By Philip Newswanger
Portsmouth City Manager, John Rowe, and the city’s new economic development director, Charles “Chuck” Rigney, agreed to an interview with Veer Magazine. Rigney, former assistant director of Development for the city of Norfolk, was hired Nov. 3 to head Portsmouth’s economic development initiatives. Rowe and Rigney offered their views on the future of Portsmouth’s economic development strategy and its focus on Portsmouth as a unique city in which to work, live and play.
In your new position as Portsmouth’s economic development director, what new economic development initiatives will you pursue?
Rigney: I think there are several. For the first 60 days, I will go and meet the businesses that are here and introduce myself. I will get a sense of them and hear what they have to say about the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been on a listening tour. I have met with Jerry Miller, Massimo Zanetti, Western Branch Diesel, Ocean Marine. I am meeting with the developers who will be developing Victory Village. I am getting to know the big players and taking care of them. If we can take care of the Portsmouth companies that are on the ground already and get them to expand and grow their companies, we will already be doing extremely well.
What existing economic development initiatives will you strengthen?
Rigney: Port related business, of course. As John pointed out, our name begins with port and we definitely have to help the port get better, bigger and stronger in Portsmouth, as well as the ancillary businesses that feed off the port.
Rowe: Fifty percent of the Virginia Port Authority’s assets are in Portsmouth, with the Maersk facility and Portsmouth Marine Terminal, which has been re-activated. Then if Craney Island is expanded eastward and developed into a marine terminal, Portsmouth would then have three-fifths of the port’s assets. We are on the right side of the river as it is related to transportation. If we can get Patriot’s Crossing – which I support – launched, it will be huge for the region. It’s just going to enhance Portsmouth’s presence as a port.
Rigney: The cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth shoulder a disproportionate health of the economy because of the presence of the port and military assets in out cities and yet the burden of responsibility that comes with that on our two localities is tough. As a result of that, 50 percent of our properties are tax exempt. It’s not that we don’t recognize that as a necessary burden, yet there has to be sensitivity to these two communities that are picking up and doing the heavy lifting to ensure regional stability. I wouldn’t call it a need for a thank you every once in awhile. But I think it should be a recognition of the historical role of these two communities in ensuring the overall health of the economy is understood and when decisions are made that impact the port and military these two communities need to be treated a little bit better.
Rowe: We have re-activated the Portsmouth Port and Industrial Commission and they have begun to focus on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River. The new Jordan Bridge presents a gateway for us. You can stand at the foot of the Jordan Bridge and face west and visualize a corridor that starts there and goes west along Victory Boulevard.
Rigney: How do we leverage to do two things on the waterfront? One is take advantage of our industrial opportunities on the waterfront and do it in such a way that is consistent with the other part of what Portsmouth has been doing best at and that’s cleaning up the Elizabeth River.
I went and saw the Paradise Creek [Nature Park] initiative. The city of Portsmouth is going to own that property next year. Here’s an example where the Jordan Bridge and industrial companies coexist with that beautiful preserve where our school children and eco-tourists can go. That is part of Portsmouth’s draw. Here’s this nature preserve right next to the historic Cradock community and yet it coexists with what we want to see as a proper utilization of the waterfront, and everyone’s buying into it.
Rowe: The Elizabeth River Project owns Paradise Creek Nature Park and they will convey it to us within a year.
Rigney: There’s a possibility of the Elizabeth River Project partnering with us in leveraging more money for clean-up. We have areas that have lain dormant because of the difficulty of getting dollars to clean-up those properties. It would also be imperative and helpful for letting companies and property owners know what resources are available to them.
Rowe: We have a very unique partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency, the state’s department of Environmental Quality and the private sector. Through that process, we will get new and useful waterfront.
Rigney: Those are things we are going to be firing up in a much bigger way. I think industry seems to be excited about that. In a couple of places that have been industrial they might be better served as waterfront residential. Who knows? The point is to get re-focused on a couple of things and see if the timing is right. The Elizabeth River Project has been successful in getting the attention of the port and nearby industries in partnering with Paradise Creek that is a win-win for everyone.
