Building on success
New leader focuses on growing Richmond region’s already-strong economy
In August, Lara Fritts became the new president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership, the public-private nonprofit organization that provides economic development marketing to the city Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico.
A Green Bay, Wisconsin, native and Packers fan, the 48-year-old Fritts is the third person — and first woman — to lead the organization in its 25-year history. She comes to Richmond with more than two decades of experience in economic development.
In her most recent job, she was the first director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development, where she recruited Amazon, UPS and other companies — without offering tax incentives. These businesses created nearly 10,000 direct and indirect jobs and made almost $1 billion in capital investments in three years.
Previously Fritts managed several organizations in the Washington, D.C., region, including the Southeast Fairfax Development Corp. and the D.C. Tech Council, and was director of business development for Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP, an accounting and consulting firm in Tysons.
Fritts lives in Chester with her husband, retired CIA agent Mike Fritts. She is a certified economic developer through the International Economic Development Council. Fritts also holds a master’s degree in urban studies from the University of Wisconsin.
“We feel so very fortunate to have Lara Fritts join us,” says Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors Chair Leslie A.T. Haley, who also chairs the Greater Richmond Partnership’s board of directors. “She brings an extensive background of leading organizations in attracting and developing economic development opportunities, most recently in Salt Lake City and previously in the eastern U.S. Lara has already engaged all of our local economic development directors and investor community with new strategic ideas and thoughts on how we can collaboratively work to attract folks to the Central Virginia area.”
Virginia Business spoke with Fritts a couple of weeks after she started at GRPVA, discussing her initial impressions of Richmond, lessons from Salt Lake City and the role the partnership can play in enhancing the Richmond region’s strong and diversified regional economy.
Virginia Business: What brings you to Richmond?
Fritts: There are several things that made me very interested in this opportunity in Richmond. The first is, this area is growing, and it’s growing with the young millennial population, which from an economic development standpoint is such a great opportunity for workforce — and today, companies are focused on workforce.
The second is, this is an area that has incredible connectivity, from the broadband that we have running through the city to the amazing modes of transportation that we have, from highways to a marine port to an airport. We have all the tools for successful economic development.
VB: What are your goals as you start this position? What areas are you really focusing on learning more about?
Fritts: First is to understand the organization. The Greater Richmond Partnership has an incredible reputation in economic development circles. Learning more about the organization, our staff and really putting together a strategic plan for the region that allows us to be very laser-focused in the activities we take on as the partnership.
The second thing is to focus on business development. Our partners are looking to us to be their national and international sales team. How should we do that better? How can we add more to what is a really robust existing pipeline?
VB: This year, Virginia was once again named the top state for business by CNBC, and the Richmond region has a low unemployment rate and diversified economy. What is your role when things are going well?
Fritts: We’ve been very fortunate that as an economy nationally, we’ve been riding a really good tide. While things are good, you want to be making sure that [you’re] shoring up for when things aren’t so good. I think that that’s one of the reasons why it’s very important for me to have that strategic plan so that we’re remaining very focused on how we can increase the economic health of the greater Richmond region.
VB: You’re leading a regional partnership, so it’s not only the city, but you also have suburbs and rural areas and a lot of different people and employers, people with different needs and desires and goals. How do you balance that?
Fritts: One of many of the amazing things about the greater Richmond region is that we have a very diverse economy — everything from incredible office buildings downtown to … the rural parts of our economy, and also diversity of our economy, which means that we’re also targeting industry sectors that really need that diversity.
Information technology really can be done anywhere. You’re probably not going to have a manufacturing plant in the central business district, but financial services would be downtown. Having this regional approach to economic development really allows us to be a very diverse economy.
VB: With a diverse economy, you have a lot of different players, from the state government and Virginia Commonwealth University, to the counties and city governments in the partnership. How do you work with all of these stakeholders?
Fritts: That’s why I love the word “partnership” in our title, because it really is a partnership, from our local economic development partners at the city and the counties of Hanover, Henrico and Chesterfield to our educational institutions. All of these entities play such a critical role in the work that we do, from companies that need a workforce to companies that need advocates on certain issues.
That’s where we bring in Chamber [RVA]. Every single partner of our organization has a very important role in the economic sustainability of our community.
VB: Regional cooperation has had a spotty history in Richmond, whether it’s concerning funding for a new baseball stadium or public transportation. How do you plan to encourage everybody to do their part?
Fritts: I am so fortunate to walk into an organization that has very strong cooperation from our regional partners. I think that the way that we can maintain that is to talk about the strategic plan [with an] understanding of the region and staying very steadfast to that plan. Also, allow for a sense of credibility, and everyone has buy-in to the plan. That helps everyone know what their role is in helping to achieve those goals.
VB: During your time in Salt Lake City, what do you consider your greatest achievement?
Fritts: My greatest achievement in Salt Lake City was the creation of the Department of Economic Development. Prior to my hire with the city, there was not a Department of Economic Development. To be able to bring together three divisions, build a plan and then implement that plan for economic success was truly incredible.
VB: Were there any lessons that you learned that you plan to use here?
Fritts: Absolutely. I think the biggest lesson I learned in Salt Lake City is that it really does take a partnership. One thing about Utah is they really do view economic development as a team force. If you go to Twitter and look up #TeamUtah, you will see that every single partner believes they are part of Team Utah, from the educational system to the government to the economic development agencies. I want to bring that same mentality here to the greater Richmond region.
