WILLIAMSBURG — The Greater Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce held the first of its five-part speaker series, “Commonwealth Conversations,” Wednesday morning at Williamsburg Lodge.
The Chamber speaker series will be held every other month, with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) as its sponsor. Cliff Fleet, president of CWF, leads the breakfast discussions.
“This series arose out of a desire for us to bring people from outside the region to Williamsburg to offer perspective on a variety of different topics … to think about how we can grow the economy,” Fleet said in his introductory remarks.
Jason El Koubi, President and CEO of Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), was the guest for the first event. VEDP is the state economic development authority for the Commonwealth of Virginia, working with local, regional, and state partners to encourage the expansion and diversification of Virginia’s economy.
El Koubi spoke on a wide variety of topics impacting Virginia and Hampton Roads, how VEDP operates in varied political landscapes and how it works to position Virginia as an economic growth leader. As an example of that work, he pointed to Louisa County’s recent announcement that Amazon Web Services was planning an $11 billion investment by 2040 to establish two data center campuses.
“Our first engagement with Amazon Web Services … that started about five years ago. That didn’t just start under the previous governor, it started under the governor before before that, so two governors.” he explained, noting the importance of having continuity across political administrations, as well as strong partnerships at the local and regional level to get the project across the finish line.
He also spoke of the challenge states like Tennesse, Georgia and North Carolina, as well as “juggernauts” like Texas and Florida, pose in what he called a very competitive region for economic development. Noting those other states often have had a head start in aggressively promoting themselves, he highlighted Virginia as a top state for talent, with a well educated and productive workforce.
“Virginia is positioning itself to be an absolute leader in this: having superior intelligence and understanding the relationship between the supply of skills that’s coming out in terms of our talent pipelines, and the demands — the evolving demands — for skills in the economy,” he said.
El Koubi said Virginia was initially slow to get back on its feet post-pandemic, but that was changing.
“Virginia was relatively slow to get back to its pre COVID baseline relatively slow into recovery. However, over the last year and a half or so Virginia has really accelerated,” he said. “We have we’ve added about 200,000 people for labor force. Labor force participation has really picked up. Unemployment has been going steadily down — 2.5% statewide. So Virginia has gone from being kind of a kind of a laggard in the recovery to being a leader in the recovery.”
He felt Hampton Roads, as well as Northern Virginia, have been slower to recover compared to other regions in the state, but also pointed out that no region was performing the way it needs to be to be a consistent leader for economic performance.
“I don’t think that there’s there’s any Virginia region right now that has really caught fire, in the sense of a steady state of rapid growth,” he said. “And so one of the things that we need to think about as we consider positioning Virginia as an economic growth leader, positioning Hampton Roads, the peninsula as an economic growth leader, is how do you create that kind of momentum.”
Following the conversation with Fleet, El Koubi fielded questions from the audience.
The next conversation is slated for Nov. 1 with Carly Fiorina of Carly Fiorina Enterprises, followed by BK Fulton of Soulidifly Productions on Jan. 10 and Tom Barkin of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond on March 6. The May 1 guest has yet to be announced.
Single tickets for upcoming Commonwealth Conversations are $55 for chamber members and $80 for nonmembers and include breakfast. Tables of eight reserved seats with a company logo are $500 for chamber members and $700 for nonmembers, and tickets for the entire series are also available.
For more information, visit the Commonwealth Conversations webpage.