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“regions around the country that are doing well have a common vision,” said paul fraim, norfolk mayor for 22 years. Hampton roads, he said, needs to move past the things that are keeping that shared perspective from blossoming.

One challenge facing the region is its number of jurisdictions. Hampton roads, depending on who does the counting, has as many as 16 different cities and counties – all of which have their own identity and priorities, none of which are a suburb of the others.

There are many examples of individual jurisdictions scuttling regional initiatives, snubs that often get outsized attention, fueling a perception that such ventures are perpetually doomed to failure.Regional cooperation

These misfires go back many years. In 1997, for instance, hampton roads failed in its bid to land a national hockey league franchise in norfolk, one of four attempts to lure major league athletics to the region.


To this day, virginia remains the most populous state without a major league sports team playing on its home turf.

Voters have repeatedly said no to initiatives aimed at easing traffic congestion, as in 2002, when they rejected a one-cent gas tax increase to help fund new transportation priorities. In 2016, virginia beach voters refused a light rail extension to the city.

In 2015, norfolk’s leaders felt slighted when the virginia beach city council rejected widening a road that would have eased access to norfolk premium outlets then under construction.Hampton roads it was just the latest in a spat that stretches back to a 1961 fight over water between norfolk and what was then princess anne county.

These cross-border difficulties arise from hampton roads’ inherent challenges, among which is the region’s physical geography. Waterways restrict movement to specific corridors and constrain growth.

But it’s in the technical aspects of local governance that officials sometimes find the biggest barriers to regional unity. Fraim said virginia’s tax structure, which keeps taxes relatively low at the state level and high at the local level, steers municipalities toward self-interest.

Fraim said that localities’ reliance on the real estate tax as a primary source of income encourages planners to “get the best use out of a property with the most development.Hampton roads that sets us up to compete.”

Virginia adheres to the dillon rule, a guiding principle that restricts local governments’ ability to act without permission from the state government. As a result, hampton roads historically has not had – because the region could not create on its own – an overarching government economic development authority with the legal means to coordinate projects at the regional level.

There are a number of regions in the country where partnerships exist, despite a large number of competing jurisdictions. Santa clara county, california, home to much of silicon valley, contains 15 different cities within its borders, and the county has jurisdiction to coordinate initiatives among all of them.Virginia beach

The lack of such regional authority diminishes the ability to attract large companies, according to mcnab. Executives often think in a regional context, and hampton roads is “a big economy, but decisions are being made at the local level.”

Being passed over for major corporate expansions hinders economic growth on its own, but there are second- and third-order effects of anemic regionalism, too. Duplicate services and redundant venues raise costs and dilute potential income of those that already exist. “you end up with a proliferation of underutilized structures,” said mcnab. “how many convention centers or concert venues does the region need?”

virginia beach

And data indicate that there may be a brain drain from hampton roads, as working-age individuals seek more and better job opportunities elsewhere (see “the brain drain” on page 22). A january census bureau estimate revealed that virginia beach slipped from second to third-most-populous jurisdiction in the commonwealth, while northern virginia continues its trend of explosive growth.

What’s so counterintuitive about all this is that residents of hampton roads act regionally, according to mcnab. It’s common for individuals to live in one city, work in another and enjoy recreation all over.

Amazon passed over virginia beach for its second headquarters, but if the city was able to land a large corporation, mcnab said, “evidence suggests that at least 50 percent of the employees would live outside virginia beach.”

regional cooperation

Jim spore, former virginia beach city manager, chairs region 5 of GO virginia, an economic development initiative dedicated to regional cooperation. Photo by rich-joseph facun | the virginian-pilot

Jim spore, who was city manager of virginia beach for 24 years, wants to change the prevailing notion that hampton roads’ cities and counties can’t work together.

After leaving the city manager position in 2015, spore stepped into a role as advocate for regional cooperation. The following year, he became president and CEO of reinvent hampton roads, a community leadership initiative that seeks to bring jobs to the region through economic diversification.Virginia beach

The organization coordinates regional initiatives to foster cooperation between private and public entities across city lines. These projects include formal analyses of job-creating ventures, grant applications and databases that compile information useful for growing industries and businesses.

Among the dozen projects reinvent hampton roads undertook last year, for instance, was an inventory of shovel-ready industrial sites in the region and a study on ways to close a workforce skills gap among the working-age population.

But it’s not just local leaders who have identified the need for regional cooperation. In 2016, state lawmakers created and funded GO virginia, which aims to create high-paying, private-sector jobs through ventures that demonstrate collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries and employment sectors.Regional cooperation nine regional councils apply to the virginia growth and opportunity board for funds to support specific initiatives.

The hampton roads cyber collaboration laboratory, created and hosted by ODU, will be a center focused on researching and developing emerging cyber technology. The laboratory will bring 54 jobs and will generate annual revenue of $3.79 million.

The virginia digital shipbuilding workforce program, also sponsored by ODU, will provide a venue for education in advanced manufacturing technologies in the region’s shipbuilding industries. Backers estimate such training will help fill 1,700 regional digital shipbuilding jobs and increase digital shipbuilding revenue by more than $6 million.Virginia beach

Such initiatives are receiving backing from the highest levels of state government. “no one region should be relying on just one industry,” said gov. Ralph northam. “we’ve always been very reliant on the military and government contracting and we always will be, but those resources aren’t what they used to be.”

Northam said that virginia’s changing economic landscape should be no barrier to progress because all the commonwealth’s regions have historical and inherent strengths to nurture. “I’ve always been supportive of GO virginia because it does look at the different regions.”

Fraim hopes that renewed attention to regionalism resulting from initiatives like GO virginia will prompt discussions among local leaders that allow all the jurisdictions in hampton roads to rally behind a common identity.Hampton roads

He said that community partners should identify three or four enterprises, such as the port of virginia, that hampton roads does better than anyplace else, and proclaim it proudly.

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