A United Hampton Roads Would be the 5th Largest City in America

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By Michael Hamar

Recently, I have attended two LGBT organization events that started me thinking on the divergence in thinking between these organizations and our local cities, tourism bureaus and arts organizations.  One event was the launch for 2015 PrideFest – the actual PrideFest event will be on June 27, 2015 – and the other was a Third Thursday event for Hampton Roads Business OutReach (HRBOR), Hampton Roads’ own gay and gay-friendly chamber of commerce.   Both organizations stress the unity of Hampton Roads.  Indeed, as one of the founders of HRBOR, I know that from its outset, HRBOR has always sought to unify the LGBT community in the seven cities of Hampton Roads because there is strength in numbers and, by working on a regional basis, we can accomplish much more than on a divided, cit by city basis.  The result has been that HRBOR has been among the fastest growing affiliates of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (“NGLCC”) in America and that Hampton Roads Pride’s “Out in the Park” and PrideFest has grown exponentially over the last few years.

Ironically, when one looks at so many of the other organizations in the region, be they focused on tourism, mainstream chambers of commerce, the arts community, not to mention local government, most efforts are focused on a single city-by-city perspective.  God forbid that there be regional cooperation and marketing of the region.  A brief history of the region attests to the conscious desire of some cities within Hampton Roads to remain fragmented rather than become part of a larger Norfolk or Portsmouth.  A review of the population of Hampton Roads – estimated at over 1.7 million – in comparison to the population of America’s largest cities is instructive. According to Wikipedia, the populations of this nation’s largest cities based on 2013 estimates is as follows: 1. New York City – 8,405,837; 2. Los Angeles – 3,884,307; 3. Chicago – 2,718,782; 4. Houston, 2,195,914; 5. Philadelphia – 1,553,165; 6. Phoenix – 1,513,367; 7. San Antonio – 1,409,019; 8. San Diego – 1,355,896, 9. Dallas – 1,257,676.  Yes, you read that correctly, if counted as a unified city, Hampton Roads would be the fifth largest city in America.

Yet rather than seek the enhanced economic power, the ability to potentially attract more diverse and dynamic businesses, and an array of cultural amenities that only top tier cities can offer, the cities of Hampton Roads have sought and maintained division.  For instance, the modern city of Virginia Beach was created in 1963, by the consolidation of the 253 square miles of Princess Anne County with the 2 square miles of the small oceanfront city of Virginia Beach.  The main motivation?  Norfolk’s continued annexation of portions of Princess Anne County (under the law of the time, an incorporated city could annex areas of a county, but not portions of another incorporated city). While Virginia Beach remains the most populated city within the Commonwealth of Virginia, if one is honest in their assessment, it still functions in many ways much more as a suburb of Norfolk than as a stand-alone modern city.  Meanwhile, Norfolk in many ways continues to be recognized as the central business district (and cultural headquarters), even though it lacks the suburban neighborhoods of Virginia Beach.

The history of today’s City of Chesapeake largely follows the Virginia Beach model.  Chesapeake was also organized in 1963 by voter referendums approving the political consolidation of the city of South Norfolk with the remnants of the former Norfolk County, which had lost territory due to annexation by Norfolk and Portsmouth.  By incorporating as an independent city, residents put the new city on a more equal footing in other aspects with the much larger cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth, without ever contemplating the larger picture. But the story doesn’t end there.  Motivated by similar annexation threats, the City of Suffolk was formed in 1974 after consolidating with Nansemond County (Suffolk was the county seat of Nansemond County) and the towns of Holland and Whaleyville.  On the Peninsula, things are little better with the cities of Hampton and Newport News rarely working cooperatively and, more often than not, Newport News looking down on Hampton.

While the formation of the incorporated cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk protected local political fiefdoms and power structures – Virginia Beach’s municipal center is located in the historic backyard of the Kellam family which held sway for years in Princess Anne County – they did little to further the region as a unified powerhouse which might have allowed it to compete on a wholly different league for commerce and economic power.    Indeed, we might even have far better air transportation options and other services.  I will concede that bigger is not always better, but the balkanization of Hampton Roads and the duplication of efforts on a seven fold basis – eight, if one includes Williamsburg – continues to hold the region back and helps fuel the brain drain of young college educated adults from the region.

Among the few regional bodies that Hampton Roads does in fact have are (i) the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission – one of 21 Planning District Commissions in the Commonwealth of Virginia – representing this area’s seventeen local governments, which was formed in 1990 by the merger of the Southeastern Virginia Planning District Commission and the Peninsula Planning District Commission, (ii) the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, which is responsible for transportation planning and decision-making in the region, and (iii) the Cultural Alliance of Greater Hampton Roads which is a non-profit organization whose mission is “to stimulate cultural vitality and facilitate the development of healthy and dynamic cultural institutions throughout the region.”  While each of these organizations are supposed to help coordinate and provide technical assistance to the region’s transportation needs, the arts organizations and local governments, the reality remains that the seven cities of Hampton Roads are generally out to get as much as possible for themselves with little concern for the efforts of their neighboring cities.

I in no way want to be seen as disparaging some of the wonderful organizations and institutions that make Hampton Roads better – e.g., the Chrysler Museum, Chrysler Hall, the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, and the Ferguson Center. But imagine for a moment what might be if Hampton Roads acted like the fifth largest city in America rather than seven or more squabbling, backstabbing municipalities.  Think of the benefits of a coordinated region wide tourism bureau with a consolidate budget capable of competing with top tier cities.  Think of the performing arts and other programs we could have if we ended the duplication of efforts seven times over.  And consider for a moment the reduced bureaucracies we would be supporting through our taxes if we were not maintaining seven separate cities governments.

Realistically, I do not see any local politicians or entrenched city bureaucracies giving up power or control any time soon.  That does not mean, however, that much, much more cannot be done with a regional view in mind.

 

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