Strong Military Presence, Location Drive Hampton Roads Economy

Located in southeastern Virginia, Hampton Roads is one of the world’s biggest and deepest natural harbors and home to the world’s largest naval base at Norfolk.

F-22 Raptor over Hampton Roads Harbor; Department of Defense photo

Here, centuries of history intersect with modern technology, economic growth, livable communities — rural, suburban and urban — a rich culture, a thriving maritime industry and a strong military presence.

In 1607, English explorers on three tiny ships landed at what is today Hampton Roads. They created the first permanent English settlement and the first representative government in America. And, this is where Africans first arrived and first sought freedom.

The region’s early 17th century settlers who named the area Hampton Roads knew the harbor as Southampton’s Roadstead. Hampton was used in honor of the Earl of Southampton, a major investor of the Jamestown settlers, and “Roadstead” is an old English word for a protected harbor.

Hampton Roads is home to the world’s largest shipyard in Newport News and one of the busiest and fastest growing ports on the Eastern Seaboard, the Port of Virginia. The harbor flows into the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, whose watershed covers 64,000 square miles and all or part of six states and Washington, D.C.

Located within 750 miles of two-thirds of the population of America, Hampton Roads’ location at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay has long defined the economy and the culture, but it also creates unique challenges. While the many waterways contribute to commerce and the quality of life, they also create logistical barriers.

Hampton Roads highways include an intricate system of nearly a dozen bridges, tunnels and ferries including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a four-lane 20-mile-long vehicular toll crossing and the only direct link between Virginia’s Eastern Shore and South Hampton Roads. Many of these bridge and tunnel connections are major choke points, since no new construction to address congestion has occurred since 1992.

With a population of over 1.6 million, Hampton Roads is among the top 35 largest metropolitan statistical areas, the fifth largest MSA in the Southeast and the largest between D.C. and Atlanta.

But unlike many metropolitan areas, Hampton Roads’ population nucleus is not confined to one central city, instead spread among several cities and counties, including Virginia Beach, the largest in population, and Suffolk, the largest in land area in Virginia.

The area is representative of Patchwork Nation’s Military Bastion community — counties that are home to or located near military bases. The U.S. military defense began here and now nearly one-fourth of the nation’s active-duty military personnel are stationed in Hampton Roads.

All five military services’ operating forces and major command headquarters, including the Navy, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, and Marines Joint Forces and the only NATO command on U.S. soil call Hampton Roads home.

Hampton Roads has an educated workforce thanks, in part to its close proximity to D.C., 15,000 military retirees annually, 12 institutions of higher learning such as the College of William & Mary, Hampton, Norfolk State and Old Dominion Universities. It also enjoys a lower unemployment rate relative to the rest of the nation because of the strong military presence.

However, the economic base is currently shifting away from almost complete dependence on military installations and moving toward a diverse mix of industries, including shipping, defense-related industry, technology — including modeling and simulation — tourism, service, manufacturing and agriculture. It is also the home of six federal research labs.

Hampton Roads is responding to these challenges by reinvigorating the pioneering spirit of the settlers, to forge a future that will make “America’s First Region” one of its strongest economic centers.

— By Missy Schmidt, Hampton Roads Partnership,