How do you jump-start or improve the economic development efforts of a city or - region?
Perhaps Willie Nelson had the right idea …
On the road again
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world be runnin’ our way
In September, 28 Wilmington-area business leaders and elected officials, not gypsies and not likely the best of friends, were on the road again for a four-hour bus trip north to Richmond, and a two-day tour officially called an InterCity Leadership Visit.
The visit came a year after the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce had organized a similar roadtrip to Charleston, South Carolina.
“The visit to Richmond was an opportunity for our area leaders and stakeholders to learn firsthand from a community that has rebounded by reinventing and rebranding itself from a traditional, historic community into a thriving center for innovation and the arts,” said Wilmington chamber board chairman Mitch Lamm. “We learned a great deal about how the mix of regional collaboration, branding and economic development go hand-in-hand to create a community where entrepreneurs and millennials want to locate, while preserving their tie to a rich, historic past.”
Richmond has indeed rebounded strongly from the recession, when it was hard hit in the insurance and finance sectors. Its area unemployment rate sat at 4.1 percent in September, while the Wilmington area was at 4.5 percent.
Today Richmond has a thriving arts and startup scene, and combined with attractive tax incentives from the state, is drawing more business to the city.
Just last month CoStar, a leader in commercial real estate information, chose Richmond as the location of its new research hub. The center will create 732 new jobs and have a total economic impact of $250 million in the area, according to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
In media reports, the company’s founder told the Washington Post that CoStar had looked at North Carolina and Kansas before deciding on Richmond.
Ed Wolverton, Wilmington Downtown Inc. president and part of the delegation that visited Richmond, said he was impressed with what he saw, especially along the James River.
“They continue to emphasize the river for both recreational and commercial pursuits. They are putting significant efforts into updating and expanding plans for the river,” Wolverton said.
He also noted Richmond’s patience in making things happen.
“They highlighted the Stone Brewing project [Stone is the 10th-largest brewery in the country]. Richmond unsuccessfully tried to recruit another large brewery. Even though that one went elsewhere, that brewery knew Stone was looking and recommended Richmond,” Wolverton said.
“To seal the deal, Richmond had to work through many issues including site, road access, wastewater treatment and others,” he added. “They started the deal with only a concept but were able to address everything as the project went along.”
Amanda Lee, president of Cape Fear Community College, was also on the chamber’s Richmond road trip.
“The trip was worthwhile,” Lee said. “They studied the city closely prior to implementing their current plan as it was important to them that they capitalize on their strengths. This led to embracing the creativity already present, which can now be seen through the many murals on the buildings downtown.
“From my perspective, Richmond has a wonderful university downtown that has continued to grow,” she said. “I wanted to learn about the relationship between the city and the university. I was pleased to find that this was a partnership where they collaborated and supported each other in many ways and on many levels.”
Partnerships have been a critical component to Richmond’s success and are something that leaders here are looking to emulate.
“We learned that regional collaboration is key to landing business prospects as well as to creating buy-in for overall economic development strategies and branding initiatives,” Lamm said. “That’s an area that we could improve upon in our region.”
The visit focused on four main areas: regional collaboration, marketing/promotion, urban living and development.
The goal, of course, was to mine deep into Richmond to benefit Wilmington.
The economic leaders of Richmond were all too happy to be mined.
“It was very timely for them to see how we do it and how we have partnered with all sorts of different groups and organizations,” Lucy Meade, the development director of Venture Richmond, a downtown economic development, marketing and promotion organization.
Wilmington leaders agree that it’s the partnering and collaborating that need to happen here.
“You know when I went to Richmond I had a sense of an older, historical town,” New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple said. “I was surprised by what we all saw – the consistency in that community and their effort at rebranding.”
The commissioner pointed at the coordination between agencies in the Richmond area and how they all seemed to be on the same page in economic development efforts.
“They are working on improving public transportation, on a better infrastructure, on walkable neighborhoods and a lot of public-private partnerships,” he said. “It is very impressive.”
Now the real work begins.
“Growth, traffc, economic development and other issues need region-wide approaches,” Wilmington City Councilman Paul Lawler said after the trip. “Richmond is aggressively recognizing that the ‘new economy’ is much more entrepreneurial and dynamic. Wilmington is well positioned to thrive in that type of economy and must assure [that] we welcome entrepreneurs and new businesses.”