Editorial – Raise the bar economically

Published 7:30 pm Friday, August 12, 2022

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Another economic development “get” for Suffolk – a lawn and garden products plant announced, coincidentally, in the run-up to perhaps the most scrutinized vote Suffolk City Council members have or will ever cast – reminds us of the need for a new mindset in elected leadership.

That is, Suffolk has so much momentum economically that it can now afford to be picky about what projects it recruits, considers and lets happen. And it might just be time, as a community, to set our sights higher than warehousing and distribution.

Mayor Mike Duman and his council colleagues should take considerable pride in Suffolk’s enviable position. They helped create it. There was a time, not so long ago, when the city and those responsible for its economic vitality couldn’t afford to be so choosy. Veteran job hunters like Kevin Hughes, the current deputy city manager, have slowly but surely transformed Suffolk from Hampton Roads’ neglected stepchild to a vibrant, progressive place where companies want to set up shop.

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To be clear, the warehousing and distribution sector was a catalyst for the economic transformation, and elected and appointed leaders were wise to embrace it as a means to an end. The 18-wheeler frenzy on present-day Holland Road, especially after a current widening project is complete, strikes us as a tolerable annoyance to the extent that it jump-started a bigger and better economy. And no serious observer can quibble with the city’s hosting the massive Amazon hub that will open soon in North Suffolk. It is rare in the distribution sector as a major jobs creator.

But elected leadership now has an opportunity to focus on “better” jobs and flex the city’s muscle as a regional economic player. So, when the Port of Virginia and its emissaries, every time they need more warehouse space, tell Suffolk to jump, the response no longer has to be “how high?”

We’re not naïve about Suffolk’s reliance on a strong regional economy. Nor do we advocate an isolationist approach with our Hampton Roads neighbors. But Suffolk’s value in regional economic development should no longer be defined strictly by its vast farmland for future warehouses. In fact, what’s left of that farmland should be cherished, and sacrificed less often.

As City Council members look angry citizens in the face in coming days and cast their vote on the controversial Port 460 project, perceived duty to the region should not be their overriding consideration. Suffolk is on the verge of big things with or without Port 460. Elected leadership must embrace our city’s new prominence, lead with confidence and set a higher standard of excellence than warehouses and distribution centers.