Suffolk: A diamond in the rough

Published 1:52 pm Monday, March 1, 2010

Suffolk might not see its own Chrysler Building or Golden Gate Bridge in the near future, but city leaders see big things in the city’s future: advanced education, business headquarters and a revived downtown.

Indicative of the growth possible for the city, a city of 35,000 sprang up within Suffolk’s borders in the span of 20 years. But Harbour View may just be the tip of the iceberg. City leaders and visionaries say the potential for the city to grow and improve during the next 10, 25 and 50 years is nearly unlimited.

“Suffolk is going to grow in coming years, without a doubt,” said Kevin Hughes, director of economic development. “It’s very exciting to see what’s going to happen with the amount of potential Suffolk has.”

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Suffolk’s economic foundation was laid by its farmers, who originally grew tobacco for export and later expanded to mixed farming. Today, corn, soybeans and cotton fields are still prevalent throughout Suffolk, and officials expect that agriculture will continue to be a vital part of the city’s economy.

“Preservation of open spaces and of our vast natural resources will continue to be a key element of our planning efforts,” said Patrick Roberts, deputy city manager.

A key to the growth of the city, however, has been its location. Acknowledgement of the city’s strategic location as the gateway to South Hampton Roads was recognized even before the Civil War, when both the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad and the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad were built through Suffolk. More railroads later followed, and highways soon replaced them.

Within the last two decades, Portsmouth built the Western Freeway west through north Suffolk, and Newport News extended the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel. Where the two meet, the Harbour View development grew, and it quickly attracted businesses, residents and industries. The development now provides homes for 35,000 people, along with 8,000 jobs. The US Joint Forces Command, along with one of the three hubs in the nation for modeling and simulation, a medical enclave and various retailers have made the crossroads their home and leaders see more to come.

“The city’s current long-range plans allow and encourage much of that growth to occur in

the city’s downtown and central core, as well as in the northern part of the city,” Roberts said. “The Harbour View development and similar mixed-use projects are examples of large-scale projects that we hope to see in the coming years in other areas of the city.”

While the availability of land will continue to be a key to Suffolk’s growth, its location so near the Port of Virginia also will have an impact.

“When you look at the Port of Virginia, the future capabilities of what can happen, they’re endless,” Hughes said. “We are ripe for development in these next 50 years.”

Hughes explained that additional incentive for port-related businesses to come to Suffolk is the silt-like materials at the bottom of the James River, which make it less expensive to develop. Up the coast, dynamite is required for excavating deeper river channels, but here companies can easily dredge to accommodate large ships.

Additionally, Suffolk is in the middle of the East Coast — an ideal location for companies looking to place their headquarters. The city also has the ability to become a major transportation hub.

“We’re right in the middle of the East Coast, and Suffolk has 2,000 acres of industrial-zoned lands for port-related businesses, manufacturing and distribution,” Hughes said. “Right now, we have two Fortune 500 companies and two more Fortune 1,000 companies. For the amount of people here, the type of work, workforce skills and the cost of doing business here, it’s amazing we don’t have more companies who’ve set up headquarters operations.”

One industry that has made itself at home in Suffolk is modeling and simulation, a multi-purpose technology that many say is rapidly expanding and will eventually be commonly used by businesses.

The Virginia Modeling Simulation and Analysis Center is based in Suffolk and is one of the three hubs in the United States for modeling and simulation. It focuses on the multi-disciplinary uses of modeling and simulation, which uses the technology to create hypothetical situations — such as a heart surgery for doctors-in-training or to show the effects of bombing an area for the defense industry.

Other uses include designing disaster evacuation plans for city governments, building designs for architects and testing car designs for automotive designers. Joint Forces Command uses VMASC’s expertise, and Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman were all drawn to the area and support the expansion of the industry.

Leaders at VMASC and from its partnerships in Hampton Roads, refer to the area around the technology center “Sim City,” and they anticipate that one day it will rival California’s Silicon Valley for the impact it will have on its industry.

To draw the technical industries to Suffolk, however, requires two essential things: people who are trained to do the work and the roofs to put over their heads.

While there are many educational facilities in the Suffolk community, Paul D. Camp Community College – which has had a 20 percent increase in enrollment in just the past three years – has had roots in Suffolk since the late ‘70s and specifically aims to educate and provide students with the practical skills they need to fill the available jobs in Suffolk.

“We see ourselves as being an integral part of education in Suffolk, in terms of non-credit training, career technicians and transfer courses,” said Douglas Boyce, president of PDC. “We are excited about the growth in Suffolk, and we’ve responded to education and training needs.”

When Obici hospital said it needed a nursing program, the college launched a nursing program. When companies like Target and QVC needed warehouse and distribution workers and downtown restaurants needed reliable waiters and waitresses, PDCCC launched pre-employment programs.

“Our goal is to train people for the jobs available,” Boyce said. “As new industries come to the area, we will work to provide them with the workers they will need. We try to be responsive to community needs.”

Online classes, a bachelors program and residence halls are a few of the things “that if I shine my crystal ball as well as I can, we may see come in future decades,” Boyce said.

As for the roofs that will shelter those newly trained employees, expansion in undeveloped north Suffolk and a resurgence in downtown Suffolk can be expected. All the while, planners want to preserve Suffolk’s character.

Developments such as Harbour View “tend to recreate or mimic street networks and ‘walkable’ communities that resemble our existing downtown central business district and nearby residential neighborhoods,” Roberts, the deputy city manager, said.

“For that reason, a part of our long-term strategy for downtown is to focus on infill development and bringing a variety of new housing types to the central business district. Increasing residential density in the downtown is key to bringing in additional retail amenities and private investment to the city’s urban core.”

One thing that seems clear for Suffolk’s future is diversity.

Fifty years down the road who knows what Suffolk might see – a revived downtown, more northern growth, preservation of farmlands, advanced education, an active coast and more business headquarters. Suffolk’s rich history has laid a strong foundation for what could be a diverse, populous city.

“Suffolk is great because of the character and diversity that lend themselves to the city,” Hughes said. “The area has been able to maintain Main Street, USA feel, which is important to maintain its culture and the aspects that have made Suffolk a unique town. In the same breath, through good land use and zoning, we can have the best of both worlds — to maintain the original Suffolk feel and work with new corporations and technologies to have that flexibility as things change, as well.”