A Region Better Than Advertised

Quick, name the biggest obstacle between Hampton Roads and greatness.

This year, the answer might be an inept General Assembly at war with itself. But usually, year in and year out, the greatest obstacle is the common misconception that Hampton Roads remains a beer-and-hamburger area with sailors sprawled on the lawns — nothing more.

Low expectations are germs that spread like the flu, says James Eason, president and chief executive officer of the Hampton Roads Partnership, a think tank seeking to help the region move forward.

As a kind of vaccination against negative thinking, Eason lists several reasons to believe that Hampton Roads is poised for greatness:

  1. The region has the second largest port on the East Coast, and it's about to get much bigger: A $450 million investment in a private terminal in Portsmouth was announced Monday.
  2. Also announced Monday was a $225 million expansion of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News. Amazingly, one in every three doctoral candidates in nuclear physics in the nation does research at the Jefferson Lab.
    It's no hamburger stand. Scientists there are studying quarks, the basic building blocks of matter. Science doesn't get any more cutting edge than that.
  3. Ford Motor Co.'s Norfolk Assembly Plant underwent a $400 million expansion, with groundbreaking automation.
  4. The value of construction projects at Hampton Roads colleges and universities exceeds $400 million, the most ever.
  5. Downtown Norfolk, the region's core, increased in value by $315 million over five years, while many inner cities suffered hard times.
  6. A $115 million expansion of Norfolk International Airport is done; Colonial Williamsburg is undergoing a $150 million building and renovation program; tourists spent $2.6 billion in Hampton Roads in 2002. People want to come here.

Those are just some of Eason's items.

He subscribes to a theory propounded in the book "Tipping Point" that change — for better or worse — happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment, the tipping point.

This region may be poised to tip into greatness, or certainly a higher level of prosperity, but two missing pieces are adequate state support for transportation and higher education, especially investments needed to promote research.

Without those two pieces, the region could one day tip the wrong way, and the state legislators who maintain that Virginia cannot afford public investments for the future will never understand that the region, with all of its natural advantages, should have done far better.