What are Portsmouth’s strengths?
Rowe: I see location to be one of them. I see the three big things that drive our economy: port, military and tourism. We were talking about the port and everything that’s related. What Jim Bento (Ocean Marine) does and what Earl Industries does [shipyard]. The military is an asset to our community and to the nation. I’m concerned if there’s another BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure Commission). Norfolk Naval Shipyard is doing hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure improvement that would be hard to walk away from. I think Norfolk Naval Shipyard is going to be the shipyard on the East Coast for aircraft carriers and submarines. Take the Naval Hospital. We have 6,000 employees who work there and only a third of them live in Portsmouth. The other two-thirds live someplace else. I think our location is going to help us. With tolls and with people paying a couple of thousand a year, I think we’re going to end up with more people living in Portsmouth, which I think will be a validation of what’s happening in this country – which is a move back to urban centers.
Rigney: That is part of our economic development initiative. People who are working at the Naval Hospital, the shipyard and other large employers – we have the ability to give them a lifestyle now that is the changing demographic of America that wants to live in denser communities. As long as you can have everything you need within walking distance. That’s kind of the thing we are going to create. I also believe companies and businesses are re-visiting the concept where their workers live and where their job centers might be. With the population base that we have on this side – Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Suffolk – we can begin to make an argument to say why don’t you put your business right here in Portsmouth and your workers won’t have the same kind of commute issues. They won’t have to worry about when and if there’s a tie up at all. And you will still have the ability as a resident of the region to go and enjoy the amenities of the rest of the region if you want but you have your main base here in Portsmouth.
Rowe: The U.S. Coast Guard commands in Portsmouth are assets. People who have been stationed here often come back for a second tour and Portsmouth is then seen as a cool place to live by word of mouth. On tourism, we tend to think of the Beach or the Historic Triangle. But by the middle of the week tourists are looking for something else to do. We get a lot of visitors with that mindset – looking for other things to do. We have the Children’s Museum [of Virginia], which is a great asset. We have the Sports Hall of Fame and we have a quaint downtown. Downtown is like our front door.
Rigney: We have won two awards – one for being bike friendly and one for being pedestrian friendly. We’re the only city [in the region] with that designation, by the way. We have to let the arts and culture flourish in ways that are more different and push the envelope a little bit. To all my friends, come over and walk around with me or let me take you to Paradise Creek or City Park or Bide- A-Wee [golf course]. I want everybody to come over here and see what we are doing over here.
Rowe: Our diversity is a strength. Portsmouth is a diverse city and our neighborhoods are part of our strengths too. We have pretty good solid neighborhoods.
How do you plan to market Portsmouth as a city in which to do business and a place in which to work, live and play?
Rigney: I think there are two things. The good news is that John has a new department focused on marketing, events and tourism. The department will convey a broad awareness of why Portsmouth is a place to visit and stay. We can convince groups to begin coming to the Renaissance Hotel in larger numbers so they can base here in Portsmouth and have their conventions and conferences here in Portsmouth because of the tourism assets we have on the ground. LaVoris Pace will head the department and report to John. We will be layering in [with this department] what economic development possibilities exist in Portsmouth.
We are also going to spend more money on improving our website. In fact, we have re-tooled it a bit. Most companies do the bulk of their [research] work on the Internet now [for relocation and investment]. So you have to have a user friendly website that highlights your strengths and hits the hot buttons of what that company wants to do. Eighty percent of the research is done on the website before you get that first phone call indicating you are in the hunt [by companies looking to relocate and invest]. So we have to make sure our website and social media are up to speed. We also need to beef up our marketing materials. We will be looking to improve our public image and the face of economic development.
Rowe: We want to develop some new focus partnerships, for example, Old Dominion University. It is coincidental that ODU’s leadership is looking at what they can do to help economic development in the region and we are thinking the same thing. How do we partner with the biggest research institution in our region? It seems like a natural fit.
Rigney: In mentioning our strengths, there is our connection with the universities. One example is Tidewater Community College’s visual arts center in downtown Portsmouth. We want to be a place where entrepreneurs can start-up. I believe in brain train rather than brain drain.