Imagine if the proposed Virginia Beach Oceanfront arena had the backing of all six major Hampton Roads chambers of commerce, representing about 5,000 businesses.
That kind of broad business support for a key regional economic development such as the proposed indoor sports and entertainment venue is likely to become a reality with the formation of the Hampton Roads Chamber Alliance. The group also plans to advocate with a united voice for transportation, education, workforce development, passenger rail and air service, and the region’s military facilities.
The arena is “an issue that we feel the business community ought to support because of the economic impact it can have for the entire region and the branding of the entire region and not just something that would be advantageous to Virginia Beach alone,” said Bryan Stephens, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber.
Along with the Hampton Roads Chamber, alliance membership includes the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, the Williamsburg chamber, the Franklin-Southampton chamber, the Isle of Wight-Smithfield-Windsor chamber and the Eastern Shore chamber.
The group's inaugural meeting is set for noon March 27 at the Hampton Roads Chamber office in downtown Norfolk.
As the idea for the alliance came to fruition, Stephens said it became apparent to him that in Hampton Roads, ideas and action don't advance without regional partnerships and collaboration.
Individually, “each of us represent either a respected geography or business demographic or area of interest," said Mike Kuhns, the peninsula chamber's CEO and president. "So this is in no way, shape or form to take away that opportunity from the local members, who through their dues and funding, support local chambers of commerce.
Kuhns added potential disagreements over how to approach complex topics, such as transportation, shouldn't discourage everyone with a stake in an issue from coming to the table.
Stephens echoed that sentiment.
Speaking with one voice makes for “a pretty compelling story to our elected officials that the business community is taking a position on this issue, and we want you to listen," he said. “I think the purpose of this alliance, one of the purposes, is for us to come together and let’s have some substantive discussions about these issues, and where we can come to agreement, let’s form a position.”
In the event consensus on an issue can't be reached, Stephens said the alliance will not take a position.
Andrew Cripps, president and CEO of the Isle of Wight-Smithfield-Windsor chamber, agreed.
“The alliance will allow chambers to combine their voices, and the strength of their memberships, to advocate for policies designed to help small businesses throughout the region," Cripps said in an email. “For a smaller chamber like us, it helps us keep our members better informed about policies that will affect them.”
“The agreement, however, allows each chamber to decide what issues it feels are vital to support, without being forced to rubber-stamp another chamber's agenda.”
Steve Mallette, chairman of the board of the Eastern Shore chamber, said the partnership with the region's other chambers will facilitate economic growth and opportunities for the Eastern Shore to shape policies and decisions that affect the community's assets, such as NASA’s Wallops Flight facility, tourism and the Port of Virginia, which he described in an email as "a critical national asset," through which Eastern Shore agricultural products flow to international markets.
Kuhns said he’s interested in seeing transportation, workforce development, K-12 education and economic diversification as top-of-mind issues for the alliance.
Many people view Hampton Roads as a parochial environment, “and we can see examples of that frequently, but I think we can see examples of collaboration, also,” Kuhns said.
As the alliance gains momentum, Kuhns said the key is “the common interest is the same economy and a healthy business environment. As long as the focus remains on that, we’ll be relevant.”
Stephens said anyone who would like more information about the alliance may contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.