Trani and Holsworth: Ideas and actions for moving RVA ahead

Richmond Times-Dispatch Published: November 28, 2015

Richmond’s Future was established in 2011 as an independent think tank that would address major issues in the region and offer practical recommendations and action steps that could be adopted by community organizations, local governments, and educational institutions.

Richmond’s Future adopted an expansive conception of the region to go beyond the boundaries of Richmond-Chesterfield-Hanover-Henrico and essentially include the Census Bureau’s definition of the Metropolitan Statistical Area. This had the practical effect of channeling attention to the area south of the four jurisdictions and incorporating assets such as Fort Lee.

We conducted 15 separate studies utilizing local researchers that addressed a broad range of issues. Ultimately, almost all of the studies contributed to answering three basic questions. How does RVA compare to other regions of similar size around the country? What are the most fruitful paths that could move the region forward on the issues that matter the most? What are the action steps that need to be taken in the next few years to realize RVA’s potential more fully?

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How Does RVA Stack Up?

How does RVA stack up to other regions around the country? This is a question that many organizations have asked over the years. The comparisons have typically been done by comparing the region to other places around the country that are well known for their success in achieving a particular goal, be that an arts center or a stadium, or a biotech cluster.

At Richmond’s Future, we adopted a slightly different approach because we wanted to compare apples to apples. We started by benchmarking RVA against the nine other regions in the nation that were of similar size in the 2010 census — Birmingham, Buffalo, Hartford, Jacksonville, Louisville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Raleigh-Cary, N.C., and Salt Lake City.

We found that compared to the nine other regions of similar size, RVA is a relatively strong economic performer. On measures of personal income, total employment, and percentage of the population in poverty, RVA compares favorably to the majority of peer regions. We begin from a position of relative strength among mid-sized regions.

There are, however, two major qualifiers to this picture that should prevent us from becoming complacent. In the first place, RVA’s growth on key economic measures has been tepid compared to the rest of the peer group. And the one region in the 2010 peer group that has significantly outperformed, Raleigh-Cary, is a nearby competitor.

Moreover, despite RVA’s relatively strong ranking among peer regions, conditions have declined 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 has increased by 15 percent and housing affordability for renters has declined. While poverty rates in Richmond (22 percent) and Petersburg (18 percent) remain high, the rate of increase in Chesterfield and Henrico has proceeded at a faster clip. For example, the poverty rate in Henrico increased by 50 percent over the decade from 6 percent overall to 9 percent.

Our baseline studies also indicated that RVA is undergoing a remarkable demographic shift that will have considerable implications for our politics, schools, health-care and transportation systems over the next few decades.

While the African-American population of the region has remained steady at 35 percent from 2000-2010, its distribution among the region’s jurisdictions is changing.

In Chesterfield County, the absolute number of African-Americans increased from 46,195 in 2000 to 69,412 in 2010 — a percentage jump of 50 percent. The Virginia Employment Commission projects that in the next census in 2020 there will be, in absolute numbers, more African-Americans living in Henrico than in the city of Richmond.

The percentage of other ethnic and racial minorities in RVA’s population, especially those of Hispanic and Asian descent, will continue to grow. The demographic shift in RVA is perhaps most visible in the local school systems. In 2014-15, the Caucasian population in the Chesterfield County Public Schools was 53.1 percent and over the next several years, it is likely to become majority-minority. In Henrico County, Caucasians were slightly more than 41 percent of the district’s students in 2014-2015.

Another demographic shift that will have enormous implications for RVA is related to age. The traditional age pyramid in which a very large group of young people supported a much smaller group of pre-seniors and seniors is being transformed into an age rectangle in which the percentage of young people and seniors in the population will be relatively similar. In the next 20 to 30 years, the age distribution of RVA’s population will look like Florida does today.

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Four Paths to Regional Progress

The studies conducted for Richmond’s Future examined four major approaches for making regional progress. These included cluster strategies, human capital development, placemaking ideas, and interregional strategies.

