Acting regionally

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006

I heard Hampton Roads Partnership President and CEO Dana Dickens speak Friday morning to the North Suffolk Rotary Club.

HRP focuses on the region’s strategic issues for the purpose of enhancing our competitiveness in the global economy with resulting income and job growth for our citizens, according to its Web site. The Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, on the other hand, focuses on attracting employers to Hampton Roads.

Dickens, former mayor and Chuckatuck borough City Council representative, said the biggest obstacle facing the region is getting per capita wages back to where Hampton Roads is competitive with the likes of Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte and Jacksonville.

Apparently, around 1980, local wages equaled those of the aforementioned cities, but for some reason unbeknownst to Dickens, started lagging. In 1998, he said, wages were only about 85 percent of our competitors. Now they are around 90 percent but there remains a significant gap to close.

For a long time, the lag was offset somewhat by what were comparably lower costs of living. Not anymore.

Dickens talked at some length about the Norfolk Ford plant closing and how it will impact every city in Hampton Roads. I didn’t have a notebook and was trying to scrawl some notes on a napkin but have apparently misplaced it. I had the numbers Ford represents to all of us on it. If I could find it, you would be impressed. You’ll just have to trust me on that.

He said one of HRP’s top interests, aside from transportation, where economic development is concerned is on clusters of businesses. A perfect example is modeling and simulation. It is huge (Again, if I could find my notes, you’d know how big). While I’ve always thought of M&S as being in Suffolk, Dickens noted that Hampton has more M&S companies than any other Hampton Roads city, 20-some, I think.

HRP, however, makes most of its headlines in trying to foster a sense of regionalism among the 17 municipalities that make up Hampton Roads. They have declared 2006 the Year of Regional Citizenship, or some Chinese zodiac-sounding thing like that and held a ceremony recently at which the elected leaders of all the communities gathered to celebrate the effort.

While I suppose it’s true that we do all live, work and play across municipal boundaries, I’ve always been a little suspect of the “regionalism” thing. Just because any project that little Suffolk participates in with behemoths like Norfolk and Virginia Beach, it would seem Suffolk’s little interests could be overwhelmed, and justifiably so, by those of the region’s big economic engines. Things are going pretty well in Suffolk in now. Do we really need to cede any control?

But that’s a petty, small-minded way to look at things. Dickens argues persuasively that what helps one helps all, that if a company chooses to locate in, say, Portsmouth rather than Suffolk, while Portsmouth realizes tax revenues, Suffolk residents benefit from the jobs created and the same works in reverse.

As long as Suffolk can maintain its identity (and it can only do that maintaining as much control as possible over sprawl), then our leaders should continue to whole-heartedly support efforts to strengthen the region.