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A new regional group wants to push Hampton Roads forward without the drag of bureaucracy

The new group wants to turn conversation into action on the region's lingering issues with growth, housing, climate change and other challenges.
Photo via Shutterstock
The new group wants to turn conversation into action on the region's lingering issues with growth, housing, climate change and other challenges.

The new Regional Organizations Presidents’ Council thinks frank discussions and deliberate action can break regional inaction that’s plagued Hampton Roads.

Bryan Stephens wants Hampton Roads to be the envy of its peers.

But where other mid-sized Southern metros have succeeded, growing and drawing business, Hampton Roads often struggles.

Stephens, who’s led the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce for the last decade, has seen the underpinnings that make the economies of those other regions hum.

Hampton Roads leaders are now trying something new to push the region forward based on models that have worked elsewhere — a semi-formal group to turn conversations into action, without the bureaucracy, called the Regional Organizations Presidents’ Council.

The Chamber runs annual leadership exchanges traveling with local leaders to get an idea of how a different city or region is handling the same problems Hampton Roads is facing at home.

During one of those visits to Charlotte a few years ago, Stephens and others saw the area had a regional council that set the agenda for the region in a way groups in Hampton Roads weren’t.

“Regions like Charlotte, those regions are doing a spectacular job at marketing their region and subsequently attracting and retaining talent. We don't do a good job of that,” Stephens said.

Hampton Roads leaders have talked about the importance of regionalism for decades, and there are already organizations dedicated to regional efforts. But Hampton Roads cities compete with each other for economic development opportunities and quibble over a host of regional issues, and many of those regional groups can often get bogged down in discussions.

“I think the word I would use is complacency,” Stephens said. He noted spending from the military and Department of Defense keeps the region’s economy insulated from big economic swings, so cities may not feel pressure to make bigger, regional efforts work.

“But stable and constant is not what we want, and issues just don't go away by themselves. It's just easy to kind of stick your head in the sand and either hope somebody else fixes it or it goes away,” he said.

Groups like the Regional Organizations Presidents’ Council in places like Charlotte and Denver set the agenda, bridge the public and private sectors and elevate their regions, Stephens said.

“It takes organization. It takes leadership. And sometimes it takes bold leadership, because change comes hard, generally. Change in Hampton Roads is really hard,” he said.

“The Wolfpack”

Hampton Roads needed something that wouldn’t be hamstrung by bureaucracy, but the former Army Ranger turned Chamber president said ad hoc conversations happening in the business community weren’t cutting it.

“We're not organized for combat,” he said. “If you go into a military operation, they're organized in a manner to accomplish a mission. And they've got a flexibility to reorganize and adjust depending on what the mission is.”

The Presidents’ Council started very informally at first, when they got back from that Charlotte trip a few years ago.

What had been casual one-on-one conversations over lunch griping about problems in the region, became monthly lunches with a small group of leaders from regional groups. The heads of organizations like the Hampton Roads Workforce Council and Black Brand, the region’s chamber for Black-owned businesses, would talk through issues.

Stephens said they spent a couple years calling themselves “The Wolfpack.”

But that was still too loose. They took another half-step toward organization last year and took on a new name: The Regional Organizations’ Presidents Council.

Nancy Grden, the president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Executive Roundtable, is a member of the ROPC. She said the organizations involved all have a similar mission to improve the region’s economy.

Getting together prevents them from duplicating efforts and the discussions put focus on big issues that can often be set aside due to day-to-day demands.

And the fact that all the groups have different constituencies - some are business-specific, some are tied into government organizations - the ROPC has tendrils that reach into every part of the community.

“Mayors, city councils, economic development directors in every city, because they're connected to us and these organizations, we are creating some of that meta momentum, if you will, that just happens when you start to think and act more regionally,” Grden said.

“Just get moving”

The formal name belies the niche the ROPC fills between off-the-cuff casual conversation and the formalized proceedings of a regional group like the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, which has a board full of local elected officials and a large staff.

The RPOC doesn’t have any funding or employees. The only people in the closed-door monthly meetings are the top executives from each member organization - only decisionmakers allowed, no second-in-commands. The group doesn’t answer to anyone.

“What we said is ‘What goes on in this conference room stays in this conference room.’ And so we talked about issues, we talked about regional leaders that were or were not doing what we thought they should be doing. And we made an informal pact that it would stay in the room,” Stepehens said.

The RPOC is deliberate about leaving each meeting with concrete next steps. Stephens knows this group can’t do it alone, but it’s got enough heft to start pushing conversations forward.

“The bottom line is just get started. We don't have to have a full plan to fix global warming,” Stephens said. “The best time to fix recurring flooding was 10 years ago, but we are where we are. So let's not sit here 10 years from now and say we still have a problem here. Let's start moving in a direction. And it's that way with all the issues that we're addressing. That's the concept of the ROTC. Let's just get moving.”

That action can mean a lot of different things for the group.

When the RPOC landed on out-migration and brain drain as one of the biggest challenges facing the region, it immediately tasked one organization to go ahead and commission a study on the issue so it could be armed with data.

On other issues, it’s bringing the collective influence of ten regional economic development groups to lobby for things like state and federal road funding.

They’ve only been at it for a few months, but Stephens’ ultimate target? Become a place that others look to for how to do it right.

“We go to other regions, and we learn from other regions, and how many other regions have come to see us? Zero,” Stephens said.

“So my goal as the president of this chamber and chair of the RPOC is that one day soon, we have other regions calling me saying, ‘Hey, we need your help, we’re bringing a leadership exchange to Hampton Roads.’”

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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