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.