Suffolk’s future in the military

Published 10:09 pm Thursday, November 6, 2014

Admiral Bill Gortney — commanding officer of the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Forces Command and a former director of the Joint Staff complex in North Suffolk — shared a great perspective Wednesday on the relationship between Suffolk and the military.

For military personnel who are assigned temporarily to J-7, Suffolk is a great place to visit. “They really like it here,” he told a group of city leaders from the business, nonprofit and government sectors, all gathered at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts for the annual community forum organized by the Suffolk Foundation.

Gortney, who was the guest speaker at the event, then offered an important caveat that should be considered in every bit of planning city officials do in regards to J-7 and other military installations that might consider locating in Suffolk: “They don’t live here if they’re stationed in Oceana or Little Creek.”

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The very port that makes Hampton Roads so attractive to the Navy also creates obstacles to a truly regional approach to supporting the military. Because of the transportation issues created by the rivers that divide Hampton Roads, Suffolk isn’t likely to ever be the place that most folks in the Navy choose for their homes, and so the city’s growth will never be as closely connected to the Navy as, for instance, that of Norfolk or Virginia Beach.

But in this case, the obstacle also creates some benefits. Fewer young sailors and aviators moving to Suffolk means reduced pressure on the city’s roads and schools. It means the city can concentrate its efforts on landing high-end installations like J-7, which cater more to transient visitors and whose full-time staffers are more likely to be older and better paid and therefore likely to contribute more in local taxes than they spend in services.

Make no mistake: Suffolk loves its military presence, and the benefits the city receives in prestige, economic development and employment opportunities far outweigh any negative consequences of having the agencies located here. But it’s unlikely that economic development officials in Norfolk or Virginia Beach are losing much sleep over Suffolk’s ability to compete for the military. And, frankly, that’s a good thing for everybody.