When health officials announced in mid-March that community transmission of the novel coronavirus was happening in the United States, a group of Hampton Roads business and workforce leaders sensed it was going to have a profound effect on the regional economy.
So, they started to get to work, said Bob McKenna, president and CEO of the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
A group of six business leaders began to map out a concerted response to the economic difficulties many area companies would soon be facing. In doing so, they executed on the collaboration and regionalism that has been touted by leaders while often being dismissed by naysayers in recent years.
“We couldn’t have spit this up on the fly,” said Doug Smith, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance. “We had to have relationships that were intact, and they really have been put together over the last several years.”
Since 2016, leaders of the Hampton Roads Chamber, the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, the region’s two workforce boards, HREDA and Reinvent Hampton Roads have been meeting on a monthly basis. The conversations usually focus on each organization’s monthly activities and efforts to develop programs that will benefit each group, said Hampton Roads Workforce Council president and CEO Shawn Avery.
“The purpose is to share information and to focus on how we can connect in creative ways to help each other’s organizations and the region be successful,” added Jim Spore, president and CEO of Reinvent Hampton Roads.
Once the virus hit, the group narrowed its focus, but also began meeting more frequently. Holding Zoom calls three times a week, they began to chat about how the pandemic was affecting their communities and agencies. They also tried to figure out “how, as the region’s lead business organizations, we could proactively work together to assist our business community respond to the evolving situation,” said Bill Mann, executive director of the Greater Peninsula Workforce Board.
Out of the brainstorming came a group realization — each leader had anecdotal evidence of businesses suffering financial distress and cutting staff, but there was no data to show the extent of the local impact. So, the group commissioned the Richmond research firm SIR to conduct several surveys of area business owners.
With preliminary survey data coming in, the group then built a website where business owners could access recovery information, connect with one another and pose questions to experts. The COVID-19 Business Recovery Forum also includes articles and workshops from professors at Old Dominion University, lawyers and tax preparers.
The gamble that the organizations took several years ago paid off, Hampton Roads Chamber President and CEO Bryan Stephens said.
“We built, not just a trust with each other, but a true friendship,” he said.
As CEO and President of the Hampton Roads Chamber, Stephens has made fostering a business-friendly environment its top priority since he took on the position in 2013. This year, the group spearheaded a regional rebranding effort that led to a push to market Hampton Roads under the “757” moniker.
Stephens came to the chamber after a job as president and CEO of the Kalmar manufacturing company in San Antonio, Texas. Before that, he served 27 years in the U.S. Army, earning the rank of colonel. Notable positions during his tenure include division chief of staff of the 10th Mountain Division and chief of staff and chief of operations of U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Joint Warfighting Center.
Stephens also serves on several regional advisory boards, including the Hampton Roads Chamber, the Workforce Council board of directors, the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance board of directors and as president of the Hampton Roads Sports Commission board of directors.
Smith has been on the job at the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance since September 2019, working as president and CEO. As the region’s economic development organization, Smith represents 11 municipalities and more than 50 private sector investors. During the past year, the group worked to bring the Acesur olive oil maker to Suffolk and pushed for offshore wind development, among other initiatives.
A native of Portsmouth, Smith came to his current position after working as Norfolk city manager. Before that, his public sector positions included deputy city manager for Virginia Beach and deputy city manager, chief plans and policy officer and economic development director for Portsmouth. He also served on Portsmouth City Council for four years beginning in 2006. In the private sector, Smith served as president and CEO of Kaufman & Canoles.
Smith’s previous board experience includes serving as chair of Future of Hampton Roads, chair of the Urban Land Institute and vice chair of the HREDA’s board of directors.
For two years, McKenna has been leading the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. He came to the region in 2003 and established a rapport with former chamber leader Mike Kuhns. When Kuhns retired, he asked McKenna to apply for the position.
McKenna served in the military for 27 years, during which he deployed in locations like Kosovo, Somalia and Iraq. After retiring in 2011, he worked as a Navy defense contractor for seven years. He also spent nine months as the Peninsula’s community liaison for the Department of Veteran Affairs.
McKenna also serves on the steering committee for the Academies of Hampton.
Since 2014, Avery has led South Hampton Road’s workforce development organization, overseeing a 40-person staff and implementing federally funded programs. This upcoming year, the organization is getting ready for a merger with the Peninsula’s workforce board. Additionally, the organization is doing more this year to invest in talent recruitment and retention efforts to keep young people in Hampton Roads.
Previous positions for Avery include vice president at the then-Peninsula Council for Workforce Development and senior manager of development and community affairs at the Hampton Roads Workforce Council.
Outside the office, Avery serves as chair of the Virginia Association of Workforce Directors and works on numerous area boards, including GO Virginia and the Hampton Roads Economic Development Authority.
For 24 years, Spore worked as the city manager for Virginia Beach. He’s now using that expertise to lead Reinvent Hampton Roads — a community leadership initiative focused on strengthening existing job sectors and diversifying the regional economy.
Before coming to Hampton Roads, Spore served as city manger of Garland, Texas, city manger of Burnsville, Minnesota, director of community development for Lakewood, Colorado, and director of community development for Elgin, Illinois.
Spore serves on a number of regional executive boards, including: the United Way of South Hampton Roads, the CIVIC Leadership Institute, the Hampton Roads Business Roundtable, Zeiders American Dream Theater, the Hospice House of Hampton Roads, the Neptune Festival and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
As executive director of the Greater Peninsula Workforce Board, Mann has been helping job seekers and businesses adjust to the current pandemic and whatever comes next. The board is made up of community leaders, appointed by local elected officials, and directs workforce development programs and services The group recently worked with the Hampton Roads Workforce Council to secure a special state grant that allowed them to fund sanitation services and technology for 66 essential businesses on the Peninsula.
Mann serves on New Horizons Educational Foundation, the Academies of Hampton steering committee, the York County Public School Division’s career and technical education advisory committee, and the Williamsburg/James City County Public School Division’s 21st Century and Career Ready Advisory Committee.