Solid Thinking about Richmond’s Future

by James A. Bacon

Richmond’s Future, a regional think tank founded by former Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene Trani, is spear-heading the most interesting conversations taking place today about the future path of the region’s economic development. It’s a welcome change from the regional leadership’s old habit of touring other cities in the search of ideas worth copying or bringing in outside consultants to do our thinking for us.

Even better, these ideas are getting serious play in the op-ed pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which has repositioned itself as a purveyor of opinion on national and international affairs, to which it had little to contribute, into a forum for the discussion of regional issues, for which it is well suited.

The highest praise I can offer Richmond’s Future is that it is asking exactly the same kinds of questions that I have been highlighting on Bacon’s Rebellion for the past 10 years. I take no credit for their insight, for I have little evidence that the principals behind Richmond’s Future read Bacon’s Rebellion. More likely, it’s a matter of the principals behind Virginia’s Future acquainting themselves, as I have endeavored to do, with cutting-edge thinking about regional development.

First, the brains behind Richmond’s Future understand that Virginia can do a far better job of recruiting corporate investment and supporting entrepreneurial start-ups by building upon regional strengths rather than chasing national fads. Thus, the organization has championed the idea of a Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems based upon stand-out attributes of the region, such as the presence of the U.S. Army’s logistics university at Fort Lee. Rather than push for corporate subsidies to entice investment, they make the case for building institutions of specialized knowledge creation and skill building that will complement existing industry clusters. Logistics aren’t remotely as sexy as microchips or genetic engineering. But the goal of becoming a world-class logistical center is far more achievable.

Likewise, the think tank is pushing for Virginia to become a center of advanced manufacturing, building on the model of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing. “Central Virginia has a unique opportunity to position itself as a top 10 manufacturing cluster in the United States and to attract the companies and jobs that come along with such a status,” wrote Barry W. Johnson, associate dean at the University of Virginia engineering school and board member of CCAM, in a Times-Dispatch op-ed. That goal is ambitious, to be sure, but realistic in that it builds on real local strengths.

Secondly, Richmond’s Future is invigorating the discussion about how to make Richmond a regional center of creativity and innovation. One important initiative is to probe the psyche of college students and young professionals — the innovators and wealth creators of tomorrow — about their values and priorities in selecting a community in which to live. The 60-something white-guy business establishment is not exactly in touch with the latest trends in youth culture, so an online survey underwritten by Virginia’s Future should make an important contribution.

The survey, which was prepared by my former colleagues at the Southeastern Institute of Research (SRI), asks young people what they look for in a community — and how Richmond stacks up. What constitutes a good art scene, music scene and food scene? Are young people looking for more than a symphony, orchestra and ballet? What kind of outdoor recreational opportunities do they value? How important are walkable/bikable communities, public transportation and affordable housing? How important is diversity? Innovation?

The responses will be biased by the fact that the young people filling out the questionnaire will consist of those who have chosen, for whatever reason, to reside in the region. They may not be typical of the broader universe of college-educated professionals. But the survey a good start. The most important thing is that at last, someone is asking the right questions.

6 Responses to Solid Thinking about Richmond’s Future

  1. Jim,
    ALl great and wonderful but not new. The CCAM idea came up when Kaine was governor and Rolls Royce was thinking of locating its North American HQ to NOVA. Back then, Trani was still head of VCU and McDonnell wasn’t governor.
    So, while it is refreshing to have a more realistic project like advanced manufacturing, rather than regurgitating old stuff about biotech from the 1990s, this isn’t all that new. You and I wrote about this years ago.
    Also, despite Trani, VCU was NOT involved in CCAM itself although it is in the logistics center. That doesn’t make sense since VCU has an engineering school. We never got a real answer why not.

    • All very true. But the fact remains that Virginia’s Future is thinking more deeply, more comprehensively and more imaginatively about economic development in the Richmond region than anyone had done before. Over the years, I’ve seen study after study that substituted platitudes for real thought. That’s changing. I don’t expect to agree with everything that comes out of Virginia’s Future, but whatever the product, it will up the region’s game.

  2. Dear Inbred Richmonders:

    Pick a city in America that you think exhibits the attributes Richmond must develop in order to become the city you want it to be. Fly there. Spend two weeks talking to everybody who will talk to you – from corporate executives to bar tenders. Fly back to Richmond. Make a list. On the left side of the list write down all the things that make your exemplary city successful. On the right side write the status of those same things in Richmond. Formulate a plan to move Richmond from where it is to where it needs to be.

    Or, you can go to the Country Club of Virginia and drink Tanqueray and tonics with other Richmonders and talk about the ballet.

    Thank you.

    A Friend

  3. Dear Inbred Richmonders:

    Does VCU have a logistics major?

    Thank you.

    A Friend

  4. I’m with Jim on this. I see an enormous amount of promise here.

    Richmond has the potential to regain its very strong Corporate power, and this group of people are the ones to get that job done. All of the leadership and knowledge has been assembled to accomplish the Mission.

    But is there a mechanism in place to focus all that talent on the hard follow through that’s necessary to get the job done? To work through all the problems and build the opportunities and then assemble and leverage off those opportunities, to create the synergy and horsepower, to do what it takes to achieve real results on the Ground?

    I’m not saying this is not being done. But I am suggesting that this is often where projects such as this one fail to meet expectations.

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