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Economic Expert Says Hampton Roads Well Positioned to Help Revive Manufacturing Sector

The Hampton Roads region is poised to pay a pivotal role in the modest revival and ongoing health of the United States manufacturing sector.

That's the view of Susan Christopherson, an economic geographer from Cornell University who was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting and luncheon for Old Dominion University's E.V. Williams Center for Real Estate and Economic Development (CREED) on Tuesday, June 5.

Since the U.S. economy hit bottom in 2009, the modest recovery in jobs has been driven largely by the manufacturing sector.

There was a belief prior to the economic crisis that the age of U.S. manufacturing was coming to an end, and future job growth would occur largely in the service sector. The sustainability of this modest comeback in U.S. manufacturing depends on a handful of factors, many that are pivotal to the Hampton Roads economy, said Christopherson.

She said in the previous 30 years, many people bought into myths about the economy, that people will seek to move to warmer climates, and that manufacturing doesn't matter. Now that the real estate bubble has long since popped, and the regions hardest hit were the ones that had grown the fastest, "now, we're feeling like the pigs in the little brick houses," Christopherson said. "Hampton Roads is in a good position to look toward the long term because of not getting caught up in the myths of the last 20 years."

Christopherson runs the Green Choices Institute at Cornell, which is designed to help citizens and policymakers get information that can help them assess the choices available for building a green economy.

Her address, "Why Manufacturers Are Taking a Second Look at the United States: What's in Store for Hampton Roads," hit on the three most important factors that will help sustain the recent manufacturing rally: supply chains, skills and infrastructure.

"If there's anything for certain that these three things apply to, it's Hampton Roads," Christopherson said. She added that the region can take advantage of the rally in manufacturing, and then magnify it by investing in infrastructure and innovation.

"That whole pattern of using our ports to import goods and export trash is in the past. We're going to export stuff now from Hampton Roads. We want to export value-added manufacturing goods."

Christopherson has written more than 50 articles and 25 policy reports on topics in economic geography and economic development.

In the past three years, she has completed studies on advanced manufacturing in New York's Southern Tier, the photonics industry in Rochester, the role of universities and colleges in revitalizing the upstate New York economy, and production trends affecting media industries in New York City.

Her keynote address built on the themes of sustainable, managed growth that were demonstrated vividly during Reality Check, the May 17 exercise co-hosted by ODU that had stakeholders with competing interests work together on a virtual, shared vision for the region's future.

Before Christopherson spoke, three members of CREED's advisory board - Darrell Gosnell, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance; Craig Cope, vice president and city manager for Liberty Property Trust; and Chuck Rigney, director of Norfolk's Office of Development - gave her a primer on the threats and opportunities in the regional economy. Christopherson was impressed.

"You have done everything you can to figure out how you can survive and thrive in this new economy. That's the sign of a well-run, forward-thinking region," she said.

CREED's mission is to provide information and resources for the Hampton Roads real estate and economic development communities in their quest to improve the regional economy through job creation and investment.

The center fosters relationships with the development community by hosting topical seminars on key development issues affecting the region and works closely with all related professional service organizations.