Little by little, Hampton Roads has started to realize the need for an influx of new industry into our region to diversify and grow our economy.
This year brings a new presidential administration with a new business agenda and we are hopeful for the elimination of the Federal Sequestration Act and encouraged defense budget cuts will cease. However, we know from the myriad of “call to action” meetings and reports we can no longer afford to sit idly by. We need to find a way to attract more industry into America’s First Region.
We are blessed with tremendous natural resources and have an extremely favorable business environment. So what else do we need to attract major companies?
One answer may be in the development of readily available space for those companies. Companies want to headquarter in a beautiful location, with high quality of life and a readily available talent pool. We have all that in abundance. But big industry also wants space for manufacturing and/or logistical operations. They want shovel-ready sites to further incentivize them to relocate here.
A shovel-ready mega-site is an area of land developed with roads, utilities, etc. for the future construction of a cluster of businesses, typically built in rural communities and including improvements to local infrastructure.
One of the largest research parks in the world, Research Triangle Park in Raleigh-Durham, is a mega-site that employees 50,000 workers and continues to bring economic development to that area. If Hampton Roads wants to lure manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, and port-related use-industries, we have to have something of value to offer – shovel-ready sites.
Several areas in Hampton Roads have been identified as possible mega-sites. These areas have thousands of acres which, if developed, would offer straight shots to the ports, airports and our improving interstate system, thus facilitating logistics and supply chain operations. Further feasibility studies are required, but unquestionably the development of these strategically located sites would help turn underutilized land into centers of economic prosperity for our region for generations to come.
So, what’s the problem? Why aren’t we moving forward?
One of the challenges lies in the process of bringing the proper utilities to the property so it can become a viable and active mega-economic development site. Companies willing to spend millions to build large complexes in the Hampton Roads area don’t want to incur more cost than necessary to make the area ready for development.
Bringing these utilities to the property will be expensive, but it’s a necessary step in the right direction. The proposed building of a lateral gas line through Hampton Roads would greatly benefit this cause.
As recently as 2013, natural gas service to industrial customers was curtailed so personal homes would not suffer a loss. This isn’t a strong argument for the Hampton Roads region. If we’re not able to assure new businesses they have reliable, affordable access to natural gas and other utilities, they’ll look elsewhere for their future investments.
As we work to develop new paths to growing our Hampton Roads economy, we will need to be prepared to incur some costs. These proposed mega-sites need to be formally designated as future development opportunities in local and state plans to allow service providers to begin the process of cost studies and analysis.
Additionally, we need to support the building of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as a necessity for the long-term economic development of Hampton Roads.
As we look to our Carolina neighbors and their Research Triangle Park, we can see a vision of what Hampton Roads could be in the future; if we take advantage of the opportunities we have now. We need to invest in ourselves, in our infrastructure, and in our region now in ways that will allow for a “mega” return on our investment in the future.
Bryan K. Stephens is the president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber.