Time for Richmond and Hampton Roads to Join Forces?

Tom Frantz. Photo credit: Virginia Business

Tom Frantz. Photo credit: Virginia Business

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s economic growth ground to a standstill in 2014 and lagged the nation in 2015. Recognizing that metropolitan regions are the growth engines of the early 21st century economy, civic boosters are looking to spur growth and development at the regional level — but that picture doesn’t look much prettier. The Brookings Institution’s Metro Monitor Report ranked the Richmond region 59th nationally in an index of economic growth and prosperity indicators between 2009 and 2014, while Hampton Roads rated 97th. (Metropolitan Washington ranked 71st.)

Tom Frantz, chairman emeritus of the Williams Mullen law firm, thinks one way to restore economic vitality would be to merge the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions into a mega-region by applying for the status of a Combined Statistical Area (CSA), an official designation of the U.S. Office Planning and Budget.

Such a merger would create an entity of 3 million inhabitants, enough to rank 17th largest in the United States. That, says Frantz in the Virginia Business cover story this month, would put Richmond and Hampton Roads into the running for more business investment. “You are sitting in a boardroom in Hong Kong, Paris, or London, and you want to expand to the States. You can’t look at everything in the States, so you’re going to look at the top 20, 25 MSAs.”

Frantz is tapping into a body of analysis that observes that growth and innovation are concentrating disproportionately in the world’s mega-regions. The eastern half of the U.S. has four such mega-regions, or clusters of MSAs: the Northeast, the Great Lakes, the Piedmont (Atlanta-Charlotte), and Florida. Richmond resides on the far outer fringe of the Northeastern mega-region, while Hampton Roads is not connected at all. Combining Richmond and Hampton Roads into a mini-mega, so to speak, would be prelude to the longer-term strategy of aligning with the Northeastern mega-region.

“What we can’t afford is for us to be two isolated islands in the middle of this highly connected economic juggernaut,” says Frantz. “We’re not talking about combining fire departments, school systems or any of that. We’re talking about marketing ourselves to the world as a larger, more diverse region that has many more assets.”

The idea is being seriously discussed by civically engaged business leaders in both metros, but Frantz acknowledges that the mega-region idea will take years to take hold. He hopes the next generation of leaders will run with it. “The same old ways we’ve done things will not work,” he says. “We need to think boldly, positively, and figure out how to combine our strengths so we can succeed in the new economy.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Count me in the “Yeah, maybe…” camp. My philosophy is that it’s always worthwhile to question established ways of thinking. I also agree that metropolitan regions are the primary units of economic growth, and it that makes sense to think in regional terms. But I question whether stitching Richmond and Hampton Roads into a mega-region is worth the effort. Regardless of what gloss the U.S. Office of Planning and Budget puts on it, the two metros are distinct labor markets linked tenuously by Interstate 64, which suffers periodically from horrendous congestion. I cannot imagine that corporations looking to locate in a million-plus-worker labor market will be persuaded to consider either Richmond (670,000 workforce) or Hampton Roads (827,000 workforce) just because of a CSA designation.

I’m also concerned about the impact of a Richmond-Hampton Roads vision on land use. I worry that such a strategy would lead to the filling in of the relatively empty space between eastern Richmond and Williamsburg, perpetuating the building of dysfunctional, low-density suburbs instead of encouraging the densification of both urban regions. Such an eventuality would carry tremendous costs and would overwhelm I-64 with local traffic, ruining it as an interstate highway, just as Northern Virginia growth ruined Interstate 95.

I’m more inclined to the view of Eugene Trani, former Virginia Commonwealth University president and founder of the Richmond’s Future think tank, also quoted in the article, that it makes sense to build ties through initiatives likely to yield a more immediate payoff. Trani sees potential for cooperation in the field of logistics, which he has already identified as a winner for the Richmond region. Working together, the two regions would combine Hampton Roads’ world-class port, Richmond’s net of interstate highways, and the human capital supplied by the Fort Lee Logistics Readiness Center, among other assets.

Another area ripe for collaboration could be the so-called “Eds and Meds” corridor anchored by Charlottesville and Norfolk, and running through Richmond. Promoting collaboration between major universities and medical facilities could develop centers of research and clinical excellence capable of attracting R&D dollars and medical tourism. Building institutional ties in logistics and Eds-and-Meds could lay the groundwork for a more formal regional merger in the far future.

A Richmond-Hampton Roads partnership definitely makes sense for Hampton Roads, which sits in a geographic cul de sac with no meaningful links to any other metro. But it’s a different story for Richmond, which also looks north to metro Washington. A top regional priority for Richmond is creating higher-speed train service that would promote business ties to Northern Virginia. Given the scarcity of resources for multi-billion-dollar transportation mega-projects, Richmond’s civic leaders might be forced to choose improving I-64 to Hampton Roads on the one hand and improving Amtrak service to Washington and the rest of the Northeastern megalopolis on the other.

