Richmond’s Future: The Executive Summary

Richmond Times Dispatch Published: November 29, 2015

Origin and Purpose

Richmond’s Future was established in 2011 as an independent, regional “think tank” under the leadership of Dr. Eugene P. Trani, former president of Virginia Commonwealth University. Richmond’s Future filled a gap among local organizations dedicated to regional progress because, although there were a wealth of groups addressing regionwide matters who had supported specific research projects, there was no regional think tank primarily dedicated to producing studies that could be translated into action.

Dr. Trani selected a board that was drawn from leaders of local organizations, CEOs of companies who have been actively engaged in the business and policy arenas, and members of the community who possessed expertise in the content areas that the think tank was to explore. Prior to the formation of Richmond’s Future, a preliminary scan of local and regional think tanks across the rest of the nation was conducted. The examination enabled Richmond’s Future to define its own niche more sharply as an entity that would strive to combine organizational independence with practical relevance.

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On one hand, the think tank would be independent of the governmental institutions, organized interest groups, and community organizations that existed in the region in order to ensure that the selection of topics studied, the approaches that would be adopted, the conclusions reached, and the recommendations made would not be unduly influenced or even perceived to be influenced by a direct affiliation of the think tank with an external organization. For this reason, Richmond’s Future was organized from its inception as a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit with elected officials excluded from membership on the board.

At the same time, board members did not want the think tank to be excessively academic in its approach or so visionary in its orientation that it ignored the present needs and current challenges in the region. They wanted the research produced by Richmond’s Future to be a genuine complement to ongoing activities and to result in practical recommendations and action steps that regional organizations, elected officials, governments, and colleges and universities could be encouraged to promote. With the exception of its foundational regional data projects, the think tank’s research studies were invariably linked to practical recommendations that could help translate findings into effective action steps.

At the outset, the board made a number of decisions that established the reach of the think tank’s initiatives and the manner in which it would conduct its research. The first decision was to adopt an expansive conception of the region that went beyond the boundaries of Richmond-Chesterfield-Hanover-Henrico to essentially include the Census Bureau’s definition of the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The adoption of a broad, region-wide focus rather than a four-locality focus was consistent with contemporary thinking about economic development that emphasizes how regional clusters are the building blocks of successful economies.

Richmond’s Future made a second decision to commit to utilizing locally based researchers as the principal investigators for its studies. By 2011, it was evident that the region had developed a critical mass of talented researchers who were actively contributing to the initiatives of many local organizations. Faculty at local universities and groups such as the Southeastern Institute of Research (SIR), Chmura Analytics, McGuireWoods Consulting, and DecideSmart had experience working on many important local and regional initiatives and could bring their knowledge and experience to the work of the think tank. In addition, organizations such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond also possessed exceptional research capacities.

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The studies and reports conducted by Richmond’s Future could be classified along three major lines.

The first set of studies, “Benchmarking Richmond,” explored how RVA measured up to similarly-sized regions across the country in terms of economic performance, educational attainment, and demographic characteristics.

The second group of reports, “Four Approaches to Regional Progress,” examined cluster strategies, human capital strategies, placemaking approaches, and interregional initiatives that could propel RVA forward. These reports focused on the role of logistics and advanced manufacturing, potential regional approaches to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and workforce development, how RVA should brand itself in the growing competition for talent, and what interregional strategies would be most advantageous for the Richmond region to pursue.

The third avenue of analysis, “Regional Cooperation: Then and Now,” explored the challenges of regional cooperation and identified the most promising approaches to fostering it.

Eleven Takeaways

1) Compared to the nine other regions in the country of similar size, the Richmond MSA is a relatively strong economic performer. On measures of personal income, regional GDP, and percentage of the total population in poverty, RVA compares favorably to the majority of peer regions and is only significantly outperformed by Raleigh-Cary, N.C. RVA has significant employment in key areas of the contemporary economy, including information technology, life sciences, and financial services. The one major caveat is that growth on key economic measures over a decade-long period has been tepid compared to the rest of the peer group.

2) Despite the region’s relatively strong ranking, conditions have worsened for residents at the low end of the economic scale. In the past ten years, overall poverty has ticked upward, the percentage of children in poverty in the region has increased by 15 percent, and housing affordability for renters has become more problematic. While poverty rates in Richmond (22 percent) and Petersburg (18 percent) remain very high, the rate of increase in the more populous counties such as Chesterfield and Henrico has gone up at a faster clip. The poverty rate in Henrico increased by 50 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 6 percent overall to 9 percent. The broader distribution of poverty throughout the region is a trend that is forecasted to continue and should be the target of a regional approach.

