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From the President: On the Right Track

The collective effort to answer the economic challenges of our region

By Rick Weddle

The Hampton Roads economy may have gotten off track, but some indicators suggest that we are beginning to find a path forward that will help recover the jobs we lost during the economic downturn from the most recent recession. 

In my previous blog, I mentioned the metaphor of a turning point and how it is usually applied to designate those points or decisive moments at which a very significant change occurs, e.g. a shift in direction or motion. If we were to compare Hampton Roads to an aircraft carrier in the process of changing course, one would have a mental picture of the crew: slowly, degree by degree, working together to change the course of a massive vessel.  One may visualize this being a painfully slow process, but have you ever watched an actual big ship turn?  On aircraft carriers, when they test their maximum turn speed, the ship leans so far into the turn that the crew must remove the airplanes from the deck as it heels port and starboard on the roaring sea.  A turn this significant kicks up a mountainous wake and an excitement in the crew. For Hampton Roads, like the carrier, the waters ahead are tumultuous; a course correction is required if we are to get on the right track and arrive on the global scene as a premier region.  No single person or organization can accomplish this task.  The sharp turn we must make requires an "all hands on deck" action. 

The military, port, leisure and tourism support over 50 percent of our economy.  Although I have only lived here since May of this year, one does not have to be here long to get a good handle on our economic concerns.  Apparently, our region's leaders have known and have informed us for years that something must be done to "diversify the Hampton Roads economy." Even so, diversification has yet to happen.  Nevertheless, something is different; today, it seems the message is carrying a stern tone of urgency.  This December, a “Hampton Roads Economic Call to Action” event brought together 13 speakers to outline a collaborative approach to attain more high-wage jobs for our region.  Lead by Jim Spore, Reinvent Hampton Roads President and CEO; topics were presented on six economic challenges we face, job creation, workforce development, industry clusters, regional export acceleration, new business attraction, entrepreneurial start-up job growth, infrastructure, economic partnerships in the Commonwealth and the role of millennials in Hampton Roads.  “…we’re going to share the information, get everybody on the same point and then hopefully launch into action,” said Spore.

While our region is familiar and grateful for the economic prosperity of our existing industries, changes are needed to produce high-wage jobs that will employ our veterans, attract families, stop brain drain and reverse our current negative trend of net-out migration. Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University, said, “it’s like baking a cake, you have to know what the ingredients are and these are a lot of those important ingredients, “ stressing how everyone needs to think about when the next recession will hit.  “That’s why this is critical,” he said.  

A longtime leader of the Hampton Roads community, “Dubby” Wynne, chairman of Reinvent Hampton Roads and GO Virginia, said, “Some of us have been working with this for several years and we cannot understand why people are not alarmed by this.  This is a start and every one of you needs to figure out what your role is in this.”  “We need to get on with this. We need to be purposeful with this. We’re desperate!  I hate to get emotional with this, but if you want your grandkids to stay in this community, we need to do something about this.  We think there are clear solutions; we just need to do it.” A rising tide of earnestness is lifting all of us to act. Hundreds of our region's community stakeholders answered the call by attending this multipart presentation outlining how we might advance the region’s economic performance.

There is no question that there is a drive for change, and I see our leaders collectively leaning into our economic realities with a new resolve to overcome the challenges that have long withheld the progress this region deserves.  There is a convergence occurring that we all should turn our excitement to and if you are not yet ready to get excited, at least pay attention. 

A wake in the “roads” of Hampton Roads is coming!  It appears that a greater resolve for action is replacing the all-too-familiar call for another “study.”

While we may be long ways away from a single unifying purpose and framework, it could be that this “Call to Action, ” and convergence is sufficient to enable and empower independent but aligned action on the part of a number of groups… moreover, this might be the next best step.  Our local chambers, universities, leadership institutes, incubators and professional networking organizations are also contributing by actively aligning their efforts with this plan. 

From our perspective at the Alliance, this “coming together” enables us to have some certitude that we are on the right track. With that focus, we now must get busy and take decisive action.  As the humorist and social commentator, Will Roger once said, “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”

Although challenges remain, I think the citizens of Hampton Roads intuitively know that our region is naturally positioned to be a strong competitor for new business.  If you pay close attention, you will begin to see, hear and feel the rising pride and determination to advance Hampton Roads on the world stage as a premier business location. For years, we’ve had all the right ingredients. Now it seems we might actually have the right recipe for success.  

It's fitting that 2016 comes to a close with a regional clarion call for collaboration and action. How will we respond in the coming year?  Do we continue in our same comfortable course of discussion, analysis and, yes, more studies? Or, do we face our challenges head-on with real solutions and real actions that bring real progress, diversified growth and broad-based prosperity?  Hampton Roads shouldn’t fear to lean into this turning point at high speed. We are on the right track. Let’s not just sit here. Let’s act and act now.


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