to its 2010 list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live. Also, Parenting Magazine ranked Chesapeake 45th on its 2010 Best Cities for Families list, calling it “an outdoor lover’s paradise.” In addition to having the region’s last independent hospital, the city has a school system that guarantees the qualifications of its graduates and is home to Dollar Tree, one of the most successful retail companies in the country.

Dixon, who came to Chesapeake in 1994 from Nashville, Tenn., as the medical center’s vice president of operations, appreciates the city’s determination in taking on challenges. “There’s a tenacious feeling there that’s unlike any other city,” he adds. “Chesapeake has grown very fast, and it’s a very proud culture. It’s a family city.”

That family feeling extends to the school system, which includes approximately 38,700 students and nearly 6,000 staff. “We always brag about the fact that we’re a family,” says James Roberts, who became the city’s school superintendent in July. “Whether you’re a bus driver, a teaching assistant or someone who serves lunch in the cafeteria, we all feel as though we’re family, and our focus is educating the children.”

Roberts believes that Chesapeake schools account for much of the city’s growth. “One of the major reasons families and businesses move to Chesapeake is due to the high quality of our educational system,” he says. “Our business leaders don’t want just a solid educational system but a pool of highly qualified employees,” he says.

To ensure that, the school system has a unique program that offers a guarantee to employers hiring its graduates. Chesapeake Public Schools will retrain its graduates at no cost to their employers if, after being hired within five years of graduation, they are unable to perform their jobs because of reading, writing or arithmetic deficiencies. Roberts says only two businesses have used the program in the past 15 years, during which the school system has graduated more than 39,000 students.

Chesapeake’s diversity extends to the city’s myriad of industries, including manufacturing, distribution, trucking and warehousing, retail, national and regional headquarters, and agriculture. Many of those industries boast a strong international presence. “We have more international businesses in Chesapeake than any other city in Hampton Roads,” notes Chesapeake Economic Development Director Steven Wright. Seventy international companies representing 14 nations do business in Chesapeake. One of those firms, Usui International Corp., recently completed a $22 million expansion in Chesapeake by consolidating operations in Cavalier Industrial Park. The Japanese company employs 130 workers locally and plans to add 65 over three years.

The highest concentration of the region’s major employers is in Greenbrier, the largest business district in Hampton Roads, with more than 18 million square feet of commercial space. Dollar Tree Stores Inc., the nation’s leading operator of single-price-point dollar stores, expanded its corporate headquarters in Greenbrier in 2007 and employs more than 800 people in Chesapeake. The company, which broke into Fortune 500’s ranks in 2008, plans to remain in Chesapeake, says Dollar Tree President and CEO Bob Sasser. “It’s home. It’s a very appealing place to live and very affordable.” He adds that there’s room to expand Dollar Tree’s headquarters, and the city supports the company’s growth initiatives.

Other major Greenbrier employers include the U.S. Coast Guard Finance Center, HSBC North America, QVC Chesapeake Inc., LTD Management Co. and Reliance Staffing Services.

Greenbrier’s appeal made a difference when Chesapeake-based Monarch Bank was looking for a new headquarters. Bank officials checked out locations in Norfolk and Virginia Beach before deciding to remain in Chesapeake.  Formed in 1998, the bank moved into its 52,000-square-foot new corporate offices just off Interstate 64 in Greenbrier last fall. “Our roots are here,” says Monarch CEO Brad Schwartz. “This is just a great business climate, and the location here was just hard to beat.”

Greenbrier also boasts amenities such as the Chesapeake Conference Center, Chesapeake City Park and more than 2,300 hotel rooms. With about 55,000 workers, Greenbrier drives much of the city’s economic activity, but the district, begun in the mid-1980s, is starting to show its age. In 2005, the city formed the Greenbrier Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District to fund $150 million worth of improvement projects. In TIF districts, real estate tax revenues are placed in a special fund with the proceeds used for projects in that district. “By making a public investment, we can make it fresh and relevant,” says Wright. The city plans to use TIF funds for a $28 million renovation on Chesapeake City Park. Improvements would include a new skateboard park, a larger concert venue, tennis courts with spectator seating and a community activity center that would attract amateur athletic teams.

