At Public Square, residents explore challenges and strengths of Richmond

Richmond Times-Dispatch Published: December 4, 2015

Richmond has a lot to offer millennials considering moving to the area for jobs, but the people who oversee hiring at some of the region’s large corporations sometimes don’t know it, said Rachel Burgess, who surveyed human resources leaders as part of her job at the Southeastern Institute of Research.

“One participant (in a focus group I conducted) said there’s nothing to do in Richmond after 5,” she said. “I about jumped out of my chair.”

Burgess was a panelist Thursday evening at the 61st Richmond Times-Dispatch Public Square, which covered the work of Richmond’s Future, a regional think tank that for the past five years has studied issues facing the region and aims to start a conversation about how the area can move itself forward and continue to be competitive.

The event — a jumping-off point for that conversation — was attended by about 200 people and was moderated by Thomas A. Silvestri, president and publisher of The Times-Dispatch.

The Richmond’s Future report was wide-ranging, addressing issues from race to, as Burgess noted, the struggle to attract young workers to the region.

Bob Holsworth, the director of research for Richmond’s Future, said the area has amenities that draw those younger workers, but getting the word out about the city’s outdoor and entertainment opportunities is something the area needs to concentrate on.

Another issue, he said, is that Richmond isn’t always seen by millennials as a great place to work.

“We could be a magnet for young people,” he said. “But they don’t think the employment opportunities are fabulous.”

Richmond’s Future was founded by Holsworth’s former boss at Virginia Commonwealth University, Eugene Trani, the school’s president emeritus.

Now finishing its work, the group issued 11 major takeaways and forecasted seven upcoming trends that its participants hope can serve as a blueprint to move the region forward in the coming decades. The group’s members plan to issue a final version of their report early next year.

One immediate goal they suggested the region pursue is a focus on logistics and shipping, capitalizing on the proximity to Hampton Roads, the Army’s logistics college at Fort Lee, and the Port of Richmond.

The city has already made progress on that front through its investment in the port, but they said the region can go further.

“Why was Amazon moving here?” said Ted Chandler, a chief partner in New Richmond Ventures, who also served as a panelist. “They figured out we were a logistics center before we figured out we were a logistics center. … All we have to do is recognize it and remove some barriers.”

John W. Martin, the president of the Southeastern Institute of Research, said the city is benefiting from a trend toward urban centers but that as activity centers such as Innsbrook and Midlothian grow, transportation between them will become more important.

Ken Johnson, a panelist and the president of the marketing firm Johnson Inc., said demand to expand public transportation is an example of an area where the populace is ahead of elected leaders.

“We’ve got to address the transportation here,” he said. “It’s horrible, but it boils down to one thing, and that’s political will.”

Audience members also asked about topics ranging from the role of millennials to persistent questions about race, education and economic opportunity.

Terone Green, long active in civic and community affairs in the area, questioned why officials spend money to visit other cities to get ideas about Richmond when many in the area have not seen enough of the area’s attributes. “If you don’t appreciate what you have,” Green said, “you’re going to lose it.”

Michael Parsons, 27, said he moved to Richmond about 2½ years ago and described himself as the kind of person whom officials would say the region wants to attract — young and interested in settling and raising a family. But Parsons, a social worker, said he is troubled by the segregation that he sees and urged the audience and presenters to break down those barriers. “Mix things up. … Raise people up from poverty,” he said.

Johnson said he believed race relations here are at “an all-time low.”

“We have to find a way to have that real conversation,” he said. “That’s where we’re lacking.”