Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Virginia's Gateway Region casts a global net


Renee Chapline and her staff logged more than 50,000 miles on "fishing trips" last year.

As a Southside Virginia "country girl" at heart, that's how Chapline likes to describe her work, which involves casting for business prospects all over the world.

"They're fishing trips for companies," said Chapline, who for five years has served as executive director of Virginia's Gateway Region, an economic development group that promotes a swath of the state along the Interstate 85 and 95 corridors south of Richmond.

The travel and competition for jobs is a labor of love for Chapline, who wasn't born in Virginia but grew up in the state and has worked in economic development for more than 10 years.

She goes about her work with a kind of zeal that is borne partly from having seen economic loss at its worst.

She can describe in detail "the day that 2,000 jobs went away at 5:05 on a Friday afternoon."

Chapline worked for the city of Martinsville in legislative and public affairs in 1999 when textile company Tultex Corp. filed for bankruptcy and announced it was closing its Martinsville operations, putting 2,000 people out of work

"You don't know bad times until you have seen a city of 15,411 people lose 2,000 jobs," she said. "We saw a lot of negative things happen."

"That was a turning point for me, when I realized that this is what I should be doing," she said. "I have to support job creation. If you give a family the ability to work, then you give them the ability to create the American dream."

Chapline "is somebody who never says die, never says give up and doesn't take no for an answer," said Dia Nichols, the chief executive officer of John Randolph Medical Center in Hopewell and president of the business council that advises the Gateway Region organization.

"That is what you have to be when you are in that role," he said. "She has got a unique background in terms of where she has come from that really helps her to be successful at getting it done."

Chapline, 44, was born in Oklahoma, the daughter of a military man.

Her family moved to Pittsylvania County, where her mother is from, when she was young.

After college at Averett University in Danville, she moved around for a while, including living in the Atlanta area for several years, but eventually she returned to Virginia. "I am a true Virginian," she said.

"Most of my career has been spent in the Southeast, but I have been all over the world many times," she said. "I believe the Southeastern United States offers the best opportunities for economic development than anywhere in the world right now."

Despite the recession, the economic future looks favorable for the Gateway Region, in large part because of some major ongoing projects such as the expansion of Fort Lee and Rolls-Royce PLC's construction of an aircraft engine components plant in Prince George County.

Together, those projects promise to create thousands of jobs and attract new suppliers and service companies to the area, and Chapline is spending a lot of her time focusing on attracting new companies that could benefit and want to be close to the developments.

Chapline has some tasty bait for the fish she seeks.

The 2,400-square-mile region, which includes the cities of Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights and the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Surry and Sussex, has a lot to offer prospective employers, she said.

"We are the gateway for a lot of things," she said, adding that the region has good access to transportation networks and Virginia's ports, a solid work force, and a lifestyle that encompasses rural and urban settings.

"Location, location, location is what companies are looking for," she said.

Still, the business of economic development has gotten tougher since the economic downturn, she said.

"I recently got back from a trip to Europe, and we are not in this ship alone," she said. "I was in Ireland and saw unfinished projects everywhere. It truly is a global recession."

"Things are slower here as well, but I think we have had some significant economic drivers that have helped keep the momentum in the Gateway Region stronger than in many parts of Virginia and the United States," she said. "Our region is very fortunate because of the community's hard work during the times when the economy was good."

When she's not on a fishing trip somewhere, Chapline might be seen driving business prospects around the area in the Gateway organization's "industry recruitment vehicle" - a seven-passenger Toyota Highlander hybrid.

"A lot of the companies that we work with are focused on energy savings, and it makes a good impression with the clients for us to be doing our part," she said.

That reflects one of the changes she has seen in economic development, toward an emphasis on green energy.

"For instance, 10 years ago, I was not looking at windmill blade manufacturers," she said. "I wasn't looking at organic food processors. But these are the kinds of things you see now."

The type of investments and jobs that are being created is changing as well, she said. Investments can be significant now, but a $100 million project 10 years ago that might have brought 400 to 500 jobs could bring no more than 50 jobs today.

"There are more advanced technologies and fewer employees needed to operate them," Chapline said.

That is one reason why she also emphasizes the role of homegrown, entrepreneurial businesses.

In the wake of the economic crisis, "I think we have got to focus on a lot of things differently," she said. "There is going to be a greater role for entrepreneurial development. Economic developers have always recognized that homegrown companies are good for the economy because they are usually very committed to the area they are established in. That's probably going to be a larger piece of the pie."

Among the projects Chapline likes to point out with particular pride is the work being done in Petersburg and Hopewell by developers such as Dave McCormack, whose Waukeshaw Development firm has renovated warehouse buildings into apartments and condominiums. Its recent projects include Mayton Transfer Lofts and Demolition Coffee in Petersburg.

Chapline "is able to attract businesses that otherwise might not be here and also to bring banking and financial interests here," McCormack said. "A lot of smaller municipalities don't have the economic development muscles on their own, and Renee and her team do a great job consolidating the effort."

"She has a lot of energy and enthusiasm," he said. "Especially here in Petersburg there is a lot of opportunity, but you need a cheerleader for that, and that is where Renee and her team fit a niche."

The Gateway Region organization is a public-private partnership, and during Chapline's time with the group, financial support has tripled, with about 125 private companies contributing more than $5 million to the organization. She oversees a staff of four.

"Our organization turns 50 years old at the beginning of 2011," Chapline said. "We are the oldest regional economic development organization in the commonwealth."

Chapline, who has a grown son, Bobby, lives in Prince George County, where she and her husband, Scott, adopt and raise pit bulls and other abandoned animals.

They have two pit bulls right now - Dozer and Dazy.

Chapline's love for pit bulls seems to parallel her enthusiasm for economic development. She sees the dogs as misunderstood and too-often mistreated, and simply needing to be to be nurtured to become gentle companions. "I guess I have a save-the-world mentality to a point," she said.

She remembers coming across some old economic development marketing materials that emphasized cities around Virginia as having "cheap labor."

"Why would you want to say that?" she said. "Why wouldn't you want to bring quality jobs that pay well for your citizens? You want to come in and work with communities and leave them better than you found them. You want to help them create good jobs for citizens."

Contact John Reid Blackwell at (804) 775-8123 or jblackwell@timesdispatch.com.

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