Getting the Hampton Roads business community back to full strength following the hardship of the coronavirus pandemic will require a lot of planning, considerable effort, widespread cooperation and buy-in, and a little bit of luck.
Thankfully, leadership groups focused on economic development have tackled the first component through a detailed framework to guide recovery in these next critical months. That blueprint is practical, achievable and offers a promising foundation on which to build.
In March, the region’s business community presented the “757 Recovery & Resilience Action Framework” based on input from across the region. Not content to merely get economic activity back to pre-pandemic levels, however, the plan — which can be viewed at framework.hamptonroadsalliance.com —intends to address areas that needed attention long before COVID-19 pummeled the commonwealth.
Old Dominion University’s annual State of the Region reports have been helpful in regularly identifying these areas of concern for the region’s economic strength and competitiveness. They have highlighted Hampton Roads’ sluggish recovery from the Great Recession and the region’s struggle to create jobs, grow wages and develop new areas of economic potential.
While most of the nation returned to pre-recession numbers in five years, getting back to baseline took this region eight. Hampton Roads’ reliance on defense spending, tourism and the Port of Virginia — the three pillars of the economy — means it did not bounce back quickly and thus put the region at a competitive disadvantage.
Economic development officials have been consistent in arguing that the “three pillars” should remain central to the region’s future, but that Hampton Roads must create new opportunities and develop additional sectors for growth.
Resilience is one example that could check a lot of boxes for Hampton Roads. The region needs to invest in coastal management and stormwater systems to address flooding and protect communities. But ours aren’t the only communities faced with the challenges of a changing climate, meaning that businesses and strategies that work here could be successful elsewhere too.
The trouble is, even on an issue such as resilience, which would benefit from regional solutions, the communities of Hampton Roads have failed to cooperate and coordinate efforts to benefit all. Working together cannot be a choice. Rather, it’s imperative to success.
The recovery framework reflects that. Not only is the product of widespread collaboration — bringing together representatives from 200 businesses, advocacy and planning organizations and the region’s academic institutions — it aims to foster the type of partnerships that intends to make the region stronger and more connected.
It also focused on improving three key metrics — job growth, wage growth and gross domestic product — where Hampton Roads lags behind its peers. By creating more jobs — more high-paying jobs — and increasing output, the fortunes of the region, as a whole, will improve.
Importantly, the framework’s architects contend that progress there will make the region more impervious to economic downturns and faster to bounce back when they inevitably occur. By supporting existing business and creating a culture of entrepreneurism and growth, it will widen and strengthen the economic base.
Next comes the task of working with local government and other stakeholders to put the plan into action. While that must be done deliberately, it also must happen quickly. Businesses are struggling and tens of thousands are out of work. They cannot be asked to wait, not with their livelihoods in jeopardy.
None of this will be easy. And if some of these ideas sound familiar, that’s because many of themes have been trotted out repeatedly in recent years.
The difference here is that the business community is, at last, speaking with a united voice, consolidating the work of different groups under one umbrella. And the economic effects of the pandemic lend urgency to the need for action, since success now will give the region a leg up on its competitors as the economy gains steam.
Hampton Roads can, to borrow a phrase, build back better. This plan illuminates a path to do so and deserves strong regional support.