But every grand vision has obstacles. That’s no excuse for laying down and doing nothing. Frantz’s idea is worth exploring.

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16 responses to “Time for Richmond and Hampton Roads to Join Forces?

  1. Jim, I hate to be critical, but I can’t find the Office of Planning and Budget(ing) in the US Gov’t structure. Nor did the base article provide a link to that agency. I did discover that the Office of Management and Budget is responsible for designating both the MSA and CSAs.

    PS- the article conflates MSA and CSA. They are two different animals: The OMB defines a CSA as consisting of various combinations of adjacent metropolitan and micropolitan areas with economic ties measured by commuting patterns. These areas that combine retain their own designations as metropolitan or micropolitan statistical areas within the larger combined statistical area.

    The primary distinguishing factor between a CSA and an MSA is that the social and economic ties between the individual MSAs within a CSA are at lower levels than between the counties within an MSA.[1] CSAs represent multiple metropolitan or micropolitan areas that have an employment interchange of 25. CSAs often represent regions with overlapping labor and media markets. (From Wikipedia- definition of a combined statistical area.)

    I am not sure if 25% of the people in Hampton Roads commute to Richmond and vice versa- which is what will be required to get a CSA designation.

    • JNL, Regarding the Office of Planning and Budget, I was quoting directly from the article. (I double checked to make sure I wasn’t misquoting the article.) It’s entirely possible that the author meant Office of Management and Budget.

      I appreciate your elaboration on the definition of a CSA. Again, I was drawing directly from the Virginia Business article. I defer to your expertise.

      I agree that the cross-commute between Richmond and Hampton Roads doesn’t come anywhere close to 25%, and it has no hope of doing so until major upgrades to I-64 are made. And even then, it won’t work. Making upgrades to I-64 will stimulate residential development in the in-between area (New Kent County/James City County); the new residents will use the Interstate as a local highway and add to the congestion, thereby limiting the utility of making the improvements.

      • And, since we live in Virginia, would anyone be surprised if this were part of an attempt to open more land for development, likely with some transportation infrastructure heavily funded by taxpayers? That’s what the Outer Beltway and its piece parts have been about for years and years?

        It doesn’t take a change in Census designation for government officials and businesses to work together across the commonwealth.

  2. It’s also important to understand the designation of MSA which is the underpinnings of Metropolitan Policy Organizations whose core function is transportation for an MSA.

    MPOs are how transportation decisions are made in more than 400 MSAs in the USA and 12 in Virginia.

    Next are Virginia Planning Districts:

    sounds like neither Mr. Franz nor Squires is knowledgeable about the existence nor mission of either.

    • Larry, good point. I could be wrong, but I believe the federal statute focuses only on MSAs. I do not think “greater levels” of consolidation for reporting purposes changes transportation planning.

      • MSAs are primarily defined by jobs and commuting… In other words – where people work and where they live …

        MPOs are federal. Planning Districts are State.

        Planning Districts do not have the preciseness of the MPO definition as they were essentially drawn as urban centers with surrounding counties –

        here’s the interesting history of boundaries of Virginia Planning Districts
        the link below has the rest of the history which is pretty interesting I think:

        “The General Assembly tasked the DSPCA with establishing the PDCs.17
        The division wasresponsible for mapping the Commonwealth’s counties, cities, and towns into logical districts forarea-wide planning. Interestingly, the Director of DSPCA was given final authority to draw the
        districts; neither the governor nor the General Assembly was given a role or veto in the processof their boundary establishment.
        18 While the DSPCA did hold public hearings and receive local
        input, ultimately the decision was made by the Director alone.

        Eager to begin its task, DSPCA staff began an aggressive campaign to establish PDCs. It set atimeline of one year for establishing them. It used several criteria in determining appropriateboundaries:

        1. Groupings of localities classified as Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas by the U.S.Census should not be split up

        2. A planning district should be large enough to make it a planning region, but small enough
        that travel distances for commission members should be reasonable

        3. It should contain at least three independent governments

        4. A planning district should include at least 100,000 people
        5. Geographic and Economic considerations
        a. Political compatibility
        b. Natural land boundaries
        c. Identifiable socio-economic units19

        In an eight-week period in 1968, DSPCA staff met with the Boards of Supervisors in every county and the Council in every city and town in the Commonwealth.

        The DSPCA recommended 22 Planning Districts (in 1990, the Peninsula PDC and theSoutheastern Virginia PDC merged, creating the Hampton Roads PDC and reducing the totalnumber of PDCs to 21). Public hearings were held in each, and some minor boundarymodifications were made. Then, in July 1969, final district delineations were announced.”


