Acknowledge regional trends in city plans

Published 9:10 pm Saturday, November 5, 2011

During a community forum Wednesday, sponsored for the first time by the philanthropic Suffolk Foundation, about 180 people heard a message of hope for the city, along with a few warnings.

Old Dominion University economics professor James V. Koch told a lunchtime group at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts that Suffolk has made great strides in some areas, but it has some important work to do to catch up in others.

The city has experienced rapid growth and boasts influential policy-makers, and it has benefitted from the growth of modeling and simulation industries, especially as they are connected to the military, which still considers Hampton Roads a vital place to base naval and other assets.

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But there are problems in Hampton Roads that could jeopardize the region’s standing with the military, Koch said, and that could mean trouble not just for the region generally, but also for Suffolk, whose northern end has become a haven for military commands and the contractors that support them.

Situations as diverse as rising sea levels and increasing traffic congestion could conspire to cause the military — especially the U.S. Navy — to look for other regions in which to settle, taking their equipment and personnel along with them. That could spell doom for a region that still depends on defense spending for 45 percent of its economy, he said.

Considering those facts, it is more important than ever that Suffolk pursue diversification in its economic infrastructure. While defense-related industries will continue to be important, the city must continue its efforts to entice shipping industries and high-tech companies to locate within its borders. Doing so will help shore up Suffolk’s economic position.

At an even more basic level, Koch warned, Suffolk must continue to work to improve its educational system, especially as it relates to African-American students. Despite the fact that the number of Suffolk residents with bachelor’s degrees has more than doubled in the last decade, graduation rates for African-Americans, especially males, continue to stagnate, contributing to a wide disparity in earnings among the races. It will be necessary to address that trend if Suffolk is to experience widespread economic success.

Koch’s assessments, grounded as they were in readily available data about Suffolk and the region, should have come as no surprise to the city’s leaders. The warnings that spring from those assessments, however, should put those leaders on notice that the city’s long-term planning cannot be focused narrowly, but instead must comprehend those trends that affect Hampton Roads as a whole in order to assure that they benefit the city of Suffolk specifically.