Bringing the World to Chesapeake

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Director, Chesapeake Economic Development

Director, Chesapeake Economic Development

Bringing the World to Chesapeake

By JOHN DOWNS, SR.

Who’s the best salesman in Chesapeake? Many would argue that title belongs to Steven Wright of the City’s Office of Economic Development. The product he sells is the city of Chesapeake itself, and what a product it is!

Chesapeake has been selected the 6th best run city in the United States by the prestigious Wall Street 24/7 analysts. Bloomberg’s Business Week has designated Chesapeake as one of America’s 50 best cities.  For two years in a row, Chesapeake was selected as the best city for families by Parenting magazine. Money magazine calls Chesapeake one their Top 100 places to live. Chesapeake was even voted one of the country’s most iPad friendly cities! Why all the accolades and national exposure?

Wright responds, “The simple answer is quality of life. People want to live in Chesapeake. It’s a wonderful place to raise a family. Finding a good paying job in Chesapeake is not the challenge presented by other areas of the state. Many national companies and chain stores have branches in Chesapeake (Walmart alone has four). Competition for the consumer’s dollar, especially among grocery stores and retail outlets, is fierce and this makes a winning proposition for the Chesapeake’s residents. Our city continues to grow while others are losing population and jobs. Word gets around; Chesapeake has something to offer for everybody. ”

There are other factors that make Chesapeake a great place to live and work. At slightly over 5%, Chesapeake’s unemployment rate is below the state-wide average and well below the national average. For example, Norfolk’s unemployment is nearly 9%. Our school system is well above average in testing scores and overall graduation rates. The FBI consistently rates Chesapeake as one of the safest cities in the United States.

Volvo Penta in Greenbrier representing Sweden

Volvo Penta in Greenbrier representing Sweden

All of these favorable factors make Chesapeake a desirable location for individuals, families, and well known American businesses like Lockheed Martin and our own Dollar Tree Stores, but what many people don’t know is 69 different companies from 18 foreign countries have chosen to locate headquarters in Chesapeake. Why these companies are here is the direct result of the hard work of Chesapeake’s Office of Economic Development.

Steven Wright became Chesapeake’s Economic Development Director in November of 1997. He is a twenty year veteran in promoting economic development and previously served the citizens of Chesapeake as Business Development Manager from 1994 to 1999.  After stints at a number of area cities, Mr. Wright returned to Chesapeake to accept Economic Development’s top post. During his career, Wright has secured projects valued at over a half a billion dollars while creating more than 8,000 new jobs.

Panasonic and Mitsubishi in Greenbrier representing Japan

Panasonic and Mitsubishi in Greenbrier representing Japan

What does it take to convince a foreign company to locate in Chesapeake? “A lot of hard work,” Wright explains emphatically, “We have to sell Chesapeake against larger cities like New York, Baltimore, or even Los Angeles. The CEO’s of major foreign corporations need a number of valid reasons to come here, and I’m proud to say we have a lot to offer. Chesapeake is centrally located on the east coast and has convenient access to a fantastic rail system and port facilities. There is an excellent telecommunications infrastructure in our city, and we have two airports in our city and larger national airports in nearby Norfolk and Newport News. The interstate highways put many major cities only minutes or hours away. Like anyone else, they want a good quality of life for their employees and we certainly offer that. Our cost of living is low to moderate, citizen safety is among the best in the nation, and we have a large conference center. Despite all these advantages, we have to continually court potential businesses. Chesapeake is rapidly developing a positive reputation in foreign countries simply by word of mouth. But there still has to be personal contact. The pitch, so to speak, is best made face to face.”

This personal approach requires travel, and a lot of it. From China to Brazil, from Australia to the United Kingdom, Wright and his staff frequently travel to cement current business relationships and foster new ones. He will quickly tell you, however, that it’s not as glamorous as it might sound.

Panasonic and Mitsubishi in Greenbrier representing Japan

Panasonic and Mitsubishi in Greenbrier representing Japan

“First, there is a great deal of preparation,” he explains, “We rarely if ever visit just one city or one location during a trip. Logistics is all important, and I want to say I have a fantastic staff that gets me where I want to go and usually on time. Airplane and train schedules can be a nightmare especially in foreign countries but that is only a small part of the overall challenge. Language is a barrier in many of the countries we visit so we have to arrange for an interpreter. Accommodations, if only for a night, have to be made well in advance. And once we get to our destination, local transportation can present all types of problems. My schedule on a trip like that is managed down to the minute; very little free time for eating and even less time for sleeping. We get up early, work very late into the evening, sleep a couple of hours, and then move on to the next city.”

The hectic life of the Economic Development Director and his staff pays dividends for Chesapeake taxpayers. Major corporations from around the world have come to Chesapeake bringing high paying jobs, greater tax revenues, and a genuine willingness to actively participate in numerous civic and charitable events. “Our corporate community definitely ranks among the most generous of our citizens,” Wright shares, “and those who come from other parts of the world to Chesapeake want to do their share to help the community also. Foreign corporations here in Chesapeake are always among the most giving sponsors of civic and charitable events, and many of their employees are the first to volunteer.”

Plasser American Corporation in South Norfolk representing Austria

Plasser American Corporation in South Norfolk representing Austria

Some of the instantly recognizable names that the Office of Economic Development has helped to recruit are Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Volvo Penta, Altec USA, and BAE Systems. Many foreign countries have more than one business located in Chesapeake. France has five, Sweden and the United Kingdom each have seven, and Germany tops the list with 11.

Once a company, foreign or domestic, locates in Chesapeake, the impact is usually immediate. But like a well researched and profitable investment, these companies continue to pay dividends afterward. Wright explains, “Two long established companies in Chesapeake have announced expansion plans. Last year, Xerox added 800 new jobs to their existing call center in the Greenbrier area and Sumitomo Machinery Corporation announced a major expansion project in Chesapeake totaling more than $12.5 million. This means more jobs, more revenue for the city, and an expression of faith in our city. When companies come here and continue to expand their presence, it means we’re doing something right and that’s a win-win situation for the city, the taxpayers, and the business community.”

Despite the challenges of a sluggish economy, there is reason for optimism in Chesapeake. “There is real growth in Chesapeake,” Wright says proudly, “Because of the city’s proactive stance for fostering new business, last year alone we saw more than $140 million dollars in new business  investments while 325 new jobs were created and more than 1,000 were saved. We have one of the strongest business climates in the entire mid-Atlantic region with six major business districts in the northern half of our city alone.”

BAE Systems in Greenbrier representing the United Kingdom

BAE Systems in Greenbrier representing the United Kingdom

Statistics bear out Wright’s positive outlook. Since 2003, Chesapeake’s employment growth rate has been among the top 50 nationally. The total number of employers in Chesapeake has increased by more than double our nation’s average, and workers have benefited also. The total numbers of workers in Chesapeake has increased by more than 12% and total wages have tripled the national average.

The Office of Economic Development continues to open international windows. Through hard work, determination, pride, and ability, Steven Wright and his dedicated staff are bringing the world to Chesapeake.

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