ODU prof: Suffolk has strengths, challenges

Published 10:49 pm Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Suffolk’s biggest challenges in the future include the region’s transportation system, looming Department of Defense budget cuts and the need to improve educational outcomes, Old Dominion University economics professor Dr. James V. Koch said Wednesday.

Koch was the guest speaker at a community forum sponsored by the Suffolk Foundation to look at the state of the region as viewed from Suffolk. It was the first such event the foundation has sponsored, but organizers said they plan to make it an annual event.

Dr. James Koch

To counter the challenges, Koch said, Suffolk has “great people,” a strategic location with reasonably priced land and a modeling and simulation industry that continues to flourish despite the closure of U.S. Joint Forces Command.

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Backed up by reams of statistics condensed into charts and graphs, Koch told about 180 attendees why he believes transportation, defense spending and education are vital to Suffolk’s future.

Koch said the region must be careful about setting tolls on surrounding bridges and tunnels too high, or it risks cutting off people from their jobs and businesses from their revenue.

“Hampton Roads is heavily dependent and interdependent on each other,” he said. “If our tolls get too high, we will isolate the region.”

Though Koch admitted he likes the idea of tolls because they are user fees, he presented numbers showing that there are more people in Suffolk leaving the city to work than there are coming into the city to work. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said, because people can earn money elsewhere and then spend it in Suffolk.

“Let me suggest we have to be very careful about tolls,” he said.

The speech came at the same time that ongoing projects that likely will result in tolls on U.S. Route 460 and the Downtown and Midtown tunnels between Norfolk and Portsmouth are beginning to pick up steam.

In addition, Koch said, tolls that inhibit movement from the ports inland and vice versa could turn off businesses hoping to use the Port of Virginia to ship their goods.

But the ports remain a valuable commodity to Suffolk because of its strategic location and availability of land for distribution centers, he said.

Defense spending is another big issue, he said. Region-wide, about 45 percent of the economy depends on defense spending, Koch said, with Suffolk being heavily dependent on the military. And that number has been going higher.

“If you had the notion that the economy has become more diversified over the last decade, you’re wrong,” Koch said.

Even though more joint military departments have taken the place of U.S. Joint Forces Command, the region could be at risk of losing Navy craft because of rising water levels and sinking land.

“The Navy is not stupid,” Koch said. “They know this. The water problem is simply worse than anybody else’s.”

However, he said, “Modeling and simulation continues to be a very positive thing in the region.”

On the education front, some Suffolk statistics improved in the last decade, but others slipped.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of people in Suffolk age 25 or older who hold a bachelor’s degree more than doubled. But there still is an earnings disparity among the races, something Koch contributed partially to low graduation rates.

“African-Americans sort of got left behind in this decade,” he said. “Many African-American men haven’t quite shared in the prosperity.”

Koch also mentioned Suffolk’s “great people” — including Delegate Chris Jones, whom he called “one of the most influential legislators in Virginia” — and rising population as strengths.

“You’re really growing pretty rapidly,” he said.