Let’s define the region together

By: Tom Silvestri | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: October 09, 2011

Now is the time to define one Richmond region for the future.

Depending on your perspective, job or critical assessment of potential, more than one region exists.

Like a robust selection of dress shirts, the region can be worn in a small, medium, large or X-large.

Maybe even a giant size exists, too, such as including more terrain between Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. But that would depend on appetite and boldness.

Why reconsider the geographic composition now?

Contemplate a few opening reasons, which are by no means definitive.

Greater Richmond will need more girth, focused options and effective collaboration to better compete with other regions. Doing so would raise the value of our location on the Eastern Seaboard, our quality of life in general — and our lack of congestion.

The Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area’s population grew 15 percent between 2000 and 2010 to more than 1,250,000.

The growth is uneven, which opens the door to efficiently solve similar problems or capture like opportunities across a broader area. Those would include improving educational attainment, installing regional transportation solutions, developing our work force for a new era, fostering health-care innovation, attacking stubborn poverty as it spreads from the city into the suburbs, embracing an increasingly diverse region, dealing with the housing foreclosure implications and planning for the aging baby boomers.

Also, the re-emergence of Fort Lee in its larger role as a logistics juggernaut will stretch the region’s core, putting more focus south of the James River.

Plenty of opportunities still exist along the region’s main arteries — originating interstates 95 (north and south) and 64 (east and west) as well as development potential along our outer ring of Interstate 295 and State Route 288. Political talk of tolls on I-95 may even help reinvent U.S. Route 1.

In a thought piece for the new think tank Richmond’s Future, Jack Berry restarts the discussion on how to define the Richmond region.

Berry’s 360-degree view comes from his role today heading Venture Richmond, the downtown booster group and big-events organizer, and his former role as county administrator in Hanover.

“I don’t know about you, but I’ve made more trips down I-95 in the last 12 months to see what’s going on than I have in the last 12 years,” Berry writes. “Which makes me wonder whether RVA should encompass more than just Richmond, and more than the Big Four.”

* * * * *

We all know what happens when we put on something that doesn’t fit right.

If you define the petite-size region as being just the city or either of its larger neighbors, then the small fit for our region would be Richmond and the counties with the first- and second-largest population, Chesterfield and Henrico. The three make up the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which builds and operates major roadways and financed construction of The Diamond in the mid-1980s.

Medium will size up to the “Big Four” as the next largest county, Hanover, comes aboard. That foursome expects benefits from the Greater Richmond Partnership, which coordinates economic development marketing, recruitment and job expansion.

The region tries on the large by adding the components of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, which serves the Big Four and the adjacent counties of Goochland, Powhatan, New Kent and Charles City, along with the center of the universe, the town of Ashland. The Greater Richmond Chamber recently bulked up to fit this size as well.

X-large pushes the region out by adding nearby localities, including several from the Crater Regional Planning District: south, to pick up the Tri-Cities of Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights, along with the counties of Prince George, Sussex, Surry and Dinwiddie; east, to welcome the counties of King William and King and Queen; north, to pull in Caroline; and west, to include Amelia, Cumberland and Louisa.

Berry notes that the Metropolitan Statistical Area is what the Census Bureau uses to describe the Richmond region. The MSA includes the X-large group of localities, with the exception of Surry.

“The MSA constitutes a pretty powerful region,” writes Berry, who emphasizes the inclusion of all area colleges. “Not only does it include the Richmond financial district and the suburban office parks, it picks up the manufacturing base in the Hopewell area, and some big-ticket, high-tech employers like Rolls-Royce, and the fast-growing employment and knowledge base at Fort Lee.”

* * * * *

One immediate action would be getting intimately comfortable with the size large region across all major activities — while sharpening the collaboration instincts within the X-large region. This certainly makes sense for planning and long-range projects that touch all of the region.

“If we began to think and act like a really big region, to include the entire MSA, what would that mean for regional institutions?” Berry asks. “What would our future look like if we planned like one region?

“What if our state legislators occasionally voted like one region? What functions are truly local and which ones are regional?”

In the meantime, Richmond’s Future, which is headed by former Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene P. Trani, is collecting data and researching trends to pinpoint initiatives that will propel the Richmond region over the next 20 years.

Defining (or redefining, for long-time locals) the Richmond region is a critical first step.

“What do you think?” Berry concludes.

All of us should indeed think and offer views at www.richmondfuture.org. Share them with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Don’t sit on the sidelines for this deliberation. Our future is at stake.