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Preparing for the next 400 years

Consultant’s recommendations offer a guide for city’s growth

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

After celebrating its 400th birthday last year, Hampton is now pondering what it wants to be when it grows up.

The possibilities are vast, given Hampton’s recent accolades. With a population of just about 137,500, the city on the southern tip of Virginia’s Peninsula has been rated as one of the “Best Places to Live” by Money magazine and has been recognized four times as one of the “100 Best Communities for Young People” by America’s Promise. The annual competition recognizes communities nationwide that make high school graduation and support services for youth a priority.

Hampton also has scored other major coups.  Last fall, former Army post Fort Monroe was designated a national park, and the opening of the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute — a $225 million research and treatment facility — is expected to treat more than 2,000 cancer patients annually. Meanwhile, Hampton’s experiment in new urbanization, the upscale Peninsula Town Center, continues to thrive, despite tough economic times.

Still, business and community leaders grapple with ushering the city into the future.  America’s oldest continually settled English-speaking community has not articulated a clear-cut economic vision. 

That can be remedied, however, starting with cooperation among political, business and community leaders, says Yaromir Steiner. He’s the CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based Steiner and Associates and the developer of Peninsula Town Center. The mixed-use project replaced the aging Coliseum Mall two years ago and helped rejuvenate the Coliseum Business District.

Buoyed by the center’s success, city leaders turned to Steiner for help in revitalizing downtown Hampton. The developer soon realized that downtown was only a piece of the puzzle. He believes the city needs to focus on the foundation of its economy, determining how people will earn a living and what will attract younger residents to Hampton. “A community has to base its actions on values,” Steiner adds. “What are this community’s values?”
The consensus, he found, lies in Hampton’s history, its diverse and active citizenry, burgeoning technological activities and pristine waterfront. Steiner asserts that, combined, those elements can set the city on a prosperous economic path.

Presenting his recommendations to City Council last fall, Steiner suggested that Hampton parlay its values into becoming a tourist destination, a marine and boating hub for the Atlantic seaboard and a center for technology and knowledge-based industries building upon its existing assets in scientific research, technology and health care. The developer suggested the council hire an economic development consultant to flesh out potential strategies and drum up public support. “There’s lots of work ahead,” he says. “The challenge is: What do we do with this?”

Peninsula Town Center
Steiner believes Hampton can meet that challenge and strengthen its reputation among potential investors. As proof, he points to the success of Peninsula Town Center. “Hampton was able to pull something together that is attractive for the region. It establishes Hampton as a place that gets things done.” (Related story)

Peninsula Town Center, though, owes much of its success to its location. “If you look at all of the Peninsula and try to pick a location that has access from all directions, clearly the Coliseum Business District is one of the best,” Steiner says. “You can get there from everywhere.”

The development reshaped the city, bringing commercial, retail and residential zones together onto one site. Along with more than 50 retailers and restaurants, the center boasts 114,000 square feet of office space and 158 fully leased apartments. “There was total cooperation between the private and public sectors,” Steiner recalls. “We agreed on what needed to happen in that location.”

Setting long-term plans for a city entering its fifth century is not something that council can simply dictate to the community, agrees Hampton Mayor Molly J. Ward. “In order for any visioning process to be successful, it’s going to have to have community buy in,” she says, adding that the diverse and integrated populace has been a driving force for much of Hampton’s history. “Having a mix of socioeconomic groups living all together and being part of neighborhood planning and the government process makes us stronger.”


New use of Fort Monroe
Hampton residents are adept at pulling together and working with government officials, skills that have frequently been put to the test during the city’s long history. After the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended shuttering Fort Monroe, citizens joined forces with state and local leaders to ensure the historic 177-year-old garrison would be preserved as a public facility. Their efforts paid off when President Barack Obama created the Fort Monroe National Monument last fall. The National Park Service will manage 325 acres of the 565-acre fort, while the Fort Monroe Authority will administer the rest of the site. (Related story)

Although Hampton residents played a large role in the national park designation, Ward also encourages participation from people outside the city in determining its future.  “Fort Monroe is bigger than the city of Hampton,” she says. “Its history reaches far beyond Hampton Roads.”

