Hey, How about a Richmond-Norfolk Mega-Region?

Virginia’s first mega-region?

by James A. Bacon

The Hampton Roads and Richmond regions should align themselves as a “mega-region” to gain critical mass in the competition for economic development, maintain Thomas R. Frantz and Nicole L. Pugar in a Times-Dispatch op-ed today.

“Cities that want to compete nationally and internationally are blurring boundaries, combining their assets and resources, and redefining themselves through alliances with other nearby cities to become more attractive, “writes Frantz, who is CEO of the Williams Mullen law firm, and Pugar, the firm’s government affairs director. The authors were writing under the auspices of Richmond’s Future, a regional think tank led by Eugene Trani, president emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

If Richmond-Petersburg and Norfolk-Virginia Beach met the U.S. Census requirements for a mega-region, entailing 25% or more employment interchange (commuting) between the regions, it would vault from the 36th largest (Norfolk) and 44th largest (Richmond) Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the country to the 18th largest.

A combined region, the authors contend, would wield more political clout in the General Assembly, exploit the growth potential of the Port of Virginia, tap more retirees from the military, and access funding for critical infrastructure projects. If Frantz’s name sounds familiar to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, it’s because I quoted him recently in his advocacy for higher-speed rail in Virginia.

Before I express my reservations about this idea, let me say first that I think it’s great that Frantz and Pugar have launched this trail balloon. It shows that they are thinking. They are not satisfied with the pieties and platitudes about economic development that reflect the conventional wisdom in Virginia. Moreover, the op-ed reflects a deeper level of analysis that Trani’s think tank has brought to the discussion about economic development in Richmond. It’s a good thing that people are asking these kinds of questions.

Working toward a Richmond-Hampton Roads mega-region is a conversation worth having. A region’s single-most important asset in a globally competitive knowledge economy is access to a skilled and educated workforce. Larger MSAs, by definition, have larger workforces, and it’s no accident that a disproportionate share of economic activity is gravitating to the nation’s (and the world’s) largest regions and mega-regions.

However, Norfolk and Richmond would have to create genuinely integrated labor markets, which is not easy to do when the two urban cores are roughly 100 miles distant. Making matters worse are the bodies of water that make it exceedingly expensive to link south Hampton Roads with the Virginia Peninsula, not to mention Richmond. The transportation projects that Frantz advocates — higher-speed rail, the U.S. 460 Connector (which is really designed to attract manufacturing and logistical investment, not tie labor markets together), a wider I-64 and a Third Crossing — would cost multiple billions of dollars and are clearly beyond the capacity of either the Commonwealth of Virginia or the regions to fund under current conditions. Part of the conversation would have to focus on where that money will come from.

Another concern is that creating a unified mega-region would accelerate the pace of scattered, disconnected, low-density development between the two regions — exurban sprawl. Knitting the two regions tightly enough together to function as a single labor market would be highly energy- and capital- intensive at a time when economic and demographic trends are pushing development not out from the urban core but in toward the center. Thus, the vision is at odds with the green dream of conserving energy, shrinking the environmental footprint and creating more fiscally sustainable human settlement patterns.

Once upon a time, the United States was prosperous enough for Virginians to think big like this. I recall a movement two decades ago for Richmond and Hampton Roads to start planning for a super-regional airport capable of serving the two growing regions in the 21st century. The idea was to acquire the land and start planning in anticipation of the time the capacity was needed. Never happened. The idea died on the vine. And that was back when times were flush. Today, the federal government is careening toward a fiscal apocalypse that will assuredly pare the funds available to support state and local initiatives like the ones that Frantz and Pugar mention. Moreover, when Uncle Sam actually starts cutting spending (as opposed to cutting forecasts of future spending), Virginia’s economy will be the first to feel the pinch.

The nation, and Virginia along with it, is entering an era of prolonged fiscal austerity — 10 or 20 years at least. I’m not sure it’s an appropriate time to start dreaming up big, bold, expensive projects that soak up massive public resources. It’s a time for husbanding resources and focusing on projects of limited scope with high probabilities of success and high rates of return. For the foreseeable future, we need to expend our creative energy on revitalizing dysfunctional institutions like land use, education and health care, not gambling on big returns from speculative scheme.

