Graphic credit: James V. Koch and Gary W. Wagner. Click to enlarge image.
by James A. Bacon
Dr. James V. Koch’s “The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2014” report probably won’t get much attention outside of Hampton Roads, but it should. Not only is Hampton Roads the state’s second largest metropolitan economy, which means that its fortunes and misfortunes send large economic ripples across the state, but Koch’s observations about the region’s antiquated approach to economic development apply to many places in Virginia.
The message delivered by Koch and co-author Gary A. Wagner to an audience of more than 1,000 at the Norfolk Waterside Hotel was none too encouraging. After getting clobbered during the recession of 2007-2008, the Hampton Roads economy has been slow to bounce back. Employment growth has trailed state and national averages by a wide margin, as shown in the graph above. The stagnation in job growth can be explained in large measure by the impact of defense cutbacks on the region’s largest industry, the military. Comparing Department of Defense procurement awards 16 months pre- and post-sequestration (March 2013), Hampton Roads was down 24.4%. Moreover, sequestration will continue to squeeze as the military downshift continues and the Pentagon shifts its strategic focus to Asia.
“I think the Hampton Roads region is just starting to feel the effects of sequestration,” Wagner said in his presentation, according to an ODU recap. “And as bad as things are (because of forecast freezes in DOD spending for the next two years) it could get worse. It’s a bumpy couple of years ahead for Hampton Roads.”
The Port of Virginia is a bright spot. After losing market share following the recession, the port reversed course and regained market share for three years running and now commands 17.2% of the East Coast market, a new peak. The expansion of the Panama Canal, which will encourage the use of more big ships, will confer a competitive advantage to the deep-channeled Virginia ports for a few years at least. But another traditional industry, tourism, remains stuck below its 2007 apex, as measured by hotel revenue. And housing prices have recovered less than a third of the value lost during the housing bust; the number of distressed homes, while improved, remains historically high.
There are no “quick fixes” for what ails the Hampton Roads economy, Koch said. The region needs to adopt a long-term perspective. “The bottom line is that economic development is a long-term process.” The region needs to invest more in projects with a long-term payoff like K-12 education, infrastructure and research and less in high-visibility projects like convention centers, hotels, arenas and entertainment centers. “We delude ourselves if we think we can short-cut [the economic-development] process by constructing flashy facilities that primarily redistribute income within our own region.”
The conventional wisdom on economic development “is no more,” he declared. For decades, “economic development” in Hampton Roads, as across Virginia, focused on attracting new firms and to do what it took — offering land, tax incentives, etc. — to attract them. But abundant research indicates that 80% to 85% of locational decisions are not influenced by such give-aways. “Incentives” amount to a wealth transfer to businesses that would have made the same decision anyway.
The hot idea in economic development today is growing businesses locally — economic “gardening,” to use a term coined by David Birch in the 1980s. Make life easier for small businesses by giving them access to high-speed Internet connections, providing cheap or temporary space, and connecting them to academic, financing, engineering and marketing resources. While most small businesses stay small, some become growth stars that account for immense investment and job creation.
Hampton Roads, always a laggard, recorded the lowest level of business start-ups among nine Virginia regions from 2010 to 2012. Rather than subsidizing selected businesses, Koch advocates an approach of identifying impediments to growth and helping firms overcome those impediments. “What would it take for one of our new, small microbreweries to grow and access new markets? For Liebherr to develop and implement a new cost-saving technology? For BAE Systems to become a major player in off-shore wind generation? Let’s find out! Let’s garden our regional economy.”
Among other ideas Koch explored: creating “innovation districts,” where knowledge-based start-ups are clustered geographically, often in proximity to a research university, where easy interaction stimulates innovation; promoting university Research & Development at ODU, Eastern Virginia Medical College and the College of William & Mary; and supporting job and skill development programs and apprenticeships.
Bacon’s bottom line: Koch is spot-on about the need to think differently about economic development in Virginia. At the top of the list of bad public investments — let’s call a spade a spade… of stupid public investments — are glitzy convention centers, arenas and sports centers. For the most part, all they do is redistribute entertainment dollars within a region at great public cost. If a region is prosperous and a market exists, the private sector will build those facilities on its own. Second on the list of bad public investments are “incentives” for attracting new businesses. Most of that money is wasted. Better to invest in helping citizens gain the education and skills they need to compete in a knowledge-based economy.
Now, if only we could persuade Koch to apply his keen analytical insights to understanding the pervasive effect of human settlement patterns on a region’s economic competitiveness. Then we’d really be getting somewhere.