The salt taste of tidewater has defined the 10 independent cities and six counties in southeast Virginia known as Hampton Roads for more than four centuries. The region’s harbor, the Port of Virginia, is the nation’s largest natural ice-free, year-round port and the fastest-growing on the East Coast. Other thriving business categories identified by the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance include aerospace and aviation, corporate and professional, maritime and logistics, modeling and simulation and advanced manufacturing, with health care also in the mix.
The maritime transportation possibilities drew the first English colonists to establish Jamestown, their first colony in the New World, in 1607. Trade, agriculture, the military and, more recently, manufacturing have led the way to growth over the years.
The median age in the six counties — Gloucester, Isle of Wight, James City, Southampton, Surry and York — is 43 years old, and the median household income is $64,020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state income tax rate ranges from 2 percent on the first $3,000 of taxable income; 3 percent on taxable income between $3,001 and $5,000; and 5 percent on taxable income between $5,001 and $17,000. The general sales tax is 5.3 percent, and the February 2017 unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, just slightly under the nation’s 4.7 percent overall.
A dense, coordinated transportation network makes Hampton Roads one of the most connected places in the country. East-west I-64 circles the metropolitan area serving Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Newport News, with an offshoot to Virginia Beach. North-south I-85 and I-95 lie to the west. Six big bridges span the watery landscape, and five tunnels burrow under it, among them the famed Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that links Hampton Roads with Virginia’s Eastern Shore and, from thence, Maryland and the New York/New Jersey corridor, good for truckers and travelers alike.
Air passengers and cargo shippers can choose between Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and its AirCommerce Industrial Park, or Norfolk International Airport, which is among the top 20 percent of U.S. airports in terms of passengers that pass through it every year: more than 3 million.
Five regional public-use airports are available for general aviation. Amtrak has passenger service, and CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads haul cargo in transit through the Port of Virginia throughout the East Coast and Midwest. That busy port includes the largest naval base in the world, healthy shipbuilding and repair businesses, the sixth-largest containerized cargo complex in the U.S., and major coal export operations. Just under 30 international shipping lines connect the port to more than 200 countries worldwide, and an economic impact study by the College of William and Mary found that 343,000 jobs — almost 10 percent of Virginia’s workforce — spin off port activities.
Farming, timber and fisheries have been part of the Hampton Roads economy for many years, from Smithfield Ham’s peanut-fed hogs to Pongo’s annual May Strawberry Festival, and it is one of five designated areas where Virginia agriculture has had its greatest impact. Since the fields are mostly flat and the climate mild, tabletop crops, soybeans, grain and greenhouse and nursery stock are major components of the sector, though some farmers are toying with hops for the increasing number of craft breweries, and four wineries keep busy growing grapes and bottling wine.
The housing slump hurt the timber industry, and the solid wood furniture manufacturers have seen demand shift overseas, but biomass energy production is healthy.
The region’s seed oysters produce roughly 25 percent of all the nation’s oysters, though blue crabs hold increasing pride of place. Fishing in Hampton Roads can be as simple as dropping a bobber off a pier to chartering a vessel to go after striped bass, red or black drum, or flounder at sea. Commercial fishing operations are being edged out by other shoreline ventures, such as hotels and condos, though in 2012, Hampton Roads still ranked No. 13 among major U.S. ports in its total value of commercial fishery landings — 135 million pounds worth $64.1 million. To bolster the commercial fleet, Newport News Seafood Industrial Park has developed a harbor to handle water-dependent industries, among them seafood processing, packing and boat building and repair. All facilities are leased, and rent alone brings in $450,000 annually.
Natural beauty, beaches, lots of water, three national wildlife refuges and plenty of history, including the Historic Triangle of Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown, combine to draw millions of domestic tourists, who spent $23 billion in 2015 on transportation, lodging, food, amusement and recreation as well as shopping, says the Virginia Tourism Corp. Think swimming, surfing, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, wildlife viewing, birding, camping, miles and miles of trails, hiking, backpacking, fishing, golfing (78 courses between Williamsburg and the Eastern Shore alone) — even cruises. The travel industry is the fifth largest private employer in Virginia.
Joint Base Langley-Eustis
Despite government belt-tightening, military dollars still drive the Hampton Roads economy. The jobs of nearly four out of 10 workers depend on that funding either directly or indirectly, as do peripheral jobs generated by the spending’s impact overall, according to a September 2014 study by the Hampton Roads District Planning Commission. The most recent figures indicate military personnel at the seven active installations took home $8.3 billion in salary and benefits, and federal contracts for the DOD, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security amounted to another $10.1 billion, the planning commission said.
In 2010, the Army base Fort Eustis in Newport News and Langley Air Force Base in Hampton merged under orders from the Base Realignment and Closure Commission to become Joint Base Langley-Eustis, though they retained their physical locations, separated by 17 miles. The bases together had 17,162 active-duty personnel, 6,355 civilian workers and 27,256 military dependents, according to the 2013 Joint Base Langley-Eustis Impact Statement. Active-duty payroll was $889.7 million; civilians earned $397.8 million. The study put the number of indirect jobs created at 10,742, and their value at $506 million. In all, Joint Base Langley-Eustis had a total economic impact of $2.4 billion on its surrounding community.
Langley dates from Dec. 30, 1916, making it the oldest active Air Force base in the United States. It’s home to the 633rd Air Base Wing, the 1st Fighter Wing and the 480th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, and hosts the Global Cyberspace Integration Center field operating agency. The Army Transportation Corps and U.S. Army Aviation Logistics School are at Eustis, where duties have revolved around transportation, training, research and development, engineering and operations including aviation and marine shipping activities; the base motto is, “Nothing happens until something moves.” Eustis includes what was once known as Mulberry Island in the James River, home to English colonist John Rolfe and his wife, the legendary Pocahontas.