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Suffolk weathers the storm

It’s a bleak time in this nation’s economy.

According to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the United States Department of Labor, the nation ended 2009 with a 10-percent unemployment rate, meaning more than 15.3 million Americans were out of work.

When the recession started in late 2007, the unemployment rate hovered around 5 percent, with approximately 7.7 million people out of work.

In two years, unemployment has doubled, the deficit has increased and there have been few signs that anything is going to change soon.

Here in Suffolk, however, the city seems to be holding its head above the otherwise raging waters.

“Overall, I would consider our position positively cautious,” said Kevin Hughes, interim director of economic development for the city. “There is no doubt the companies in Suffolk have felt the affects of the recession, but most have been able to figure out a way to stay agile and flexible in order to make the most of a rough economy.”

Hughes added that the businesses most affected by the down economy have been those connected to consumer purchases, such as retail establishments and distribution operations that move goods to market.

According a survey conducted by the department of economic development in June 2009, participants from the distribution industry, specifically, said the biggest challenge they have faced during the recession has been keeping employees working to prevent layoffs. Additionally, survey participants said there is a struggle maintaining employee morale and dealing with the inconsistency of work volume coming in the door.

While some Suffolk businesses have struggled in the face of this economy, Hughes said a number of strong, diverse industries throughout the city have helped “create an overall balance when times are tough.”

For example, while participants in the 2009 survey from the distribution industry referred to negative effects from the recession, participants from the modeling and simulation industry responded that their companies had experienced no direct effects from the economic downturn.

Modeling and simulation participants named “adopting a more-with-less mentality” and “conservation in energy spending” as their biggest challenges of the recession.

Modeling and simulation and distribution are just two main aspects of Suffolk’s overall diversity.

Specifically, Hughes said the city has gone through a process of refining industry targets that include modeling and simulation, healthcare, advanced manufacturing, food and beverage processing, retail, hospitality and warehousing and distribution.

Hughes said there are a number of strong assets that help to make Suffolk’s economy unique. The city boasts a skilled workforce, an affordable cost of doing business, proximity to the Ports of Virginia, proximity to numbers federal contracting opportunities strategically located in Hampton Roads and the Mid-Atlantic, as well as diverse real estate opportunities.

He added that it is has been a goal of Suffolk leadership to create such a diverse economy in the city, and it will continue to be one.

“It is our goal to create and support an environment in the city that is welcoming and business friendly,” Hughes said, “but our main attraction efforts are directly geared toward diversity so that we are not dependent on one industry alone.”