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.