Sussex leaders debate Gateway Region membership in face of fee increases

By Michael Campbell – News Editor

“What have they done for us lately?”

That was the simple question posed by Wakefield District supervisor John Stringfield during last month’s board of supervisors meeting as his fellow leaders discussed the recent increase in membership costs for the county’s regional economic development partner Virginia’s Gateway Region.

The economic development organization works with a number of Sussex’s surrounding localities, including the Tri-Cities of Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell, along with Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Prince George and Surry counties, in an effort to bring a number of industry and economic opportunities to member localities.

According to board documents, VGR has requested $5,000 in additional funding, bringing the county’s contribution to just over $27,000, with the matter being discussed during the board’s September meeting before ending in a tie with supervisors Eric Fly, Susan Seward and Rufus Tyler dissenting.

In an effort to learn more about the increase, an e-mail sent to VGR President and CEO Renee Chapline from Sussex board chairman Keith Blowe questioned if all member localities are being asked to contribute the same amount of funding.

In her response, Chapline explained that the increase “is a flat $5,000 for each community to include Sussex, Surry, Prince George, Petersburg and Hopewell,” noting this is the first increase since the 1960s and that VGR “had originally asked for $15,000 per year,” but, following a meeting of their board of directors, which includes representatives from each member county, they agreed all agreed on the $5,000 increase.

Chesterfield pays the largest contribution to VGR, according to data provided by the organization to the count, totaling $82,000.

With the increase, Sussex has one of the smallest overall contributions at $32,050, followed by Surry at $31,229 and Colonial Heights at $34,000. Additionally, of the localities listed by Chapline that received the “flat $5,000” increase, the average cost among those communities is around $35,057, making Sussex’s contribution approximately $3,000 below the average of the other localities.

“We have received increases from all communities as a unanimous decision to shore up the economic development efforts and try to remain competitive with the rest of Virginia,” Chapline said in her e-mail to Blowe.

For Alfred Futrell, who is on the Gateway Region board, the county not paying the fee was of concern to him.

“Surry is smaller than Sussex, and they paid theirs back in January,” he remarked. “Sussex is the only locality that didn’t pay the $5,000. [VGR] is working to support Sussex.”

Following Stringfield’s question of, “What have they done for us lately,” Blowe explained that VGR played a key role in hosting a business delegation from China recently, among other activities.

“One of the things they continue to tell us is that you’re not going to get anything on your own,” Blowe remarked. “Everything is being operated in a regional concept. We can’t send a delegation to China or Europe to try to bring business here. This entity can do that. We have not seen the immediate result, but they are working.

Tyler, who voted against the additional funding in September, pointed to the neighboring locality of Greensville, remarking they are growing and not a member of VGR.

“Just because we are a member of Gateway doesn’t necessarily mean we are the most attractive person on the block,” he said. “The ones who have the influence of paying the most money, from my time serving on Gateway, get the most attention.”

“Historically, that has not been Sussex,” Tyler continued, posing a question to county administrator Deborah Davis, asking if she felt VGR’s $5,000 increase was warranted.

“The rationale that was explained to me was that all the other localities in VGR has given the additional funding,” she remarked. “While I have no problem from a staff perspective of funding it, the other side of the coin with those businesses that are asking that question, if we do have that ‘economic development bite,’ we still have to come out of pocket with incentives.”

“We are still giving other dollars that those businesses are not seeing up front,” Davis continued. “They do good work, but I am not sure we are seeing the return that we expected.”

Ultimately, the funding decision came down to a tiebreaker vote, one of the few in the county’s short history of having such a position.

Elected tiebreaker Bill Collins voted in favor of the funding, moving Sussex’s contribution to VGR to just over $32,000.

Copyright 2016 by Womack Publications

Leave a Reply