By Michael Campbell, Surry-Sussex Dispatch
SURRY – 2,800 square miles makes up the Virginia’s Gateway Region, comprised of five counties and three cities between Chesterfield, the Tri-Cities, along with Dinwiddie, Prince George, Sussex and Surry counties, creating a unique economic opportunity a local group is trying to help localities capitalize on.
Recently, Virginia’s Gateway Region president and CEO Renee Chapline spoke with the Surry Board of Supervisors about the nonprofit organization’s mission along with the value they provide through services and connecting the localities they serve with valuable economic development opportunities.
According to documentation provided by Virginia’s Gateway Region, Surry’s annual contribution to the nonprofit organization is approximately $31,000 per year, making up roughly two percent of VGR’s budget, which comprises of contributions from member localities and other funding sources, such as private sector partners.
For VGR, they told supervisors and residents “$37 [is] leveraged per $1 Surry [contributes] to economic development project management, business attraction, and technical assistance from private, foundation and others.”
In VGR’s Community Report for the county, during the calendar years of 2015 through 2016, the group worked on a total of ten active projects in Surry, seven of which were considered new projects.
In situations where a business is interested in placing some form of operations in a county like Surry, VGR acts as a central point of contact for companies, providing them with specific details they seek when making a decision, like regional data and real estate information.
Additionally, VGR officials explained that they leverage partner resources for marketing and site selection assistance, along with materials, aiding with aspects of the project, such as site layout and utility costs.
VGR also coordinates site tours and region visits for prospective businesses seeking to make a home in the area, with an emphasis on targeting specific industry clusters, including agriculture and natural resources, general and advanced manufacturing, energy and utilities, global logistics and distribution and Information Technology and other professional services.
For this region, Chapline explained that the average site requested, in terms of maximum size, averages 113 acres, with the median coming in at 50 acres, adding that sites with “maximum readiness for development within a target region” and “sites with a defined plan containing a timeline and cost for completion” generally make the shortlist among prospective businesses.
In Surry specifically, the Surry West Business Center features 142 contiguous acres for industrial use, with central placement between Richmond, Norfolk and Williamsburg and wireless broadband tower access in the park for those industries in need of heavy data usage.
Given its proximity to U.S. Route 460, a major artery in southern Virginia, Chapline said Surry, and the region as a whole has advantages other portions of the commonwealth may not have access to.
“[Interstates] 95, 85, north and south, conjoin in Petersburg,” she remarked. “We have east, west, along with dual rail through Norfolk Southern and CSX. We also have lots of energy and power, along with great proximity to the ports of Virginia.”
Those geographical and infrastructure advantages help sell the region to prospective industries, Chapline explained.
“You will see a lot of distribution and other related industries setting up in our region,” she said. “We really are a world-class location. This is an easy sell because we are right in the center of the Eastern Seaboard and, when you compare that to the Western Seaboard, those areas are hotspots for businesses, simply from a logistical standpoint.”
While site selection and highway access rank high among prospective businesses, according to data provided by VGR, the top factor for those businesses was access to skilled labor.
According to VGR’s data, the Gateway Region represents the southern half of the Richmond metropolitan statistical area, which is an area with a relatively high population density paired with close economic ties to the entire area, and that MSA shows a workforce of over 700,000 people is able to be tapped for future business endeavors, along with a 45-minute workforce draw area to help market a business beyond its immediate location.
For Chapline, an excellent source of that talent is at Fort Lee, which sits at the center of the Gateway Region and only 30 miles from Surry.
“Fort Lee trains all four branches of logisticians for the United States military right here,” she said. “We have the best in the world, from a workforce position. You will never find anybody better than the United States military at moving product. We are retiring 38-, 39-year-old global logisticians right here in this region and companies want them.”
At the end of the day, Chapline said her visits to the local communities in the Gateway Region are just as important as the site tours and economic development planning that goes on daily at their Colonial Heights offices.
“On a day-to-day basis, we work with the county administration and the economic developers, so, sometimes councils and boards of supervisors don’t see us daily and understand where we fit into all this,” she said. “This gives me an opportunity to help them and quantify what we do and support their education and understanding of how economic development works.”
“At the end of the day, if we have a prospect that is interested in a county or city, these are the people that have to vote on infrastructure and other related development things that are important to companies so, if they have been a part of that process from day one, they are more likely to understand why they need to do certain things,” Chapline closed.