ODU: Hampton Roads economy tepid not blistering

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Hampton Roads is slowly on the up-and-up.

There are fewer distressed homes in the region than in 2010. There’s a steady improvement in tourism and the port sectors, and the housing market is slowly recovering.

But it’s an “unimpressive economic performance” for the region, says Old Dominion University’s Center for Economic Analysis and Policy. These facts and plenty more were presented to a crowd of nearly 600 at the 17th annual state of the region address at the Waterside Marriott Tuesday.

Attendees were presented with a myriad of facts and figures surrounding seven topics: Hampton Roads’ economy, the hotel industry, prisons, single households, the LGBTQ community, robots in the workforce and traffic congestion.

The biggest question, said Timothy Komarek, assistant professor of economics at ODU, is deciding what to do with the information.

“So I think a lot of people, especially those that’ve been coming to something like this, are hearing the same information over and over again,” Komarek said in an interview. “And actually implementing it is the greatest challenge that we have, and the thing that doesn’t have many clear answers.”

The 17th annual State of the Region was presented at the Norfolk Waterside Mariott on Tuesday, Oct. 4. (Kate Mishkin/Southside Daily)
Almost 600 people gathered for the 17th annual state of the region address at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott on Tuesday, Oct. 4. (Kate Mishkin/Southside Daily)

Komarek was one of the three speakers on Tuesday. He shared the stage with Robert McNab, deputy director of ODU’s Center for Economic Analysis and Policy, and James Koch, professor of economics and president emeritus of the center.

Komarek spoke about traffic congestion — a 10-letter word.

“I think of it as a four-letter word,” he joked to the crowd.

He pointed to statistics that Hampton Roads’ commuters spend 45 hours annually in the car — 30 more than in 1980, despite improved infrastructure.

The study points to water as a major cause of the long commutes.

“The far-reaching tentacles of the Elizabeth, James and York rivers, as well as indentations such as the Lynnhaven River, channel traffic into a series of choke points that result in traffic congestion and longer commuting times,” the study says.

According to the data, 800,000 people in the region travel to and from work, and 33 percent commuted more than 30 minutes to their jobs in 2014.

It’s a little better than cities like Charlotte and Baltimore, but a little worse than Richmond and Cleveland.

The traffic affects the economy, too: 46.2 percent of respondents in a 2015 study from the Social Science Research Center at ODU said they’d been discouraged from patronizing a business because of traffic concerns.

Another notable fact: other than Chesapeake and Suffolk, people are leaving the region for areas with more job opportunities.

“If we can just make an area like Hampton Roads … a more attractive place people want to live, you’re at least doing something for the people who’re already here and that should at least draw people in,” Komarek said later. “We’re kind of confusing causation a little bit.”

He said the Tide light rail is a good example of the issue. Regions shouldn’t necessarily mimic other regions and expect the same results.

“Oh, Charlotte has this light rail; if we want to be growing and successful like Charlotte, then we should have a light rail too,” he said. “But again we’re kind of confusing whether or not the light rail is really helping out with that, versus they just have a setup there that makes it conducive for light rail to be successful.”

Other highlights of the study:

  • The United States had six times as many people in prison as Canada in 2013, or 698 people per 100,000 in the U.S., compared to 106 per 100,000 in Canada and 78 per 100,000 in Germany
  • The population of prison inmates in Virginia decreased by 9 percent between 2008 and 2013, and the crime rate decreased by 19 percent during the same time period
  • 4.4 percent of the Hampton Roads population identified as LGBT between 2012 and 2014, compared with 3.6 percent in the U.S. as a whole
  • 8.3 percent of individuals identifying as LGBTQ in the U.S. are women between the ages of 18 and 29. But only 1.9 percent of people who identify as LGBTQ were older than 65
  • 48.3 percent of Hampton Roads residents said they avoided visiting other Hampton Roads cities because of traffic congestion between 2011 and 2015.