The greater good

Published 1:14 pm Saturday, June 20, 2015

by Bryan Stephens

There have been efforts by many organizations toward regionalism over the years, but the reality was that living well off ever-growing Defense spending provided no real incentive to work together.

Today, Department of Defense-related income represents only 42 percent of the regional economy, down from 49 percent and still falling.

That’s a problem for the entire state of Virginia, because as Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said, “when Hampton Roads is healthy, Virginia is healthy.”

One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years — as a former chief executive officer of a manufacturing company, a former senior U.S. military officer, and now as president and chief executive officer for the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce — is that nobody can achieve success on their own. Success requires collaboration and partnership.

The time has come for wholehearted, purposeful regional planning and collective action. Too often today, municipalities compete rather than cooperate.

If Hampton Roads is going to advance, each community should instead leverage its capabilities and resources to strengthen its own economic condition by first strengthening the entire region.

The saying “a rising tide lifts all boats” is a perfect metaphor. Kansas City’s branding covers a two-state area encompassing 18 counties. The Greater Cincinnati regional effort covers a three-state area of 15 counties. In both places, regional thinking comes first. That improves economic outcomes based on workforce quality, education, operating costs and overall quality of life. These are the factors that drive business location and investment decisions.

This type of collaborative approach, while still promoting individuality and unique capabilities, has been successfully demonstrated by one of the world’s largest conglomerates: the United States Military. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reform Act of 1986 forced the services and their personnel to fundamentally change their mindset, making “jointness” a priority without sacrificing service pride in history and capabilities.

The change took time; however, today jointness seamlessly touches every aspect of the military, including carrying out real world operations, policy and directives, training/education and even promotions to a certain level. The premise rests on the fact that there is strength in unity.

We do not need legislation to force our action; we only need a coalition of willing leaders who view regional cooperation as a priority. Our economic-related endeavors must be coordinated, reflect consistency and standardization, and benefit all in the long run.

It is important to remember that Cincinnati, Kansas City and other similar regional economic development areas are our competitors, not our Hampton Roads neighbors.

In order to turn around our economic condition it is imperative our collective actions establish a climate that enhances businesses success.

I would like to see us focus on four areas.

First, a focused “regional” economic development effort on specific, high-payoff industries like offshore energy, biomedical, cyber security, modeling and simulation and advanced manufacturing.

Second, recognizing the importance of entrepreneurship in our economy and the power of collective impact, the creation of a “regional” entrepreneur council to facilitate collaboration and act as a “systems integrator” for all the entrepreneurial and small business programs that now exist in the region.

Third, the launch of a true “regional” military and veteran support coalition to facilitate and streamline veteran transition into high paying jobs in Hampton Roads.

Finally, the establishment of a “regional” young professional organization which encourages millennials to network, discuss regional issues and promote innovative ideas which would make Hampton Roads more attractive for them to live, work and raise families.

I invite you to join the ever-increasing number of Hampton Roads business and community leaders dedicated to building a strong future for the whole region.

Bryan K. Stephens is the president and chief executive officer of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce and can be reached at 664-2535.