What should the headlines say about the Fredericksburg region 20 years from now?

That was the question Linda Millsaps, George Washington Regional Commission’s executive director, posed Thursday to community leaders at the University of Mary Washington’s Stafford County campus. They were attending the last of three public sessions on developing a community-wide plan called Good Jobs Here. Its goal is to create, measure, execute and foster economic growth and job creation in Planning District 16.

Millsaps kicked off the session by showing two images from the movie “Finding Nemo.” One shows the school of fish that Nemo’s father Marlin asks for directions. The second shows the fish forming an arrow to point the way.

She told the attendees, who included members of local boards of supervisors and Fredericksburg’s City Council, that their input will be used to indicate ways the Good Jobs Here vision statement can be put into action. It says: “Through regional collaboration we will prepare and care for a diversified, skilled workforce that meets 21st century employer needs and attracts new businesses and industries to the George Washington community.”

Armed with a Go Virginia grant, GWRC has been partnering with a number of local organizations such as the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance and the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce on the Good Jobs Here project for some time. The Berkley Group, a government consulting group based in Bridgewater, was tasked with researching the region to see where localities have common ground, and coming up with potential goals that could bring the vision statement to life.

Denise Nelson, an environmental planner with the firm, presented about a dozen suggested goals. They included creating a regional community identity, promoting vocational and technical trade opportunities, improving the transportation network to reduce congestion and increase accessibility, and creating innovative solutions to meet the needs of the ALICE population. ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

She turned the goals into a bingo scorecard of sorts, and showed how many spaces the economic development plan for each of the planning district’s localities already filled. All had some, but none had all.

“We will get our bingo card filled,” Nelson said, “and we will have good jobs here.”

FRA President Curry Roberts, the next speaker on the program, said one of the biggest problems facing the region is a shortage of sites and buildings for new businesses. He said Virginia has three tiers for site readiness, ranging from undeveloped property to property with appropriate zoning, pad sites and possibly an approved “vanilla” building plan.

The program also included a panel discussion by Wayne Strickland, executive director of the Roanoke–Alleghany Regional Commission; Shawn Avery, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council; and Conaway Haskins, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s extension specialist for economic and entrepreneurial development. Strickland and Avery shared what’s worked and what problems they’ve overcome in their regions, while Haskins gave an overview of the types of resources available around the state for entrepreneurs.

Afterward Darren Coffey, Berkley Group’s CEO, asked participants to break into small groups and take 45 minutes to come up with three strategies that could be used to implement that goals Nelson had outlined. Each group was then to share their top takeaway.

“This is where we put meat on the bones,” he said.

Meghann Cotter, Micah Ministries’ executive servant–leader, shared that her group thought localities need to think more about helping those who are unskilled and are what she termed “pre-ALICE.” Strickland said his group thought school systems shouldn’t duplicate specialized programs, but instead make them available to any student in the region who wants to pursue that particular passion.

Other suggestions included asking churches if they could use their buses to provide transportation to those who aren’t served by the FRED bus system, creating a regional brand, and finding ways for businesses to help ALICE families, such as encouraging employers to locate near affordable housing and transportation.

Millsaps urged everyone to write and sign a pledge of something that they could do “as one of the fish in the arrow to try to move this forward.”

She said Berkley Group will combine the information from the session with other input and research to create a report. She’ll present it to local officials, company heads and others in the community early next year to see if it matches what they think should be done and how they can help. The report, and any additions that result from those meetings, will be the basis for a mission plan. GWRC and FRA will create a dashboard for their websites to show what progress is being made.

“We hope to keep all the fish in the same direction as much as we can,” Millsaps said, “without having any control over them.”

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

cjett@freelancestar.com

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