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Mayors Speak at Annual ELS Forum

By Amanda Morad | March 27, 2014

(L-R) Will Sessoms; Kenneth Wright; Linda Johnson; Paul Fraim; Alan Krasnoff; Dr. Paul Bonicelli, Regent's Executive Vice President.
Photo by Alex Perry

Before an audience of 420 at Regent University's Executive Leadership Series luncheon, the leaders of South Hampton Roads gathered on Thursday, March 27, to discuss the most pressing issues of the region: transportation, military downsizing and diversity.

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Mayors from five cities shared their vision for the future of Virginia's first and largest region. Dr. Alan Krasnoff, mayor of Chesapeake; Paul Fraim, mayor of Norfolk; Kenneth Wright, mayor of Portsmouth; Linda Johnson, mayor of Suffolk; and William Sessoms, mayor of Virginia Beach, participated.

The most pressing and unanimously agreed upon subject discussed was transportation. The region is both blessed and plagued with population growth that remains unsupported by its network of streets, highways and mass transit systems. Recent legislation has provided a light at the end of a long tunnel toward progress in this area as plans are set in place to expand major highways and relieve crippling congestion between the region's centers of commerce.

Though all mayors expressed frustration with the introduction of tolls to two high-traffic tunnels in Norfolk and Portsmouth, several recognized them as a necessary step toward significant changes in traffic flow. Residents are already recalibrating how and where they live, shop and get to work according to these changes.

Progress in mass transit systems, especially light rail, are a step in the right direction, they all agreed, but the inherent challenges of building a system that works for the urban Norfolk as well as the more suburban Chesapeake and the seasonal Virginia Beach Oceanfront make aggressive steps difficult to take. The mayors' primary concern lies in ensuring that commerce can flow freely in and out of the region.

Related to this flow of commerce is the region's dependence on the military. Sequestration was a topic of debate at last year's forum, but now that these changes are being put in place, the effects on the local economy are emerging. Military presence in the region accounts for 45 percent of its economic assets.

The mayors stressed the need for a more diverse economy in order to gain independence from federal support. While military presence is important to the cultural fabric of the region and will continue to be, several of the mayors alluded to the need for advances in technology, healthcare and energy as viable markets for Hampton Roads given its resources.

One topic that has come in and out of local legislation talks is that of gaming, casino gambling in particular. On this front the region's mayors are unified, that it's not an industry they want to invest resources into. Though there's a case to be made economically, most expressed that gambling was incompatible with the family tourism profile they want the region to maintain.

The topic of diversity came up in several of the mayors' addresses, but in different contexts. While some called for a broader market profile, others brought up the economic inequalities between minorities. Hampton Roads is one of the most racially diverse regions in the nation, but some feel that market opportunities are being missed for minorities. This is due in large part to the history of individualism between the cities in areas where regional cooperation would be beneficial to all cities.

However, brought together by the need for regional cooperation on transportation, the mayors agreed that a rising tide lifts all boats. They also agreed that the cities of South Hampton Roads are working together more often and more effectively than ever before.

Krasnoff served five consecutive terms in Chesapeake's City Council beginning 1990 and was elected mayor in May 2008. He previously served as director of the Chesapeake Juvenile Advisory Board and is a practicing chiropractor.

Norfolk native Fraim has been a member of Norfolk City Council since 1986 and has served as mayor of Norfolk since July 1994. He began a private law practice more than 40 years ago and is president of the law firm Fraim and Fiorella, P.C.

Suffolk's first female mayor, Johnson, was appointed by her colleagues on Suffolk's City Council in 2006 and sworn in as the city's first directly elected mayor in January 2009. Previously, she served as the public information officer for the State Corporation Commission in Richmond and eligibility officer for the Suffolk Department of Social Services.

Wright was elected mayor of Portsmouth on November 2, 2010, and took office two days later. Born and raised in Portsmouth, he is the president and CEO of Wright's Engineering.

Sessoms, a native of Virginia Beach, began his political career in 1988 as an at-large member of the Virginia Beach City Council. In 2008, he was elected mayor. Sessoms has worked with numerous local and regional organizations, including the Life Saving Museum of Virginia, the American Heart Association, the Norfolk State University Foundation and the Tidewater Regional Transit Authority.

This marks the sixth year that Regent's ELS has hosted local elected officials for a Mayors Forum. Held each month, ELS brings together businessmen and women in Hampton Roads to hear from business and leadership experts.

Visit the ELS website for more information about upcoming speakers.

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Mindy Hughes, Public Relations

Phone: 757.352.4095 Fax: 757.352.4888

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