3) RVA’s population ranks third out of the 10 peer regions in terms of college degree attainment. Yet the Richmond MSA only ranks eighth in terms of the percentage of adults over 25 who have completed high school. The ranking is related to low degree attainment in Richmond, Petersburg and in a number of the smaller rural counties that comprise the MSA.

4) RVA has a genuine opportunity to become a logistics capital on the East Coast. The region has an extraordinarily favorable location and a unique set of assets. The potential for modernizing the Port of Richmond and creating Virginia’s second inland port, for capitalizing on Fort Lee’s role as the Army Logistics University, for utilizing the research capabilities of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems, and for strengthening the region’s relationship with Hampton Roads, add up to a remarkable opportunity if a strategy for realizing it can be implemented.

5) The region needs to develop a stronger focus on ensuring that all students acquire the skills that will enable them to flourish in the contemporary economy. This should lead to two areas of emphases. First, it should heighten attention on ensuring that all underperforming schools can meet 21st century standards. Second, there needs to be significantly more attention paid to students who are not likely to pursue a college degree in the years after high school. The region needs to focus on re-inventing career and technical education, enabling students to explore a range of possible careers and to develop a game plan regarding potential career pathways that ultimately makes even better use of the area’s first-rate community colleges. As a first step, a regional portal needs to be brought online that will enable students from throughout the region (and their parents) to learn about career options, identify career pathways and how they might best prepare.

6) RVA could be a leader among mid-sized regions in the fierce competition for talented young professionals. The region’s vibrant arts community, thriving food scene and outdoor recreation possibilities could be a powerful magnet for young people who are seeking a great place to live. But there is a clear perception among young professionals, within and outside RVA, that the region is not a great place for employment options. Addressing and reversing this perception will be essential to building a brand for RVA that can capitalize on the other advantages that the region offers.

7) The business community should sponsor a coordinated outreach and internship program to colleges across Virginia and to students from the region attending out-of-state universities that is designed to showcase the employment options in RVA, its burgeoning entrepreneurial culture, and the area’s vibrant cultural opportunities in order to attract more of our graduates back to the region when they complete their education.

8) Richmond’s troubled history with race as well as its overall political climate impacts the overall perception of the region in a negative manner. Studies by the Southeastern Institute of Research indicated that RVA is not perceived by young professionals as a region that values diversity. In addition, RVA has not gained the national reputation that Atlanta and, increasingly, Charlotte has obtained as a metro area that has made substantial progress in bridging the racial divide. RVA’s effort to come to terms with its own history in an inclusive manner is only beginning to be recognized and realized. The demographic shifts that have occurred over the past 20 years clearly indicate that the challenge of becoming a region that is truly inclusive must be addressed by all jurisdictions.

9) In the short and intermediate term, the interregional strategy of RVA should focus on expanding the cooperative activities with Hampton Roads on logistics. It should also seek to capitalize on the extraordinary “education corridor” that exists between Charlottesville and Hampton Roads, where more than half of the students in Virginia’s public four-year colleges and universities attend school, where almost of the commonwealth’s advanced medical training occurs, and where the vast majority of the commonwealth’s Historically Black Colleges and University’s (both public and private) are located. Continuing to build research and teaching collaborations between universities and providing opportunities for graduates to advance their careers should be a key priority. Finally, the region should take advantage of state incentive programs such as the emergent Go Virginia initiative to promote private sector job creation.

10) There is a palpable lack of confidence that the different jurisdictions and major institutions in the region can work together and successfully execute the kinds of strategic action that will enable RVA to meet the challenges it faces in providing opportunities for all citizens and in realizing the region’s economic, social and cultural potential. The recent attention paid to the region’s inability to find a location for a baseball stadium, to reach an agreement on a children’s hospital, to develop a transit plan to best serve those without autos, and to complete a financial audit report in the city of Richmond, have lessened confidence that large institutions and governments will be able to capitalize on the bottom-up energy that is helping to transform the region in an extraordinarily positive manner.

11) It is unlikely that there is a feasible legal, structural or organizational reform that will impel regional cooperation to an entirely new level in the near future. At the same time, a glass-half-full approach that learns from the cooperative efforts that have worked or are currently succeeding could be productive. RVA does have significant examples of where cooperative activities have worked: building a new Convention Center, expanding the airport, establishing the Maggie Walker and Appomattox Governor’s Schools, creating the VCU School of Engineering, developing a consensus on the need to invest in early childhood, and promoting events that can brand the region as a center for outdoor recreation.

A better understanding of how regional cooperation can be a flexible tool, of the paramount role that leaders have played in overcoming obstacles to regional collaboration, of how the state can be enlisted as a partner, and how incentives must be aligned to keep all participants on the same page could significantly improve the quantity and quality of cooperation.