  3. Richmond? CSA? Are you kidding? You sure you want to go down that path in the current political environment?

  4. seems like a subliminal message for a port of virginia ad.
    the scary point regarding our 48th ranking in gdp is quite stunning, considering how hard the state promotes virginia as number one business. while not related, its interesting (to say the least).
    nova will bump into hanover before richmond bleeds into jcc.
    of note: i saw a post about this with very similar content regarding a presentation given recently. a map was included, with an arrow from rva to hrva running south east – north west…so basically 460.
    the shortest route was never even a part of the plan.

  5. in the “history” of Planning Districts is reference to a 1993 JLARC study to review Planning Districts, their missions and how to deal with Regional Issues in general with some discussion as to whether or not PDCs should be required to develop and maintain regional comprehensive plans which was part of a larger discussion of what PDCs might be – versus what the state itself might be doing .

    Review of Regional Planning District Commissions in Virginia


    I would posit that businesses themselves compete as well as regions and what role should govt – regional or state play – in economic development that businesses themselves – and their industry representatives would not be able to do – that regional and state would do?

    In other words – have a region or state agency attract business that, in effect, favors some Va businesses over others – winners and losers – seems a potentially not good thing from the businesses that lost out point of view.

    seems like the role of govt in these things needs to be limited and only to things that improve opportunity for all businesses in general.

    Just the mere creation of a business or industrial park can help some businesses – at the expense of others… a road ..in one place.. and not in another….. etc..

    a 3rd rail from DC to Norfolk – helps foster opportunity for a LOT of businesses … of all kinds… in many locations… but try to get the public to support that kind of thing in today’s political environment.

  6. The Virginia Business article does seem to have some technical inaccuracies but a bigger issue for me is so what? Do people really think that essentially rebranding Tidewater and Richmond through some government classification mumbo-jumbo will suddenly make foreign investors so much more interested n the new area?

    Think of it as a mini European Union. That was formed back in 1992, if I remember correctly. But it did not shift Europe towards a common cornucopia of wealth. You still had the stronger countries like Germany doing well while places like Greece were disasters.

    Just so much navel-gazing.

  7. well I think MPOs do real transportation infrastructure investment decisions that have real impacts and I also believe the HB2 prioritization process will also have real impacts on how Virginia localities and MPOs does business with transportation dollars.

    I’m not clear exactly on what Franz was actually advocating in specifics.

    any road or rail from Hampton to Richmond would go other places.. also.. unless Richmond had something there that was not available in places beyond .

    I still think the one thing that would really boost the urban crescent from Norfolk to DC is a 3rd rail with high speed passenger service Freight already moves in that corridor although there are plans afoot to “bypass” places with passenger stops so freight never slows down.

    The other thing – we need a more highly educated workforce to be able to actually compete against other countries for global jobs.

    Franz wants to attract other countries to Richmond/Hampton but other countries are also looking at – other countries – competitors to Richmond/Hampton so what are the key elements that Richmond/Hampton are actually competing on?

  8. Why should the reclassification stop at Richmond/HR? Let’s merge the entire urban crescent from Arlington through Fredericksburg and Richmond and straight through to Virginia Beach. Sure, throw in high-speed rail to tie it together. If mere reclassification mumbo-jumbo could do so much, think what ACTUAL political unification might accomplish! Maybe a public transit system, or a school system, that serves people and jobs and education where they ought to be brought together, not bounded by the often-arbitrary political borders that exist.

  9. well… not just a reclassification for reclassification sake –

    one that would result in changes to the way that transportation and education are prioritized and provisioned.

    for instance, high speed rail – as well as possibly other transport infrastructure designed to improve the mobility of the mega region … right now travel through NoVa on I-95 is at times such a no-go that people headed north/south actually divert to 301 and I-81.

    The northeast corridor has Accela – why don’t we extend it to Norfolk?

    and changes to community colleges – for instance – to prioritize subjects and courses that lead to the workforce skills that would-be employers are looking for – to attract companies who want those kinds of skills – perhaps companies that right now are asking for HB1 visas because they cannot find enough of what they want. Give it to them – in the mega region.

    so – yes – totally on board with what Acbar said.. GREAT IDEAS and probably better articulated than Mr. Franz did!!!!


  10. I am always impressed by the quality and knowledge of the commenters here. [Sorry if this comment sounded sarcastic, but it was actually meant with all sincerity.] Well done for helping educate people on the facts about PDCs, MPOs, MSAs & CSAs. The megaregion proposal would need to dive very deep into those (and other) weeds in order to define an actual goal and any accompanying benefits before moving forward.

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