Miller and Holsworth: RVA’s next big move? That’s logistics

By: Keith Miller and Bob Holsworth | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: February 24, 2013

The author Malcolm Gladwell has used the term “tipping point” to describe the moment where a phenomenon gains momentum in a way that appears almost unstoppable. The concept is applicable in a wide variety of contexts — to ideas, products and messages.

It could be said that the Richmond metropolitan area is approaching a tipping point in logistics as the private sector, governments at all levels, and academic institutions are increasingly trying to capitalize on RVA’s geographic advantages. Just consider the following:

  • The region has an extraordinarily favorable location for shipping and distribution, with almost 50 percent of the U.S. population within a day’s drive; we have existing logistics-related businesses from Hanover to Prince George.
  • The Richmond metropolitan area is within 100 miles of the East Coast’s deepest-water port in Hampton Roads. Barge service from the Port of Virginia to the Port of Richmond now proceeds three times per week.
  • RIC is among the nation’s top 60 airports for cargo shipments.
  • The extraordinary expansion at Fort Lee over the past decade has centered on its capacity to offer logistics education and training at all levels to military personnel.
  • Amazon has located and constructed major facilities in Chesterfield and Dinwiddie.
  • Four universities (Longwood University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State University) have collaborated to establish the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems that will link university-based scholars with private sector companies to promote research that provides real-world solutions to business challenges.

The breadth and depth of logistics-based activities demonstrate why it needs to be a vitally important component of RVA’s economic development strategy. Perhaps most importantly, logistics can employ large numbers of our people-ranging from warehousing and distribution jobs that can be performed with on-site training to sophisticated research-grounded positions that require advanced education and professional skills.

Over the past year, Richmond’s Future, a regional think tank, established a Logistics Task Force that brought together leaders from Fort Lee, the area’s private sector companies, and colleges and universities. The group met regularly and developed a position paper outlining how the logistics potential of RVA could be further enhanced. Here are three of the task force’s major recommendations.

Transform the Port of Richmond into Virginia’s second inland port.

The growing attention paid to international shipping and the increased prominence of the Port of Virginia has also highlighted the role of inland ports, facilities that transfer goods between truck and rail.

The Virginia Inland Port (VIP) in Front Royal is often cited as one of the nation’s most successful inland port operations. It is located on 160 acres at the junction of I-81 and I-66 and has on-site rail served by Norfolk Southern five days a week. Thirty-nine major companies have located at adjacent facilities that include more than 8 million square feet of building and more than 8,000 employees.

There is an opportunity to transform the Port of Richmond (PoR) into Virginia’s second major inland port. Unlike Front Royal, the PoR is located on a waterway and is already accepting barge service from the Port of Virginia three times a week. In addition, the venue surrounding the port could provide 500-600 acres for transportation, manufacturing and logistics firms.

The task force recommended the development of strategy and timetable for enhancing the capacity of the port itself and for transforming the surrounding area into a viable inland port operation.

Capitalize on logistics activity at Fort Lee.

The task force also recommended that the region take better advantage of the incredible growth at Fort Lee. The economic impact of the base’s expansion after the last BRAC round has been enormous, in terms of jobs, contracts for local businesses and spending in the community by military personnel.

The task force discussed ways that even greater synergies could be developed that might enhance the region. Members of the group spoke about possible educational exchanges, where students at RVA’s colleges and universities could be exposed to the experts that teach at the base. They examined how students at the Army Logistics University might obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the region’s schools.

But almost everyone felt that the most impactful synergy was in the area of workforce development. Local businesses expressed keen interest in recruiting military personnel with logistical skills when they are preparing to leave the service. And the leaders at Fort Lee noted that integration into the civilian workforce for departing personnel is a major goal for them as well.

The task force recommended that a public-private partnership be created and housed at one of our community colleges for the purpose of linking veterans who have been trained at Fort Lee to the job opportunities in logistics throughout the region.

Make RVA a capital of logistics innovation and research.

The creation of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems (CCALS) is intended to link university-based researchers with private-sector logistics-based companies to find real-world solutions to the challenges that their companies face every day. Adopting a model that has worked at the highly successful Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) in Prince George, CCALS’ industry members will support and help direct research by faculty from Longwood, UVA, VCU and VSU that will enable the region to become a leader in high-level logistics-based science.

The key feature of the model is that it provides a unique way of focusing academic research skills on matters that can make an immediate impact on business performance. It reduces research and development costs for companies and firms by sharing facilities and research costs across a number of member businesses. And it helps colleges and universities with curriculum design and development by giving faculty and graduate students a deeper understanding of cutting-edge business challenges. The task force also recommended that an effort be started to recruit potential industry members to CCALS as part of the region’s economic development strategy.

The task force emphasized that the development of collaborative academic programs could make the region a recognized leader in logistics education. Imagine if we create a degree experience that is similar to what the VCU Brandcenter has created for the advertsing and marketing industries. RVA could become the acknowledged home of logistics education, for both the military and the private sector.

Finally, the task force advocated the creation of a Logistics Round Table that would enable the region to monitor its progress in logistics and become a leader in creating civil-military partnerships.

Its membership will include ranking officials at Fort Lee and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA Aviation), community college officials, participants at CCALS, regional business and key local and regional governmental leaders. The Round Table will be co-chaired by Maj. Gen. Larry Wyche, commanding general, Fort Lee; Mayor Dwight Jones of Richmond; Doug Farley, vice president of operations at Owens and Minor; and Dr. Keith Miller, one of the co-authors.

We believe that given the advantages of our location, the enthusiasm that is evident across all sectors in the region and the ongoing innovations that are occurring, there is no reason that we can’t push logistics in RVA over the tipping point.

Keith Miller is president of Virginia State University and chair of the Logistics Task Force at Richmond’s Future, a think tank devoted to good ideas and better information to advance the RVA region. Bob Holsworth is managing principal of DecideSmart and research director for Richmond’s Future. To learn more about Richmond’s Future and read the full logistics task force report, go to richmondfuture.org.