Nearby, the FBI plans to begin construction later this year on a $40 million, 125,000-square-foot office complex in Oakbrooke Business Park. A private developer will own the facility and lease it to the FBI. “That allows us to keep that property on the tax rolls and signifies a big change in the development of Oakbrooke,” Wright notes.

In addition to upgrading Greenbrier, the city is concentrating resources on South Norfolk. The original center of Chesapeake, the historic area bordering Norfolk has struggled with blight in recent years. Gateway at SoNo and Belharbour Station at SoNo, two of the largest redevelopment projects in the city’s history, feature high-density residential neighborhoods and waterfront industries, as well as a new city library. Although construction began during the height of the recession, city officials say Gateway at SoNo is progressing well. Condominiums marketed at prices ranging from $129,900 to $200,000 have generated waiting lists. “South Norfolk is undergoing a renaissance,” says Mike Nishnick, a Realtor with Rose and Womble Realty. “Each residential building is designed to look like Colonial homes instead of a standard condominium building. It actually feels like you’re in a historic town.”

Belharbour Station, however, is on hold pending better market conditions. Representing more than $200 million in private investments, the mixed-use riverfront project also includes $20 million to $30 million in city funds for public infrastructure such as improving railroad crossings, upgrading utilities and constructing a public parking garage and a bike/walk path. “It’s a larger, more ambitious project than Gateway at SoNo,” Wright adds. “But both of these projects have contributed to new interest in South Norfolk.”

While Belharbour Station awaits an improved economy, work proceeds on the privately owned South Norfolk Jordan Bridge. City Council approved FIGG Bridge Developers’ plans to build a new high-rise toll bridge in 2009.  Slated to open in 2012, the $100 million project will reinstate the connection between Chesapeake and Portsmouth, replacing the Jordan Bridge that was demolished last summer.

Although it projects a hometown appeal, Chesapeake is not a one-size-fits-all community. In fact, the city’s economic development team touts Chesapeake’s diversity as a major drawing card for both residents and businesses. “Chesapeake is one of the few communities where folks can truly live and do business,” Wright says. “We have a little something for everyone — rural, suburbia, historic,  urban.”

Wright believes that supporting current businesses has helped Chesapeake weather the recession. (In November, the city had an unemployment rate of 6.8 percent, about even with the state average, “Our strategy has been to focus on what we have and discover and nurture expansion projects. In a downturn, that’s where you have to ramp up your marketing dollars even more.”

For example, Electric Motor & Contracting Co. recently expanded its Cavalier Industrial Park facility. The $8.5 million, 52,000-square-foot expansion accommodates the 50-year-old company’s growing pump and motor division. Electric Motor & Contracting has been in Cavalier Industrial Park since 1983 and received a $175,000 grant from the city to support its growth. President Steve Newing acknowledges that financial incentives from the city have made it easier to get expansions done.

Along with buttressing that expansion, City Council also recently approved a $750,000 incentive grant for Simon Property Group to build a $12 million theater adjacent to Western Branch’s Chesapeake Square shopping mall. Slated to open in 2012, the high-tech cinema would replace the aging Cinemark Theatre.

Wright is optimistic that the new theater will help re-establish the Western Branch section of Chesapeake as western Tidewater’s retail hub. “We have over 2 million square feet of retail space in Western Branch, but a lot of retailers have gone to Harbour View in Northern Suffolk,” he notes. “We want retailers to come back to Western Branch. This new cinema really signifies that Harbour View is not the dominant retail in western Tidewater.”

However, Western Branch is flexing its retail muscles when it comes to automotive sales. First Team Automotive recently invested $18.5 million to convert the former Lowe’s home improvement store into one of the largest Toyota showrooms in Virginia and the largest Scion showroom in the country. The 85,000-square-foot building also serves as First Team’s corporate headquarters. On the industrial side, Western Branch is a contender for Chesapeake’s newest commerce park. “As things continue to improve in the economy, we want to have that next site ready to go once Oakbrooke fills up,” Wright says. “We’re hoping to bring 100 acres online relatively quickly.”

As economic conditions improve, Wright is confident that acreage will be snatched up quickly either by hometown businesses or those from faraway lands. “We’re going to identify new economic development opportunities, and we need to make sure we have some product ready to go.”

And officials will continue to tout the city’s hometown appeal. “The lifestyle is very good here,” Dollar Tree’s Sasser says. “As we recruit all over the world, one of the things that people like about us is where we’re located.”

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