The Hampton Roads Chamber works to be an impactful advocate during times of crisis and times of calm. We work with legislators all year to make sure they know the needs of the business community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chamber has had a series of virtual conferences with the state, local, and federal lawmakers and policymakers. On Thursday, May 21, Bryan Stephens, Hampton Roads Chamber President, and CEO, welcomed four General Assembly Representatives to speak with about 100 members.
"The Hampton Roads Chamber is up and operational. Our focus has been on helping businesses deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to be able to operate in the environment we are in. We are in an environment of persistent threat. Businesses need to be open, to get supply chains back."
Senator Bill DeSteph, 8th district, whole-heartedly agrees with Stephens' push to open. "We have to get businesses and beaches open as soon as possible. We have to get the economy going again. We have to get people back to work, have to get schools back open, get childcare open. We have to get the state opened back up.”
Delegate Glenn Davis, 84th district, is also passionate about helping small business owners re-open and survive. “Not only do we help small businesses have a life after this and making sure we don't add to the problems of our small businesses. Many will barely make it out of this situation. They will need help to navigate this environment and future environments.”
Delegate Steve Heretick, 79th district, is hopeful a reconvene session this summer will help re-allocate funds. “It seems like the 2020 General Assembly session was three years ago. We finished the session in one of the most robust economies. Today there are massive holes in the budget, budgetary shortfalls. I don’t think any of us have the answers right now, but what we can do is put everything on the table we can to help businesses survive the challenges.”
Delegate Cliff Hayes, 77th district, believes Virginia is poised to pull out of this economic downturn by investing in the future of wind energy. “The offshore wind bill I carried will allow for 5200 megawatts of offshore wind off the coast of Virginia Beach and Duck, North Carolina, piping that energy into the Commonwealth and light up 1.3 million homes with offshore wind. We compete with other regions and states. It is important for us to show our commitment to helping this clean energy replace carbon fuels. “
Bryan Stephens stressed the Hampton Roads Chamber is supportive of wind energy. “I think the offshore wind has the potential to be the economic juggernaut of the decade for Hampton Roads. It will help diversify the economy, and is a natural fit for our region.”
Stephens asked each lawmaker whether Virginia can maintain the status as "CNBC’s number one state to do business” given the legislation on minimum wage and right to work that came out of this General Assembly session, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senator DeSteph spoke first. "There is no way we can keep number one unless we can roll back taxes and fees on businesses. We have already had call centers leave. Minimum wage increase means hotels won’t be able to sustain after what has happened with COVID. Family-owned hotels won't be able to survive. A lot of restaurants won't be able to open. We need to call the special session to take a strategic pause and push off any regulation that will impact businesses' ability to operate for a year or two. We have an opportunity to fix this.”
Delegate Hayes agrees re-allocation may be necessary because we are in a new economy. “Forecasting is like driving down the road 55 mph looking in the rearview mirror. Looking at where you’ve been to determine where you will go. But none of us has ever been here before. We will land softly as we ease our foot off the break of the economy here in Hampton Roads. We have to get to a place where we can ease off the brakes and not so something too quickly. Workers’ rights and the minimum wage is not a situation of either or—we can look out for our workers and be number one to do business.”
Delegate Davis believes the Commonwealth will likely be tenth on the list. "Number one status is gone, not because of COVID because of the session. Collective bargaining, minimum wage,
We have a big problem. COVID is nothing compared to what these small businesses are about to see. The special session, and next year, maybe we can get ahead. Elections have consequences, and these are many consequences for small business.”
The lawmakers discussed not having the answers yet to some of the new issues facing the Commonwealth. Participants had the opportunity to ask questions. Topics included the restoration of the 10 million dollars in economic development funds for site ready plots for Virginia to remain competitive; special assistance for children on the autistic spectrum who must now learn remotely from home; and clarification on the medical marijuana laws and decriminalization of recreational marijuana. The issue of connectivity for all is a top priority. Business liability is an issue participants asked the lawmakers to address to help protect owners. The number one concern for all is the future of our economy. What will happen during and after COVID? Delegate Hayes said “We will have to keep a close eye on consumer confidence. That will help us all. I believe in soft takeoffs and landings. It all takes a gradual process to get where we need to be looking out for the health of our citizens. We need to do so in a gradual way.”
Delegate Davis wrapped his comments with a word of advice for the business community. “My takeaway for small businesses is to please get more involved. We need to hear the voices. We need to have the conversation.”
Bryan Stephens closed out the forum by thanking the legislators for all they do for the business community and urging them to remain focused on economic development, workforce development, and infrastructure development. The Hampton Roads Chamber is unapologetically pro-business.