VB: Do you have any thoughts on the Navy Hill/Richmond Coliseum project? Obviously, that is big news here in Richmond. What is your take?
Fritts: That is an incredible question, and since [this is] Day 13 on the job, I have not been fully briefed on the Navy Hill project. So, I probably am not ready to provide great expertise or knowledge about that.
VB: How about we talk about Salt Lake City’s downtown development? Was it all one big plan, like the Navy Hill proposal, or were a lot of different businesses coming in for different reasons?
Fritts: It really was organic. It started in 2002 with the [Winter] Olympics in Salt Lake City. With that came the mass transit called TRAX, our light rail system. Having the Olympics come in really did make the community start to think, “What are the amenities that are needed?” So, we built a mall, we built a railway station. We started to do some of the infrastructure improvements to allow the growth.
Over the years, [Salt Lake City] became known as the financial services headquarters, and … the financial services cluster needed cultural amenities. One of the really exciting things that happened in Salt Lake City was the building of a regional performing arts venue, [a] 2,500-seat, Broadway-level performing arts theater.
When the economy started a downturn, there was a very philanthropic religious institution [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] that helped to build a new mall downtown. It’s an indoor/outdoor mall, and that investment really helped to sustain the health of the downtown during the economic downturn of 2008.
VB: In Salt Lake City, there was controversy over the state of Utah’s proposed Inland Port project on land owned by the city. You were appointed to a nonelected board governing the Inland Port, a project the mayor opposed, and you wrote a widely publicized letter calling out the panel’s lack of transparency. How do you maintain transparency when it’s not always in the interest of companies?
Fritts: There is a very fine balance maintaining the confidentiality of companies as you’re going through a recruitment process, and some people are [unsure] why it’s important to keep the company’s name confidential. It’s because, if we are working with them, we don’t want other cities calling them to say, “Would you look at our community?” Keeping our confidentiality is very important.
In some cases, if they’re relocating, they [may not have] told their employees yet, so we don’t want to upset their employees. We don’t want to upset their shareholders or stakeholders or have other communities trying to poke around. Confidentiality becomes really important. However, I think that any time there is a public investment being made — like the Inland Port — there should be greater transparency on the activities that are taking place.
The approach in Richmond and Salt Lake City is that we would keep it confidential until a point where we’re going to start talking about money. When we start talking about money, then it becomes a public document. Usually, by that point, the company is ready to make an announcement.
The Inland Port was probably my greatest professional challenge. I would hope that people would say that I navigated that challenge professionally, and while we are still having lots of conversations over who would be in control of the Inland Port, I know that I did my best to serve Salt Lake City.
VB: While in Salt Lake City, you also brought in Amazon and Stadler Rail, and UPS and Post Consumer Brands expanded their operations. How do you work with big corporations and still make it a favorable deal for the locality? That sometimes is a hard thing to balance.
Fritts: It is. Salt Lake City took a very hard line on incentives. Our approach was [that] we did not offer [economic] incentives.
VB: So, how did you persuade companies to locate or expand there?
Fritts: For companies today, while the economy is so strong, time is money. The more that we could showcase how quickly we could get them into their building and operating that building, that was more valuable than any cash incentive we could provide. We showed them on a spreadsheet exactly what it was going to take to get through our permitting process. That helped us win deals time after time.
At the Greater Richmond Partnership, my job is to share that information with the client, and then the locality will have the opportunity to capture the deal — especially if they have a really fast permitting system.
Again, going back to the diverse economy, we really do have the ability to bring in to this region incredible companies from five different industry sectors: IT, [corporate] headquarters, life sciences, logistics and distribution. We can continue to grow.
VB: What about different industries? I know that you’ve done some work in aerospace in Utah. We’ve got NASA Langley in Eastern Virginia, but is there anything in that sector that you think that could be appropriate for the Richmond region?
Fritts: I think that when we look at industry clusters, we really try to find concentrations of companies. Right now, we’re very fortunate to have these federal agencies [at Langley], but it is not supporting other companies around it.
For example, thanks to universities and the research testing conducted here, we are seeing a growth of the bioscience and life sciences culture cluster. From my perspective, if we’re starting to see a cluster being developed, let’s put our eggs in the basket that’s going to bring you opportunities.
VB: Earlier in your career, you worked in Fairfax County, Annapolis and Rockville, Maryland, in economic development. They’re not far apart from each other, but they’re very different.
Fritts: They really are. Each one had a different set of priorities. Working in the city of Rockville, their important goals were to have new office space built and a complete rebuild of the downtown, and in Annapolis, how do we build the small spaces that are available throughout the city? Specifically, how do we focus on having storefronts to fill those areas?
VB: Is there anything about Richmond that you found surprising or informed you about this area?
Fritts: I think it’s about arts and culture. I’ve been just blown away by the magnitude of cultural opportunities here, from your theaters to the museums, the beautiful galleries you have. I’m really excited to delve more and explore more. The other thing that I appreciated about Richmond is the diversity combining to make this a vibrant community.
VB: There’s so much history here, and it plays out in interesting ways sometimes. Is that something you’re learning more about?
Fritts: I think it’s really important to understand the history of a community. In fact, my master’s degree is in urban studies. I wanted to understand how communities became communities, how they developed, how did they evolve over the years, and what lessons can we take away so that we don’t make some of the same mistakes we’ve made in the past? How do we build economic opportunity for everyone?