Benefits of regionalism touted at leadership meeting

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

The biggest impediment to regionalism in Virginia is the structure of local government, a Future of Hampton Roads official told a crowd in Suffolk Monday.

Speaking before a gathering of city officials and civic leaders at Obici Hospital, assembled by Suffolk Tomorrow, Jim Babcock gave a presentation on the findings of a series of forums on regionalism held last year by the Future of Hampton Roads and urged those in attendance to get behind the regionalism effort.

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Babcock, a FHR board member and former president of First Virginia Bank and the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, noted that while the region’s economy is strong, it could be so much healthier if the 16 municipalities that comprise Hampton Roads acted more regionally.

&uot;We have a wonderful economy here,&uot; Babcock said, &uot;but the fact is that when you compare the Hampton Roads Metropolitan Statistical Area to other regions, we don’t come off that well.&uot;

He specifically pointed to the Raleigh-Durham region which, he said, had the same per capita income two decades ago as Hampton Roads and over that span, the Hampton Roads economy has grown 2.7 times while the Raleigh-Durham economy grew 3 times.

&uot;That’s an $8.5 billion

difference in the economies,&uot; he said. That’s a lot of money available for incomes and charities…The fact is that when you look at our economic performance we could and should do better.&uot;

Babcock said the forums last year, which attracted leaders like former Gov. Gerald Baliles and University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, made three broad recommendations to facilitate regionalism:

nAnalyze the functions of government to determine what tasks or services should be performed by the state government and which by the local governments;

nAllocate the resources properly so that those functions can be performed more efficiently;

nAnd merging some of the municipalities.

He noted that there’s a tremendous degree of regional cooperation on some matters such as waste disposal and the airport authority, but there are many other opportunities on which coming together is proving difficult.

He said that FHR’s goal is for the region’s leaders to come together to begin discussing how Hampton Roads is organized regionally with

goals of: accelerating economic development; identifying additional regional cooperation opportunities to save tax money and making decisions faster; and to create a stronger political voice for the region, particularly in the General Assembly.

He said that a steering committee is being formed of organizations such as Suffolk Tomorrow to plot a course for achieving these goals. The group’s first meeting will be held Saturday and Suffolk Tomorrow’s Dr. George Barnett will be attending.

Babcock noted that another big stumbling block to greater regionalism is the lack of a sense of regional citizenship.

&uot;We’re very spread out so we all feel close attachments to our particular cities,&uot; he said. &uot;If we had some sort of entity where we elected leaders on the regional level it would attract a lot of public and media attention…We think this project will make a contribution to it. I’m hopeful that something practical will come out of this.&uot;

Babcock also commented on the most recent, highest-profile attempt at regional cooperation: the 2002 attempt to pass a transportation referendum, which was resoundingly defeated at the polls.

&uot;That’s the best example of regional cooperation we’ve ever had among the leadership,&uot; he said.

Local leaders were initially in general agreement on the plan and then spent about a year getting &uot;all the bumps in the road smoothed out.&uot; It was then turned over in September to a marketing firm, which attempted to persuade the public for almost two months to support it.

&uot;We made a mistake,&uot; he said. &uot;We should have taken another year to talk to the public. It was a complicated subject.&uot;

Babcock didn’t have to persuade Suffolk city officials to come over to his cause. Former Mayor E. Dana Dickens III was a vocal proponent of increased regionalism and Mayor Bobby Ralph, who succeeded Dickens in July, lauded the effort Monday.

&uot;Working together certainly makes sense to me,&uot; Ralph said. &uot;We need a more regional approach. We need to improve communications, not only between the cities, but between the cities and the companies that do business here.&uot;