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Road paved way for Amazon

The road that paved the way for Amazon to start building in Suffolk and Chesapeake came into being before the birth of the company — but was completed only two years ago.

In April 2017, crews began the second phase of the $27 million project to expand Nansemond Parkway in the city from Helen Street to the Chesapeake city line, and from there, Portsmouth Boulevard began expanding from the city line to Jolliff Road. The first phase was completed in 2013, and overall, encompassed about 1.5 miles.

Without that expansion, which put Portsmouth Boulevard at four lanes all the way to Interstate 664, Suffolk Economic Development Director Kevin Hughes said Amazon would not be building in the city or in Chesapeake.

The company, which started business in 1994, would not have chosen Suffolk to build the largest industrial building in Virginia at an overall square footage of more than 3.8 million with its robotics fulfillment center.

And it would not have chosen to build a 650,000 square-foot processing center two miles away along that widened Portsmouth Boulevard in Chesapeake.

“Related to the road widening, it was decades in the making,” Hughes said Wednesday. “If the city hadn’t committed to building the industrial park in Northgate Commerce Park and come to terms with Upton Farms, and begin to invest into it, we’re probably not pushing the way we are, or were, on expanding Nansemond Parkway, or going to the city of Chesapeake to expand Portsmouth Boulevard.

“So, an action that happened 30 years ago was seen kind of pay off in that aspect.”

Hughes said Amazon did a traffic impact study that supported the two cities’ investment in expanding their roads.

“Because we expanded the intersection, because we ran it all the way to (Interstate) 664, it passed,” Hughes said. “It works. I can pretty much assure you, if we had not done those things, it would have failed.”

Hughes said it puts into perspective the long-term, sticking-to-it vision that is necessary in municipal economic development and regional economic development, adding he is only building off the work that his predecessors did, and the work their predecessors did before that.

“Just because you go after a program today, doesn’t mean it’s going to pay off tomorrow,” Hughes said. “It could be a long-term goal out there.”

It showed the regional approach then, and it allowed the two cities, and others, to expand that regional approach that lured Amazon to be in both places now.

When the project is complete, Suffolk will have the two largest industrial buildings in Virginia, the other being Target Upstream Distribution Center at about 2.3 million square feet. Of note, the city also has the largest office space in the state, at about 400,000 square feet, on the Department of Defense campus.

At about 1,500 employees for Target, according to Hughes, and 1,000 for the Amazon facility in Suffolk when it opens sometime in 2021, they will be two of the largest private sector employers in the city.

“This one was different in my experience in the fact that it had multiple regional partners,” Hughes said. “A lot of people played a different role. You had two projects announced, one company. It’s really unusual, and then the proximity, the history behind the road widening. It was a really interesting (dynamic).”

That regionalism was on display as Chesapeake Mayor Rick West noted, with laughter from the audience at Tuesday’s press conference, that his city was trying to get Suffolk’s 1,000-full-time-job facility versus the one they did get that will create 500 full-time jobs.

“It starts to look and feel and sound like collaboration,” West said. “And, in the end of the world that commerce and trade operate in, which is economic development, when communities collaborate together, good things happen.”

Asked Wednesday about the competition with Chesapeake for the Amazon facilities with the glow of the announcement still fresh, Hughes demurred.

“We were glad he got the facility he got,” Hughes said, laughing.

West and Suffolk Mayor Linda T. Johnson were together then, in 2018, when they cut the ribbon on the road project, and they were together again Tuesday.

“Some people don’t even know that there’s 17 jurisdictions that make up Hampton Roads,” Johnson said. “Think about it. Our transportation, economic development, trash, broadband, none of that can happen individually, so you have to work as a team. And I think the best thing that has ever happened to Hampton Roads is that we now have a team.”

Hughes, with the groundwork having been in place with the road expansion, is ready for what comes next.

“The announcement, when the governor comes down and the pomp and circumstance of it, it’s always a great high-five moment,” Hughes said. “It’s good to get everyone on the same page and excited about an announcement, then the fun really begins. The construction, the support, the hiring, that’s when the rubber meets the road.”