Onward and upward in Suffolk

Published 9:16 pm Tuesday, June 3, 2014

By Steve Stewart

If the demographers who specialize in such predictions are correct, Suffolk will be home to 132,000 people in 25 years, a whopping 50-percent increase from the current population of roughly 88,000.

It’s not so farfetched when you consider that Suffolk grew 36 percent in a little more than a decade, from 2000 to 2012, and that the local economy continues to diversify, with steady job growth in a variety of sectors.


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For all of the emphasis in the state and national economic-development arenas on landing the “big fish” — major manufacturing operations that employ hundreds, even thousands of workers — the most stable local economies are those built on small- and medium-size businesses spread across the manufacturing, distribution, retail and service sectors.

It’s not the flashiest way to succeed economically, but it works.

We were reminded so when Suffolk’s impressive young economic developer, Kevin Hughes, spoke recently to the Rotary Club of Suffolk, updating Rotarians on the state of the city’s economy, which is unquestionably sound.

Evidence is abundant, but perhaps the best indicator is median household income, whose growth has matched the impressive population growth of the past decade. Between 2000 and 2011, Suffolk’s median income grew from $41,000 to $65,000, an increase of 58 percent. During the same window, no other Hampton Roads locality grew more than 35 percent. Statewide, median household income grew 32 percent, and nationwide, 24 percent.

In 2013 alone, Suffolk saw $93 million in capital investment by businesses, evenly divided between new and existing companies. An estimated 650 new jobs will come from that collective investment, which is spread among food and beverage processing (34 percent), retail (32 percent), advanced manufacturing (11 percent), technology (6 percent), medical (4 percent), office and administration (2 percent) and warehousing and distribution (1 percent).

Such steady growth doesn’t draw many headlines outside this newspaper. The governor isn’t coming to town and holding press conferences to laud his latest economic-development coup.

On the flip side, neither will Suffolk, like other communities, make statewide headlines because an anchor employer goes out of business, devastating the local economy.

When your economic base is diverse, the normal ebb and flow of business comings and goings creates ripples, not tidal waves.

In Suffolk’s case, the comings are outnumbering the goings.

A Kroger Marketplace in North Suffolk will fuel even more retail expansion in that high-growth area. A gentrified West Washington Street, where private developers are investing $10 million or so in retail and residential space, can be nothing but helpful downtown.

The Godwin Boulevard corridor continues to flourish, and coffee-making expansions by J.M. Smucker and Massimo Zanetti, on the heels of Lipton Tea’s 2013 commitment to keep its major manufacturing operation in Suffolk, have some ready to brand us the Caffeine Capital of the World.

Is it any wonder, then, that demographers are “wide awake” to a bright future for Suffolk?

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.