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How Richmond Works

The region’s commitment to the principles of inclusion and sustainability is helping make it an economic success story.

Photo courtesy of Richmond

In the economic development community, nothing is as newsworthy as when a company agrees to build a new facility in your city or state, and in June of this year economic development officials in Virginia had some very big news: the LEGO Group, the Danish manufacturer of those iconic toy bricks, had agreed to build a manufacturing plant in Chesterfield County, not far from downtown Richmond. The brickmaker estimates that the $1 billion plant, the company’s only factory in North America, will create more than 1,700 jobs over 10 years. Construction starts this year.

How did Greater Richmond, as the region is known, land such a huge win? First, it has several assets that the LEGO Group found compelling—a skilled local workforce, available land and proximity to several transportation hubs, which will help the LEGO Group minimize supply chain issues and reach customers faster. But what may have tipped the scale is that Richmond is a leader in advocating the business principles of ESG (environmental, social and governance), including DEI—diversity, equity and inclusion – and sustainability. For the LEGO Group, that commitment was key; the company aims to make all its core products from sustainable materials by 2030. The toymaker is also committed to renewable energy and wanted to build a solar park to power its Virginia factory, which will be carbon neutral. The folks in Richmond said they could help make that happen. There was, pardon the pun, common ground.

This level of partnership doesn’t happen overnight. In recent years, Richmond’s business community, which includes eight Fortune 500 and three Fortune 1000 headquartered companies, has steadily fostered a culture committed to equity and sustainability. That culture matters more and more to employers, and it’s become a major boost to the region’s growing economy. “Investors want to invest in companies that care about people and the environment,” says Jennifer Wakefield, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Richmond Partnership, which is the lead regional economic development organization. “Richmond is well positioned for this.” Not only is Richmond demographically more diverse than the average United States city, Wakefield points out, but it has a longstanding reputation for being LGTBQ-friendly, and it’s become a leader in environmental sustainability.

In the past, Richmond’s social and environmental progress has been overshadowed by an impassioned debate over the presence of Confederate statues on the city’s Monument Avenue. But throughout the controversy, Richmond was working hard to address its history of slavery and racism, and the statues were removed following the height of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. In the aftermath, there remains a pervasive thoughtfulness about racial issues and a commitment to progress.

“I was born and raised in this region,” says Victor Branch, market president at Bank of America, which has some 2,000 employees in Greater Richmond. “As a Black man coming from a low-income, under-resourced background, I know firsthand what this community has done and is doing. It’s not the community that my parents or grandparents grew in. My kids are going to have a much better chance at opportunity than they did.”

Bank of America’s work with the community advances that opportunity; among other efforts, it’s a consistent donor to Virginia Commonwealth University as well as the area’s historically black colleges and universities, Virginia State University and Virginia Union University. “We want to help keep local talent in Richmond,” Branch says. “Everyone here realizes that we have been on the cusp of greatness, and we have to ensure that this time everyone who wants an opportunity can get that opportunity.”

That’s one definition of sustainability. Another is economic development that doesn’t harm the environment, where Richmond has also become a national leader. The work of Dominion Energy, which provides electricity to about 2.6 million customers in the state, is a big reason why. “Dominion has set a goal of being the most sustainable energy company in America, making major investments in wind and solar power, as well as in a diverse workforce,” says Charlene Whitfield, Dominion’s senior vice president-power delivery.

The company, which aims to be net zero for carbon and methane emissions by the year 2050, takes pride in working with business customers who want to get their energy from renewable sources. It’s helped to install 4,300 acres of solar panels in the region, including at Facebook’s upcoming 2.5 million-square-foot data center outside Richmond, which opened in 2020 and relies entirely on solar energy. Dominion is also developing the largest offshore wind project on the East Coast. “Companies are developing their own internal goals for sustainability, and they are coming to us to help make it happen,” Whitfield says.

It all adds up to a region whose commitment to progress has left it well-positioned for economic growth and social equity. As Victor Branch puts it, “Richmond really is on track to be that shining star for the future.”