Regional cooperation boosts progress on projects in Hampton Roads

Regional cooperation boosts progress on major projects

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

Like squabbling siblings, Hampton Roads’ 10 cities and five counties once regularly competed with each other for their share of the region’s economic pie. However, with growth and maturity, they have realized that cooperation breeds both harmony and economic growth.

Stretching over 3,000 square miles in the heart of the mid-Atlantic states, Hampton Roads is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the southeastern United States. A recent study by the University of Wisconsin cited the region as the nation’s most diverse. Its 1.6 million residents live in suburban neighborhoods, small towns, downtown high-rise apartments, oceanfront condominiums and on bucolic farms. While each city and county has a unique character, the region is interdependent when it comes to economics, culture, education and recreation.

Government and business leaders know that if a company locates in Suffolk, chances are some of its employees will live in Isle of Wight County or Chesapeake, take in an Old Dominion University football game in Norfolk, shop at the new Peninsula Town Center in Hampton or soak up the sun along the Virginia Beach oceanfront. Setting aside self interests while promoting the region as a whole is not always easy, but Hampton Roads localities are seeing their efforts pay off in attracting new businesses and industries and developing alternative transportation sources.

Norfolk’s 7.4-mile light rail system, The Tide, is one of those transportation alternatives. Although plagued by cost overruns, The Tide, nonetheless, is on track to begin passenger service in May 2011. It will end at the Virginia Beach line, but area leaders agree that the rail system ultimately will benefit the rest of the region. Virginia Beach is looking into extending light rail to the east, while Chesapeake leaders plan to apply for federal funds to study bringing light rail to their city.

Teamwork among Hampton Roads cities also is responsible for a potential high-speed rail connection. Last fall, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization agreed to bring a high-speed passenger rail connection to South Hampton Roads, designating the Norfolk Southern-Route 460 corridor as the high-speed rail line from Richmond to the region. The state recently received $75 million in federal stimulus grants to help finance the route and plans to apply for additional federal money in this year’s budget cycle. “The region came together,” says Dana Dickens, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Partnership, a group that promotes regional cooperation.  “The region had to make a choice, or we’d get no support for high-speed rail. We all win.”

The Peninsula already has Amtrak service, he notes, and the Route 460 corridor is among the straightest stretches of track in the nation.

NewsTransportation is one of the region’s common themes. “We’re light years ahead of where we were with regard to regional cooperation,” says Darryl Gosnell. He’s president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, which formed in 2005 with the merger of the Southside and Peninsula economic development organizations.  The Alliance markets the region to national and global companies, emphasizing the individual assets of Hampton Roads’ 15 localities and the region’s collective strengths.

Gosnell, who moved from Tulsa, Okla., to Hampton Roads in 2008 to head the HREDA, also touts the region’s diverse lifestyles. Localities range in size from 8,880 residents in Franklin to more than 433,000 in Virginia Beach.  “One of the really attractive things to this area is the options you have with regard to lifestyle. You can live at the beach, in downtown Norfolk or on 10 acres in Isle of Wight County,” he says. 

Diversity also factors into the region’s educational system, which boasts eight colleges and universities, highly rated public schools and an array of private schools. School populations and the work force boast aninternational presence, thanks to the presence of the military. “We literally have people here from all over the world,” says Gosnell.

Access to a high-quality work force and good educational systems played a role in the decision of San Diego-based Cobham Composite Products to choose Hampton Roads for its first East Coast plant last year. The company, which makes aerospace quality composite products, evaluated 32 sites across the United States before settling on Suffolk.  “The best offer for us was here in Suffolk,” says Troy Crites, Cobham’s senior vice president. The company currently has a dozen employees at the plant but plans to add 207 jobs there by 2014.

Away from the workplace, Hampton Roads residents can enjoy cultural and recreational offerings. The Suffolk Cultural Arts Center and the Sandler Center for Performing Arts in Virginia Beach opened within the past decade, giving the region additional venues for concerts, ballets, plays and other arts programs.

However, the hottest ticket last fall was Old Dominion University football. The Monarchs fielded a team for the first time in more than 60 years, playing to sold-out home crowds and compiling a 9-2 record. “The biggest social event was tailgating for ODU football games,” Gosnell says. “College sports are really good for the spirit of a community.” 

On the academic side, Old Dominion has been a catalyst for the growth of the region’s modeling and simulation industry.  The university established the Virginia Modeling and Simulation Center in 1997 as a research and development support facility for government, military and private business. This fall, Old Dominion will implement a bachelor’s degree in modeling and simulation engineering in addition to graduate programs.  The university will be the only higher education institution in the country to offer complete degree programs in modeling and simulation from the undergraduate to the doctoral level.