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    This is such an a ridiculous, and un-serious attempt at thinking Big Thoughts. Let’s break it down:

    (1) Williams Mullen, a major lobbying firm in Richmond, has its people push the idea that a simple change in marketing and SMSAs will solve the region’s problems and merge two very different regions. Richmond’s economy is very different from Tidewater’s — deeper industrial base and fewer military related facilities (discounting Ft. Lee). The same people want billions spent on high speed rail or higher speed rail so Richmond’s business elite can use the Main Street station to get to Norfolk. Hot flash: the station was obsolete from the day it was built in the early 1900s. And, Richmond’s business elite actually is pretty much in Short Pump, miles to the west.
    (2) Forget the newspaper. This is another effort by its failing publisher, Thomas A. Silvestri, to stay a player in Richmond. He has cut his staff so deeply that they have to get law firms to write their articles. And, Silvestri used to be head of the Chamber of Commerce, a curious conflict of interest for a newspaperman. It reminds me of my time as a Moscow correspondent when Izvestia was the Soviet government paper and Pravda, the Communist Party paper. Same difference. The scheme has worked so well that Warren Buffet takes over the RTD in a couple of weeks to keep Media General from going bankrupt. .

    (3) While Richmond’s elite waxes eloquent about a Trani-based concept to keep the retired college president in the game, one wonders what people in Hampton Roads think about it. Have any of the Richmond luminaries asked them? I read the papers there and I haven’t seen such great concepts just yet.

    (4) And while we’re at it, why not create an SMSA utopia. It would stretch from Portland, Me. to Jacksonville, Fla. Wait, maybe Miami! I’m sure the concept will draw tons of global interest.

    Such navel gazing (and I would like to use a stronger word) is delusional when Greater Richmond can’t even agree on a baseball stadium.

    I assume Williams Mullen gets Big Bucks for thinking the Big Thoughts.

    PS: Jim the idea of a great international airport between Richmond and Norfolk is so quaint!

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    “I recall a movement two decades ago for Richmond and Hampton Roads to start planning for a super-regional airport capable of serving the two growing regions in the 21st century. “.

    And while Richmond was pondering the possibility of maybe perhaps doing something, the MWAA completely rebuilt Reagan National Airport and is doing the same at Dulles International Airport.

    Richmond flounders because its leadership stinks. Period.

    1. The reason nothing happened is that the airport would have been insanely expensive, located a considerable distance from core metropolitan areas, and traffic wouldn’t have materialized for several decades. Very different situation from Northern Virginia.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        In 2000, the Austin MSA had a population of 1.2M while the Richmond MSA has a population of 1.1M. Austin’s new airport opened in 1999.

        Today, Austin has a population of 1.8M while Richmond has 1.3M.

        Austin is also one of America’s fastest growing technology areas. Certainly, the excellent University of Texas helps that. So too does a good airport. In fact, one scheduled route stands out. The flights from Austin to San Jose, CA have long been called the “nerd birds”. It is said that the plane glows with a florescent light as it flies since the seats are filled with young technologists using their PCs as they fly.

        Two state capitals of similar size (in 2000). One invests for its future and takes risks. The other doesn’t.

        A merger between Richmond and Tidewater would only serve to drag down Tidewater.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Also interesting that the Op-Ed piece was written by two Richmonders. Has anybody in Tidewater said anything about wanting a merger with Richmond?

    Why do you think the people in Hampton Roads want to play with Richmond?

    Or, does the Richmond elite simply believe that any other area, even one 100 miles away, would be thrilled to be part of Greater Richmond? Maybe ask the people of Kentucky or West Virginia about that. In fact, historically speaking, the only way Richmond could get a dog to play with it would be by tying a pork chop around its neck.

    1. For what it’s worth, Frantz works out of Williams Mullen’s Virginia Beach office.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Fair point if he’s from Virginia Beach and not a Richmond transplant to Virginia Beach.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Doubtful one employee working at a branch office of Williams Mullen in Virginia Beach or Norfolk speaks for Hampton Roads. That is, unless you consider Hampton Roads the edge of the Richmond Empire, sort of like Scotland in the Roman Empire.

    1. I don’t think Frantz “speaks for” Hampton Roads. He speaks for himself. But it’s pretty clear from his op-ed that he speaks *from* a Hampton Roads perspective. There was a lot more in the piece about what Hampton Roads could get out of the mega-region than what Richmond could get out of it.

      As LarryG noted, if Richmond wanted to align itself with another region, which would it pick, the Washington MSA or the Hampton Roads MSA?

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        If we’re picking teams here – NoVa wants to be on the same team as Charlottesville or, perhaps, Tidewater.

