Dickens promoting unity for Hampton Roads

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 28, 2005

The lines dividing Suffolk from its neighbors are somewhat blurred for E. Dana Dickens III these days.

Dickens, who gave up his seat on the Suffolk City Council in January to become president and chief executive officer of the Hampton Roads Partnership, is now working to give the region’s 17 cities and counties a stronger foothold in the global economy.

The 85-member partnership brings together leaders from local government, business, military, and local college and universities to promote the benefits of regionalism in today’s marketplace.

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&uot;All Hampton Roads localities have assets but none of us have the assets to compete effectively with the Charlottes and Jacksonvilles,&uot; Dickens said, referring to the booming business regions in North Carolina and Florida respectively. &uot;We are much stronger when we join together than when we work independently.

&uot;Our job is to make Hampton Roads as strong as we can by promoting regional cooperation and economic development,&uot; said Dickens. &uot;We are more attractive to business prospects looking to move here…when we show them we can provide a good work force and a good quality of life.

&uot;By pooling assets when we’re trying to attract new businesses, the region attracts more capital investment and more jobs.&uot;

Regardless of where a new business locates, it is a boom for the entire region, Dickens said.

More than likely, the business draws employees from across Hampton Roads, he said. And when those workers go home with paychecks in hand, they share the wealth in their respective communities every time they pay rent, buy groceries or shop.

Over the next few months, Dickens will be touting regionalism’s benefits to each of the local governments that belong to the partnership.

&uot;It’s important to educate the public on the advantages of regional cooperation,&uot; Dickens said.

In fact, many localities already participate in regional activities at various levels, he said. Municipalities served by the Southeastern Public Service Authority, the Western Tidewater Water Authority and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District are already reaping the benefits of regionalism.

A recent partnership survey revealed that local governments already work cooperatively on about 600 items and projects, he said.

&uot;I was surprised, pleasantly surprised,&uot; Dickens said.

The authority also works to strengthen business clusters – groups of business that support specific industries in the region. For example, one of particular importance to Suffolk is the modeling and simulation cluster, Dickens said.

Working with businesses in the industry, the partnership helps identify needs and challenges to building the business cluster, Dickens said. The shortage of people with the high-tech skills needed for the modeling and simulation industry is primary obstacle to developing that cluster, he said.

After identifying the issue, the partnership began working with Old Dominion University’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center in north Suffolk to attract more students into the lucrative field.

After just three months on the job, Dickens believes he has found his professional niche.

&uot;I like it a lot,&uot; he said recently, relaxing behind his desk in downtown Norfolk’s World Trade Center. &uot;It’s a great spot for me. It fits me just right.

&uot;I enjoyed local politics but I like having the opportunity to impact what happens in the region.&uot;

And no doubt, Dickens – who even as a council member was a strong advocate for regionalism – is good at it, said Suffolk lawmakers.

&uot;From all accounts, Dana is doing an excellent job,&uot; said Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.

&uot;Regionalism is always very important …a healthy and vibrant region is good for everyone.&uot;

Suffolk Mayor Bobby L. Ralph agreed.

&uot;It’s certainly good to have Dana there promoting regionalism,&uot; he said. &uot;Regionalism is extremely important.

&uot;…Whenever new industries are being sought after or attracted to the area, they look at an entire region,&uot; he continued. &uot;No one locality has everything a business wants these days.

&uot;Suffolk can’t just sit back and rest on the laurels of the municipality. We have to be concerned about regionalism…because people are going beyond boundary lines to live and work.&uot;