Along with port maritime and logistics, aerospace and aviation, and corporate and regional headquarters, modeling and simulation ranks as one of Hampton Roads’ main targeted industries. Currently a $600 million-a-year industry, modeling and simulation is expected to be a nearly $1 billion enterprise for the region by 2015. It supports about 4,000 jobs throughout Hampton Roads, paying an average annual salary of $83,000. Modeling and simulation represents a partnership among academia, industries and government, says John Sokolowski, the interim executive director of VMASC. “It takes all three of those working in collaboration. That kind of support has really lifted the region’s notoriety and capabilities.”

VMASC is working with Eastern Virginia Medical School on various medical modeling and simulation projects, including a virtual operating room. “It’s provided much more flexible training capabilities for medical and health-care students,” Sokolowski notes. “It provides a rich learning environment that you don’t normally get in traditional medical schools.”

Medical care in Hampton Roads will enter a new era this summer with the opening of the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute. The $225 million facility is the only proton therapy cancer treatment center in Virginia and the largest free-standing proton therapy institute in the world. It will treat more than 2,000 patients each year, focusing on prostate cancer but also treating patients with breast, lung and pediatric cancers. The painless, noninvasive therapy targets cancerous tumors while sparing surrounding healthy tissue. The institute is expected to pump $50 million into the area’s economy.

Down the road in Newport News, Canon Virginia Inc. is also boosting the region’s economy with a new 700,000-square-foot production plant. The company has invested more than $640 million in expansion projects in Hampton Roads, which are expected to create about 1,000 jobs.

Thanks to the prevalence of military and government contracts, Hampton Roads’ economy has remained stable during the economic downturn, ranking in the top 20 performing regions in the country. “We’re one of the few metropolitan areas that has continued to grow during the recession,” notes Michael Barrett, CEO of Runnymede Corp. and chairman of the HREDA. Still, the region’s economy would take a major hit if the Navy moves one of its aircraft carriers to Mayport Naval Station in Florida.

Hampton Roads’ congressional delegation opposes the plan, which would be at least five years away. The move comes before Congress this spring and summer as lawmakers deliberate military budget requests, including $2 million to plan the move to Mayport. “If a carrier goes, we would lose about 10,000 people which would be three or four times the loss of jobs from the Ford Plant,” Barrett says.

Ford closed its 2.6-million-square-foot assembly plant in Norfolk in 2007, resulting in a loss of about 2,400 jobs. Earlier this year, Atlanta developer Jim Jacoby contracted to buy the facility and turn it into a mixed-use industrial project. Jacoby plans to create alternative-energy equipment such as solar panels and wind turbines. “He’s an innovative thinker and really gets energy production through the green process,” Barrett says. “We’re excited that a person of that standing would be interested in Hampton Roads.”

Jacoby says he hopes to close the deal this fall. “We love the whole idea about the port and the community,” he adds. “The political atmosphere is very positive, and the business community is very open and receptive.”

Other development projects in the region, however, fell victim to last year’s credit crunch. In Norfolk, the $180.5 million Granby Tower condominium project folded, while developers put the brakes on the $31 million office and retail Ghent Station project. Construction also was halted on the Spectrum at Willoughby Point, a $200 million condominium development.

In Portsmouth, Lincoln Property Co. is under contract to develop the former Holiday Inn site on the downtown waterfront, but development is on hold. “The city is prepared to be patient,” says Portsmouth Economic Development Director Patrick Small. “It’s probably the most valuable piece of property on the downtown waterfront, and Lincoln is an excellent developer.”

Portsmouth’s City Council made economic development its top priority over the next three to four years, and several projects are coming to fruition.  Tidewater Community College recently opened a new campus in the city’s mixed-use Victory Village community, which also will include single and multifamily homes, offices and shops.

Portsmouth and Norfolk, along with their Hampton Roads neighbors, would greatly benefit from a new Midtown Tunnel crossing the Elizabeth River. Construction would take three to four years and be financed by tolls. “The region is absolutely behind that,” Barrett says. However, he adds that the General Assembly must find funding to help pay for a new crossing. “We face a severe crisis in funding in Hampton Roads unless the governor and the legislature deal with that topic. It would be detrimental to Norfolk’s and Portsmouth’s economies if the tunnel is funded solely by tolls.”

While Barrett applauds the successes reaped by regionalism, he worries that Hampton Roads will not be able to compete for high-tech industries and corporate headquarters without nonstop air service to the West Coast. “International consultants tell us that is our most serious deficiency for national headquarters and modeling and simulation,” he contends. “To me that is the biggest deficiency, and it has to be corrected.”

Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport is making inroads with Frontier Airlines’ nonstop service to Denver. “That’s a step in the right direction,” Barrett adds.  “It’s a matter of working with airlines that provide it and subsidizing it until it becomes profitable. The cities could work together to stimulate the creation of that service.”

It all comes down to teamwork.  Dickens of the Hampton Roads Partnership says the region must continue to work together to meet the challenges faced by its growing cities and counties.  “We’re trying to align all of our assets under common goals and objectives,” he adds. “Business coming to Hampton Roads is good for all of us.” 

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