Importing Orlando magic

New head of economic development group brings record of achievement in Florida

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“Hampton Roads has unrealized potential,” says
Rick Weddle. Photo courtesy Hampton Roads
Economic Development Alliance

He brought thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in investments and revenue to Orlando, Fla., and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Now Rick L. Weddle is gearing up to achieve similar results in Hampton Roads.

The new president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, Weddle is tasked with attracting new business and industry to set up shop in the 11 localities the organization represents. Despite hanging out the welcome mat, the region continues to be plagued by identity issues and its dependence on government spending as it works its way out of the lingering effects of the Great Recession. But with revitalization and new construction underway and new companies poised to move in, Weddle believes Hampton Roads can make a strong comeback. 

“Hampton Roads has unrealized potential,” he says, noting the region did not come out of the recession as strong as other areas in the U.S. “Hampton Roads hasn’t had the right momentum to grow at or faster than the national average. Part of my job will be to figure out how to get it positioned to do better.”

This will include finding a way to pull the region together into a more cohesive unit, a goal that has eluded business and community leaders for much of Hampton Roads’ 400-plus-year history. A region that includes 16 cities and counties —  including two localities in North Carolina — Hampton Roads is the 37th largest metropolitan area in the country. Power plays among the municipalities, however, often have stymied attempts to give the region a cohesive economic and cultural identity.

“We haven’t had a consistent vision for Hampton Roads, and sometimes that confuses site developers,” acknowledges John D. Padgett, who chairs the HREDA’s board of directors and led the national search for the new CEO. “Companies don’t even know what Hampton Roads stands for or where it’s located.”

That’s why the HREDA sought a transformational CEO with a robust economic strategy to unite its members. From all indications, the group has found that in Weddle, who describes himself as a game changer. “It’s premature for me to say I’ve got all the answers, but I know how to pull people together,” he says.

As CEO of the Orlando Economic Development Commission, he transformed the five-county region from a dependence on tourist dollars to a magnet for corporate headquarters. As president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation, the developer of Research Triangle Park, Weddle led the way in attracting more than $800 million in direct investments and the creation of more than 6,200 jobs.

Weddle wasn’t looking for a new job, but he was impressed by the commitment to regionalism shown by local leaders. “They have the desire to move beyond where they have been in the level of cooperation and make regionalism more effective,” he says.

Joe Bouchard, vice chair of Future of Hampton Roads, a volunteer group, believes Weddle has his work cut out for him. “Economic development efforts in Hampton Roads are weak and fragmented,” he says. “HREDA in the past has focused on attracting companies from outside the region, but their success has been disappointing.” 

The 120 member of Future of Hampton Roads represent all segments of the community, including businesses, nonprofits and the military. The group meets regularly to discuss approaches to economic development and ways to fuse best practices and lessons learned. ‘That’s one of our strengths,” adds Bouchard, who came to the region in 2000 as commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk. “No other organization in Hampton Roads can bring this diverse of a group to the table to explore an issue.”

Weddle, who took charge of the HREDA in April, is spending his first 120 days on the job meeting with groups like Future of Hampton Roads to learn more about the region and how all its pieces fit together.  “I really think the best days of Hampton Roads in the modern era are ahead,” he says. “There will be winners and losers in regional economic growth in the next few decades. We’re going to have to win more deals than lose them, but if opportunities are done correctly, they will generate really big deals.”

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