Hampton Roads has several cities that often don’t work together for better efficiency. And that’s only hurting the region.
That’s according to several attendees of the Hampton Roads Chamber Nashville inter-regional visit in late November.
Martin Joseph, CEO of 360IT Partners, said government departments, businesses and nonprofits in Nashville work together to accomplish mutual goals.
“Here in Hampton Roads, we are very divided as far as how our governments are ... Whatever decision Virginia Beach makes may not be the best for Norfolk,” he said. “But when it comes to common things like transportation and education and those important things, we all should be finding a lot more common ground.”
Joseph said projects such as light rail, which was voted down in Virginia Beach in 2016, should be used to increase connectivity between the area’s cities.
“That was a very important piece of us trying to establish a form of mass transit in Hampton Roads,” he said. “Again, it was just kind of disappointing that it didn’t come to fruition.”
William Harrell, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit, said he was also disappointed the light rail was rejected by voters. It would have helped handle future traffic congestion, he said.
“We are a region of 1.7 million projected to grow by 2040 (in population). You certainly want to be in a position where you want to expand transit and put the infrastructure in place before that growth …” he said. “Certainly, we were disappointed in Virginia Beach not deciding to extend light rail. After that decision, we decided to expand on the bus system.”
Virginia Beach Councilwoman Shannon Kane said increased entrepreneurial incentives and collaboration between small businesses and universities could also steer Hampton Roads into the direction of Nashville’s success.
“I was really excited to see the small business community and universities and how they all work together to groom and cultivate the next generation of business owners. I think they do a really good job of wrapping their arms around that and I would like to see us do more of that …” she said. “I think we have a long way to go but I think we’ve come a long way.”
Robert Crum, executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, said Nashville had really identified its strengths and worked on its branding as the world’s hub of country music.
And Hampton Roads has plenty of assets to choose from for regional branding, he said.
“You know, perhaps we don’t tell our story as effectively as they (Nashville) do... When I see Hampton Roads, I think we’re a competitive region …” he said. “There aren’t many places that have the assets that we do.”
“Now the chamber is in the position where it’s growing rapidly…” chamber president Bryan Stephens said. “And financially, we’re now in the position to do things like this again and hopefully have a larger impact on our economy here in Hampton Roads.”
The chamber chose to schedule the visit to Nashville because that region is the approximate size of Hampton Roads and has experienced “tremendous economic success,” Stephens said.
Cities that could be considered for future trips are Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Seattle, he said.
Norfolk Economic Development Director Chuck Rigney has gone on three previous chamber trips, including ones to Salt Lake City and Austin.
Rigney said he was pleased Nashville was chosen for the trip, since it is a “region on fire.”
“Some 50 years ago, when we were in Hampton Roads forming independent cities in reaction to concerns over one city or another annexing additional land, Nashville was combining and cooperating as the City of Nashville and Davidson County in ways that allowed them to start an effort on regional efforts…” he said. “I think we’re stronger as a region than any independent that one of us can be.”
Don Luzzatto, vice president for civic engagement at the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, said this region has immense potential but needs to work together to make the most of it.
“It might be too much to expect the legislature to allow the kind of government cooperation that has made so much possible in the Nashville region, but economic development efforts like Go Virginia and Reinvent Hampton Roads make it possible for us to work together to encourage good-paying jobs and economic development,” he said.
Stephens also believes the resounding message from the trip could be drawn back to collaboration.
“I think the one thing that rose above all other things was the spirit of collaboration. I mean, elected officials, the civil leaders, business leaders, nonprofits, education community – I mean, they all come together and collaborate for the greater good,” Stephens said. “And we heard that everywhere we went … They wanted to work together. They understood it.”
Stephens said Hampton Roads is in the “embryonic stages” of Nashville’s success.
“We’re finally starting to come together. So I think, quite frankly, that we’re at a strategic turning point in Hampton Roads,” he said. “And that strategic turning point is going to show results in a couple of years like Nashville is showing now.”