Cluster strategies typically look at the industry groups where a region can become nationally competitive. In RVA, information technology, life sciences, and financial services are significant clusters. Our studies also suggested that RVA has a genuine opportunity to become a logistics capital on the East Coast. There is potential to modernize the Port of Richmond and create Virginia’s second inland port, to capitalize on Fort Lee’s role as the Army Logistics University, and to utilize the research capabilities of the newly established Center for Advanced Logistics Systems.

Human capital approaches to regional progress maintain that developing an educated and skilled population is the best long-term strategy for sustainable growth. Our studies focused on two elements that are crucial for RVA. First, we need to ensure that underperforming schools become more successful in raising achievement levels and providing students with the skills that will enable them to flourish in the 21st century economy.

Second, the region needs to place a greater emphasis on preparing students who are not likely to pursue a college degree in the years after high school. RVA should focus on reinventing career and technical education, assisting students (and their parents) to understand the range of possible careers, to enable them to identify potential career pathways and to indicate how they might best prepare for the opportunities and challenges of the contemporary economy.

Placemaking approaches suggest that the defining feature of today’s economy is the global competition for talent and regions must develop their own distinctive brand as centers of creativity and innovation in which entrepreneurs can thrive. In addition, quality of life components — a vibrant arts and music scene, great restaurants, and outdoor recreational opportunities — have become increasingly important factors in a region’s competitiveness.

Our studies revealed that RVA could be a leader among mid-sized regions in the placemaking competition. The region’s extraordinary arts community, thriving food scene, and outdoor recreational possibilities could be a powerful magnet. Our studies also showed that there is a perception among young people that while RVA is a great place to live, it is not viewed as a great place to work. We recommended the creation of proactive internship program to Virginia colleges that will showcase the employment options and cultural opportunities of the region.

RVA’s troubled history on the issue of race still has an impact on this issue. The Southeastern Institute of Research’s study noted that young professionals from outside the region do not associate diversity with RVA. Moreover, the region is not generally thought to have bridged the racial divide in business and politics as well as Atlanta or Charlotte.

RVA is only becoming to come to terms with its own history. In a study for Richmond’s Future, Dr. Charles Bryan and Brent Glass noted that there is an opportunity with the planned National Slavery Museum, the Slave Trail and the Black History Museum for RVA to get this right and help redefine both heritage tourism and present-day RVA in a more inclusive manner.

Interregional and inter-organizational strategies examine how RVA should partner with other regions and external organizations to enhance the strategic goals of our area. Opportunities to access state government incentives such as the emergent Go Virginia initiative should be quickly grasped. Our studies also identified the common interests we share with Hampton Roads on logistics in general and especially on the connection between the Port of Virginia and the possibility on an inland port in Richmond.

Moreover, RVA needs to capitalize on the remarkable educational corridor that exists between Charlottesville and Hampton Roads, where more than half of the enrollment in Virginia’s public four-year colleges and universities occurs, where the major HBCU’s both public and private are located, where much of the advanced medical training in the commonwealth is offered, and where a host of first-tier private colleges attract students from across the country. Breaking down university silos and building research and teaching collaborations should be a high priority.

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Action and Execution

At Richmond’s Future, we believe that the time has arrived to focus on action and execution.

Setbacks such as the inability to agree on a location for a ballpark, on the creation of an independent children’s hospital, and the development of a less fragmented transit system have increased the pessimism about regional cooperation. But we tend to take a glass half-full approach. We think that we can learn from the region’s successful cooperative initiatives — the Convention Center, airport expansion, the creation of the Governor’s schools, the decision to grow Fort Lee during the BRAC process, the work of the Sports Backers, and the new emphasis on early childhood — about how we can overcome obstacles to collaboration and move RVA forward.

We are planning to host a meeting of all the region’s elected leaders, chief administrators, school superintendents and members of the business community in the spring of 2016 to obtain their responses to the ideas that have been generated and to identify the steps that they hope to take.

Yet first, on Dec. 3, we will be presenting our findings at the Public Square hosted by the Richmond Time-Dispatch. We hope that many of you can attend because we want to hear your reactions and your ideas about what’s needed.