        We have nothing in common with Richmond and I think most people up here would have no interest in any sort of alliance with Richmond.

        We were all proud of Arthur Ashe.

  5. larryg Avatar

    “creating” regions? Who has experience in doing that? Have any of our existing regions actually been centrally-planned?

    When Dulles Airport was conceived and located – was it done as an airport or was it done as part of a plan to expand the NoVa region?

    Given geography, I think it’s far more likely to have a DC-Richmond corridor than Richmond-Hampton but in the bigger, longer scheme of things, many years ago it was predicted that Va _would_ have a “Golden Crescent” that included all 3 as an interconnected region.

  6. FreeDem Avatar

    None of the Hampton Roads localities knows how to work well with the neighboring localities, what makes us think we can get Hampton Roads to work with Richmond?

    I can see Hampton Roads and Richmond ending up as part of a chain of major metropolitan areas, much like the current Boston-New York-Philadelphia-DC corridor. Eventually we’ll see that occur as the growth in Northern Virginia spreads south through Fredericksburg to connect with growth in Richmond’s northern suburbs.

    The problem for this growth expanding beyond Richmond is that the southern Hampton Roads route along 460 will need to deal with significantly unappealing areas (Petersburg, the 460 corridor). This area might develop some industrial manufacturing backbone because of improvements to infrastructure and the port, but I have a hard time seeing it becoming a major area …

  7. larryg Avatar

    yeah.. I notice that the north side views the south side as slightly better than warm spit as vice versa.

    But the HR/TW area is in total agreement about certain things:

    1. – they do not want no stinkin gas tax increase, zippo
    2.- they do not want tolls
    3. – they do not trust their political leaders choosing transportation priorities
    4. – they think the HOV lanes are worthless for HOV and would convert them to General Purpose in a heartbeat if they could vote.

  8. larryg Avatar

    5. – they want RoVa to pay for their infrastructure needs
    6. – if they had access to a yardarm – Connaughton…the two would become one
    7. – If they could disband the MPO – the deed would be done before dark on the day they could.
    8. – their view of the worth and value of K-12 education is very different from NoVa’s collective view
    9. – The Va Port authority and it’s infrastructure plans are as welcome as a Vampire at midnight.
    10. – reserved for you know who down HR/TW way

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    Tidewater has immense potential. I think it has the greatest surplus of potential over achievement in the state.

    However, it can’t just be about the military. That’s too tenuous a lifeline in these days of pending budget cuts.

    Renovate and expand the Norfolk Airport.

    Demand that one of Virginia’s “Big 3” universities open a serious campus in Tidewater (preferably VT) or take funds away from the “Big 3” and bulk up Christopher Newport.

    Build the infrastructure needed for the port.

    1. Christopher Newport? Why not ODU?

    2. FreeDem Avatar

      I’m not seeing it. Look at the demographic profile of Tidewater in terms of college attainment and the place looks like a decaying Rustbelt city in the Midwest. Take away tourism and the military and the area is set for economic stagnation.

      Building up CNU does nothing if the graduating students leave the community, which they have every reason to do.

  10. larryg Avatar

    ” Take away tourism and the military and the area is set for economic stagnation.”

    tell me why FreeDem is wrong and HR/TW becomes more like RoVa without these two advantages….

  11. I don;t see getting much done at the super regional level until we get something done at the personal level.

    Family Net Worth Drops to Level of Early ’90s, Fed Says

    “The median family, richer than half of the nation’s families and poorer than the other half, had a net worth of $77,300 in 2010, down from $126,400 in 2007, the Fed said. The crash of housing prices explained three-quarters of the loss.

    This vast loss of wealth was compounded by a loss of income, as the earnings of the median family fell by 7.7 percent over the same period.

    The new data come from the Fed’s much-anticipated release Monday of its triennial Survey of Consumer Finance, one of the broadest and deepest sources of information about the financial health of American families. The latest survey is based on data collected in 2010. Figures are reported in 2010 dollars.

    Unsurprisingly, the report is full of grim news, and although it is news from 18 months ago, fresher sources of economic data make clear that most households have since seen only modest increases, at best, in wealth and income.

    Despite these setbacks, consumers have continued to spend surprising amounts of money in recent years, helping to keep the economy growing at a modest pace. The survey underscores where the money is coming from: Americans are saving less for future needs and making little progress in repaying debts. “

  12. larryg Avatar

    more incontrovertible proof that Obama is a boob!

  13. Larry, name some domestic program where Obama has succeeded.

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