From the President: 10 Observations about Hampton Roads
What I Have Learned Since Landing in Hampton Roads
By Rick Weddle
I think I really do have a lot in common with the first settlers who landed in Hampton Roads. First of all, we both arrived in the area in April of the year and moved to our new home in mid-May. We both intended our arrival to be a long-term settlement. We were both curious as to how we’d be accepted by the indigenous people. And finally, we were both focused on learning how the assets of this new land could be leveraged to create new wealth. Of course, the settlers came on the authority of the King of England, and I’m just the new guy at the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance. I should also mention that our accounts took place about 400 years apart… but who’s counting?
With these commonalities in mind, this morning, I sat down and wrote out the principal lessons learned in my first 100 days or so in Hampton Roads. This isn’t meant to be an empirical study in economic geography or some master list of heretofore unknown revelations. It’s just a reflection of what I’ve seen and heard, firsthand, as I have met and talked with many of you. While the plural of anecdote is not necessarily data, I do think the 150 plus meetings I’ve had and 3,500 miles I’ve driven provides me with a pretty good executive summary of what this region is and what it has to offer.
It follows that the only reason I may now know more about this place than many of you do is that I have actually listened to what you’ve told me. I’ve tried to understand your advice and counsel and also appreciate your many deeply held opinions and sentiments. So while this is all fresh on my mind, while I’m still processing it to grasp it in full, let me tell you what I’ve learned so far.
I’ll wager that you can relate to at least some of my following observations.
- This is a cool place to live. I’m not kidding. It really is! The region is a mosaic of texture and experience. There’s charming historic and vibrant, walkable downtown cores. There are funky urban environments and entertainment districts that would be the envy of many larger places. There are comfortable suburbs everywhere with wonderful water access. There’s the beach and everything that coastal Virginia has to offer. There are more wide-open and rural settings nearby that offer a quieter lifestyle. Indeed, this place has something to offer to almost anyone, regardless of their preference or interest.
- Most of you don’t stay home to work. While we all have great attachment and pride in our local communities, a study by ODU found that almost two-thirds of the workers in Hampton Roads commute across city boundaries every day to work. More importantly, labor market interconnectivity is increasing at a fairly rapid clip. It’s becoming a big part of who we are — an increasingly mobile and highly fluid region. This also means our communities have a very high level of economic interdependence that we often fail to recognize. When one wins, we all win.
- We may have problems, but they’re neither unique nor impossible to overcome. This may come as a shock to some who may think all our problems are due to unique circumstances over which we have little or no control. Sorry, that’s not the case. Almost all of our challenges exist in other regions. They may, in part, explain our difficulties but they can’t be excuses. It’s time we recognize this and get to work solving the ones we can and mitigating or offsetting the ones we can’t control or impact.
- You get along with and work better with each other than you think. To hear some talk, you’d think we disagreed on everything all the time. This couldn’t be more wrong. Certainly, there are some points of disagreement, but the depth of agreement on things that really matter, from transportation to economic development, is strong and growing. We have to remember that working together is a continuous learning process, one that improves with practice. The Hampton Roads region I found upon arrival seems like it is working together like never before and that alone is starting to make a big difference.
- The water doesn’t separate us; it connects us. When you’re stuck in traffic approaching one of the tunnels, it’s easy to think these bodies of water separate and divide us. That’s the wrong perspective. The water connects us and ties us together. It is the reason we are here. It provides a huge part of our economic well-being. The Port of Virginia is an extraordinary asset alone. The full scope of the maritime industry combines to make this a unique and extraordinary place.
- The military or federal presence is a solid asset. There’s a lot of talk about how we’re too dependent upon the military, and that is what keeps us from moving forward. True, the size and scale of the military presence is a dominant element in our overall economic base. It’s also true that military downsizing and sequestration has been the cause of a good amount of our economic pain over the last decade. But that is a challenge more than a liability. We can’t count on decisions made in Washington DC about national security issues around the world to always be in our favor economically. We can count on this significant asset to continue to contribute to the local and regional economy for a long time to come. We can also rely on it to provide a fresh stream of technology, intellectual property, and talent into our marketplace. So we should treat this like any asset on our balance sheet. We should protect it, nurture it and work to grow it. We should also work every day to find new and exciting ways to take advantage of it and spin off new companies and products we can take to market.
- I’m not the only new person around. I’m not sure you’ve noticed it, but a good many of the key agencies and organizations are now being headed up by new or nearly new leaders. This means that fresh eyes and ears are guiding many key organizations. This can’t be all bad.
- The region is rich in human and material assets. There hasn’t been a single day that I haven’t learned about or seen another one of our assets and attributes. Assets like the beach and the port are obvious. Others like NASA Langley and Jefferson Laboratories are not so obvious or easily understood. Equally important is the depth and quality of our growing labor pool. Like many of our peer regions, we have some gaps that must be addressed. However, we also have a wide range of labor strengths from the continuous flow of skilled and trained military personnel, down to the deeply connected and rapidly growing cohort of millennials. Viewed from the outside, we clean up and show pretty well. Let’s not forget that.
- We haven’t been so good at selling ourselves to the rest of the world. This is an area where we have considerable room for improvement, both in terms of strategy and commitment. I hear a lot of comments about regional identity. I hear too much about what we should call it and not enough about what it is and what we are going to make it become. Regional identity and branding are about our value as a location for economic success and advancement. We’ll be better known when we accept that fact and get busy funding and executing a well-planned and evidenced program.
- We can do anything you want and are willing to work for. No seriously… we can literally do anything. As kids, we are always told this, but most of us dismiss it as parenting propaganda. However, when it comes to the future of Hampton Roads, I think it really may be true. This area holds almost unbelievable promise. It is ideally situated as a trade and commerce gateway to America. It possesses unique and special assets that make a superb foundation for further growth and development. It creates vast intellectual property every single day that is just waiting to be harvested and commercialized. If we summed it all up in one word, that one word would be opportunity. But opportunity must be seized. It doesn’t happen on its own. We have come together and set some very specific and measurable goals about what we want to accomplish — and get about the business of making it happen.
And there it is… everything I know…for now.