On Building a “New Portsmouth”

Portsmouth has recently completed a round of Budget Community Engagement Meetings, which presented useful information on the city’s various programs. In gathering attendees’ responses to budgetary questions, the City took an important first step towards becoming more open and responsive to Portsmouth’s citizenry. The more citizens feel engaged in and important to the process, the more likely they will support the city’s efforts on their behalf.

However, spending for all these programs requires funding and there was little discussion of the City’s ongoing economic development plans. It seems evident that an overriding priority must be creative and continuing economic development, shared regularly, and as fully as possible, with the public. Without courageous and tenacious efforts to revitalizing business in the city, Portsmouth will never have sufficient funds to meet its obligations laid out in recent meetings. Such efforts will help preserve our current population of residents, and bring new residents to live, work and spend in our city. Following are some important ways to keep us moving forward.

Attracting Niche Businesses

While Portsmouth may be the 9th largest city in Virginia, it is, nevertheless, a small town in comparison to many of our neighboring cities. As such, with limited personnel and resources, we are not able to compete effectively with most of the others in much of what we take on. Thus, we are best served by finding niches which we as a city can uniquely fill, or which offer something special to attract residents from other localities . (This would pertain especially to those in Suffolk and Western Branch who are looking to spend their resources on this side of the river and avoid its tolled tunnels.) A good example of this has been Portsmouth’s successful recruitment of Kroger Marketplace and Aldi. These retail operations, for the moment, are rare, if not unique, in the Hampton Roads area. They provide unusual offerings at competitive prices and with excellent customer service. (Portsmouth will lose its competitive edge, however, when more of these establishments are opened, as is planned for Aldi in the near future.) We need to be courting, as well, smaller-scale business ventures which may offer innovative goods and services. Ideas fitting this description for future economic development might include:

  • an Escape Room – type of entertainment enterprise, attractive to patrons of all ages and in groups, which is becoming popular here and abroad and which exists in Virginia Beach at the moment;
  • a housed year-around Farmer’s Market/community gathering center, with fresh foods restaurant, vouchers for those in need to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, nutritional cooking classes, etc. — not unique in the HR area, but with enough unique features to draw from other neighboring populations — perhaps in the Crockin building or other boarded-up business property in Olde Towne. The model of Norfolk’s successful Five Points market might be a starting point for such a venture.
  • an artisan distillery of some variety, perhaps in a property such as the former Brutti’s restaurant — wineries and breweries elsewhere locally exist in quantities and scale beyond our ability to compete.
  • plans/work on this may already be in progress but they need to move forward: a waterfront park with walking paths,some pedestrian-only, maybe weekends only , street area, outdoor restaurants, green space and performance areas. This would not compete with the new Waterside, but would be in place at the same time to provide an attractive alternative to residents and some special features for folks on “this side,” with innovative options such as meditation garden area, Tai Chi and yoga classes outdoors, etc.

Fast-tracked Downtown Business Development

We have considerable development currently underway to bring new residential units, many considered to be “luxury” units, to the city. However, without considerable investment in the quality-of-life components which make an area desirable and livable, we will not attract the kinds of new residents needed to fill these apartments and bring new life to the City. (See the final bullet above.)

For millennials, the ability to walk and ride bikes is key. Thus, safety downtown is a top priority. Beyond that, though, we need to be planning for dog parks, grocery stores, arts, entertainment, restaurants/pubs/coffee shops, etc which younger, more affluent people would desire before moving to the Olde Towne area. This speaks to the need to assemble an advisory committee for economic development which would provide input from the cross-section of ages and interests which the area being developed wishes to attract and accommodate. This needs to be done as soon as possible!

Retirement/Continuing Care Campus Community

There is a large population of baby-boomer-generation professionals living in and around Portsmouth who are making decisions now about where and how they wish to down-size their lives. Regardless of how successfully the City brings young professionals to live in Portsmouth, the need will remain to hold onto the population which is readying to retire and which provides a significant taxable asset for Portsmouth’s coffers. Many are already investing in townhouses and continuing-care communities in other Hampton Roads cities. If they sell their family homes and move elsewhere, the impacts throughout our economy could be devastating. Not only do they spend their income here, they provide a cadre of citizens who volunteer countless hours and benefit the community here and elsewhere in innumerable ways. This is a vital resource which should be cultivated and maintained in the City.

One way to do this would be to offer a retirement/continuing care campus community which is special, reasonably affordable, and which appeals to middle-class residents from various walks of life and all Hampton Roads areas. With the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center serving retired military from all over the East Coast, we already have a unique draw for retirees. To make such a project special, there should be efforts to build in features for individuals who are interested in maintaining a vibrant life of physical activity, learning, arts enjoyment, and community life. There is an opportunity for the city to work with developers, bankers (such as Towne Bank, which started in this city), proven healthcare/retirement administrators, educational institutions and medical establishments to provide a top-notch, carefully- designed campus which would provide such features as: arts performance and learning space; educational opportunities( e. g., with the ODU ILR program for retired learners); and physical activity resources such as personal training, classes, walking/running trails,etc.

The model adopted by The Crossings at Harbourview, with low buy-in requirement and three levels of care ( independent, assisted, and memory care but no nursing care) might make sense, especially if a partnership with Bon Secours Maryview were established and they were able to provide the nursing care element needed for fully continuing care. There is City property in the area including the DAC Center and Willett Hall which might lend itself well to such a project. Once progress were begun, public relations activities to inform the entire Hampton Roads area of developments and to market a program for early “plank-owners” could be started as a way to secure early commitment and funds and promote interest in the project.

There is no such retirement/continuing care campus community, affordable and attractive to diverse retiring professionals in this area. Such a campus could draw from neighboring cities if planned and executed carefully, drawing on the models of such communities elsewhere in the country which have successfully adopted this approach. The time is now to start such an effort, which will require a significant and steady commitment of time and resources. To hesitate or wait on this will mean to lose a critical window of opportunity and a critical population for Portsmouth’s future prosperity.

Carole Duckett

2 thoughts on “On Building a “New Portsmouth”

  1. I am hoping that our former City Manager, John Rowe, if elected Mayor, will see the validity in these concerns and comments and push the City to move forward in these important directions.

  2. Another economic enterprise Portsmouth would benefit from is getting a Topgolf franchise – these are incredibly successful, I hear, in areas where they have been established. Although one recently opened in Virginia Beach, there are no other franchises, at this time, located west on VB until Ashburn and Alexandria, VA. Again, this would be a niche that would attract economic support from outside Portsmouth as well as from within.

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