The authority recently selected a design team to create a master plan for the state’s acreage at Fort Monroe, following criteria that limit the amount, style and height of any development.  Glenn Oder, the authority’s executive director, says the plan will help it preserve Fort Monroe’s history while making the property economically viable. “Most important, we want this to be a very public process,” he says.

A state entity, the authority manages about 170 historic buildings within Fort Monroe, including 150 residences available for public leasing. “Fort Monroe is a very dynamic and historic property,” Oder notes. “Numerous and diverse citizen interaction with Fort Monroe speak for how viable the fort is for the future.”

The Virginia Science, Technology, Engineering and Applied Mathematics (STEAM) Steering Committee already has expressed interest in opening Virginia’s first public, residential mathematics and science high school at Fort Monroe in 2014. The school would use three of the site’s historic buildings for 1,000 students from across the state and for an incubator for professional development. The committee was drawn to Hampton because of the prevalence of high-tech industries in the area, such as the Jefferson Laboratory, NASA Langley Research Center and National Institute of Aerospace.

Oder is a veteran at dealing with public issues, having served in the Virginia House of Delegates for nine years before taking the reins of the authority in September. He has been impressed with the public’s devotion for the fort. “I have never been involved with anything that the public was so engaged in as Fort Monroe,” Oder adds. “I meet many people whose fathers or grandfathers served here or who were married here or attended music concerts here. The list goes on and on of all the connectivity people have to Fort Monroe.”

That’s why Oder is determined that the public have a say in the fort’s master plan, which is expected to be developed within the year. “We have no predetermined outcomes for the master plan,” he says, “It must be in harmony with the character of Fort Monroe and not do harm to its designation as a national historic landmark.” The authority also plans to work closely with the National Park Service to develop programs that will attract tourists.

Kirsten Talken-Spaulding, who became the first superintendent of Fort Monroe National Monument in November, has three years to plan programs that will tell the fort’s varied stories. She’s eager to get feedback on everything from the fort’s history with slavery to the myriad recreational opportunities available along its beach fronting the Chesapeake Bay. “There’s a very strong public component of folks that created the park,” she says. “That same level of enthusiasm has continued.”

Having grown up in Williamsburg and graduated from the College of William and Mary, Talken-Spaulding feels a special attachment to the Peninsula. She remembers visiting Fort Monroe as a child and appreciates its role in history. The first slaves arrived in America at Old Point Comfort, the site of Fort Monroe, in 1619, and the fort was a refuge for escaping slaves during the Civil War. “Slavery started here and crumbled here as well,” she notes. “Fort Monroe is uniquely able to have people ponder what it means to be part of the United States. It’s a great place to have these conversations.”


Proton therapy program
While the Fort Monroe National Monument is expected to draw more tourists to the area, visitors already are coming to Hampton as a result of the new Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute. William Harvey, the university’s president, led the drive for the facility, the nation’s eighth proton therapy center and the world’s largest, after hearing about the treatment from an HU alumnus. The facility has treated more than 150 patients since it opened in August and is expected to begin operating at full capacity this spring, with approximately 170 patients seen weekly.

Proton therapy targets tumors while sparing surrounding healthy tissue and offering the promise of fewer side effects. Patients receive therapy five days a week for five to 10 weeks depending on the tumor or region of the body being treated. “Proton centers are a changing paradigm for health care,” says Cynthia Keppel, the center’s scientific director. “It’s an expensive and precious resource.”

Drawing patients from throughout the world, the center already is having an impact on Hampton’s economy. Plans call for building an adjacent residence facility for out-of-town patients.  “It’s huge,” Keppel says of the center’s impact on Hampton. “It helps Hampton’s visibility and economic development. All of a sudden, we’re on the map as a health-care place in a way we weren’t before.”

That, says Steiner, will help cement Hampton’s identity. “It’s mutually supporting,” he adds. “If you create a desirable place to live and work and if your downtown is strong, it’s easier to attract businesses and knowledge-based industries. Essentially, that is the direct result of the assets the community possesses.” 

City of Hampton
Unemployment (November 2011): 8 percent
% of adults (25+) with bachelor’s degrees: 21.8 percent
Medium family income (2010): $68,208
Population (2010): 137, 436
Change since 2000: -6.1 percent


Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Virginia Economic Development Partnership


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