Hampton Roads vs. Coastal Virginia: The Debate Over Regional Identity
A new statewide initiative has renewed the debate over regional identity and given us an opportunity to reflect on the things we love about the place we live
“Los Angeles give me Norfolk, Virginia
Tidewater four ten o nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin'
And the poor boy's on the line”
–Chuck Berry, “Promised Land”
The next time you're on a return road trip from destinations beyond the Chesapeake Bay watershed, try rolling down your car window little by little as you draw closer to our region. It’s not just the landscape that begins to transform. It’s the air.
If you grew up in this watery corner of the world, the salt air is your blood. When that telltale tingle of marsh and brine hits the nose, it can transform your mood and even tap something visceral in your memory—the first time you waded barefoot in a creek, canoed down a river, got stung by a jellyfish, hooked a striped bass or paddled out past the breakers on a longboard.
“It almost becomes part of our DNA,” says Bruce Thompson, a native of the area and CEO of Gold Key| PHR hospitality management group. Like many of us, he remembers heading down to the nearest beach or creek to go crabbing or catch minnows. “As you get older, you find ways to find solace on the beaches or fishing or surfing or just a stroll down the Boardwalk, along the Elizabeth River, Town Point Park or over in Jamestown.”
Sunrises over the ocean and sunsets over the bay are a part of our daily existence. There’s fresh seafood, waterside dining and waterfront festivals galore. There are boat tours and whale watching trips and lighthouses. There are historical attractions throughout the region with rich ties to our myriad waterways.
“We are all sort of drawn to the river and the shore and the various estuaries,” Bruce Thompson says. “Recently it struck me that anyone that lives in this area and doesn't spend time on the water is only getting about 50 percent of the benefit of what the region has to offer.”
Whether you have grown up with it or grown to know it as a “come here,” you may not have spent much time pondering how much this connection to the water affects our regional cultural identity, the way we present ourselves to the outside world and our ability to compete nationally and even globally. But there are plenty of folks who have, and it almost always comes back to our name. How do we refer to this region we call home?
There are names of individual cities on the Southside or the Peninsula and various combinations thereof. There have been attempts by some of those cities to pick a name and encourage others to follow suit. There are area codes and perfectly sensible geographical descriptors like “Southeastern Virginia.” But the regional names that have managed to stay afloat are those that reference, you guessed it, the water: Tidewater, Hampton Roads (even if the maritime reference requires a lengthy history lesson) and Coastal Virginia, the most recent arrival.
Thompson is one of those who has given the question plenty of thought over the years—especially recently. He serves as co-chair, along with Mitchell Reiss, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, of the GO Virginia Regional Council Tourism and Recreation Cluster Committee.
GO Virginia is an initiative by Virginia’s senior business leaders to “foster private-sector growth and job creation through state incentives for regional collaboration by business, education and government” and is a result of the Virginia Growth and Opportunity Act, passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 2016. It divides the state into nine distinct regions and looks to each of them for leadership in developing plans for regional economic growth and diversification with the opportunity to resource state funded GO Grants to help them do it.
Region 5 consists of the cities of Chesapeake, Franklin, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Poquoson, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg; and the counties of Accomack, Isle of Wight, James City, Northampton, Southampton and York.
The Tourism and Recreation Cluster Committee reports to the larger GO Virginia Regional Council. The Committee, which includes a shortlist of heavy hitters in the industry in addition to Thompson and Reiss, has been tasked with exploring opportunities for growth in recreation and tourism and how a renewed sense of regionalism can and should foster that effort in a major way.
They submitted a report late last year that outlines key recommendations for improvement. Tops on the list? The need for a single unified regional brand name and the leadership muscle—or maybe the patience—to make it stick. The committee as a whole is not vying for one name over another, though “Coastal Virginia” is undoubtedly having a moment.
Committee member Randy Thompson serves as president and publisher of VistaGraphics, which among many other publications, publishes this magazine, Coastal Virginia Magazine, and CoVa BIZ, both of which have incorporated the term into their brands in recent years.
“We transitioned our regional lifestyle magazine from Hampton Roads Magazine to Coastal Virginia Magazine four years ago,” says Randy Thompson. “Our reason for change was simple. A lifestyle magazine’s name needs to evoke pleasant connotations and images for an area, be readily identifiable with the area it serves and instill pride in the readership by way of ‘belonging’ to the area. For our purposes, Coastal Virginia Magazine is far more effective than Hampton Roads Magazine in accomplishing this.”
Whether we go all in with “Coastal Virginia,” stick with an older name or come up with something else entirely, the committee says the time is now to get on board. Our ability to present ourselves effectively and compete depends on it, not just for tourism dollars but for broader economic development and sustainability.
In the introduction to the 1929 book Tidewater Virginia, about the history of the region, author Paul Wilstrach gives poetic credence to those loyal to what many people think of as the original regional brand:
“Let us consider Tidewater. If one asks the reasons why, is not its very name enough? Tidewater Virginia is more than a phrase; it is an entity. It is one of those magical names—like the Chateaux of France, the castles on the Rhine, the Bay of Naples, the Canals of Venice, the lakes of Killarney or the Spanish Main—which is both panoramic and legendary, an expectation and a promise.”
Wilstrach goes on to describe the Cape Henry Light as the entrance to this magically named “territory of Virginia contiguous to the Chesapeake Bay,” which, by the way, historically includes Richmond, D.C. and other areas modern citizens may not think of as Tidewater.
But it’s a certain culinary analogy he uses to describe the challenge of separating romance from fact about the region and its history that seems to speak to the recurring debate over what we call ourselves: “As difficult a problem as unscrambling an egg.”
Karen Scherberger, CEO of Norfolk Festevents and another member of the Tourism and Recreation Cluster Committee, has another word for it. Scherberger, who also grew up in the region, has seen this debate come and go like the tide in her 36 years with Festevents.
“It’s messy. That’s the best word I can put on this whole process. But at the same time, it’s very exciting because there are so many people and businesses and communities that see a need for a better identification for the region.”
As romantic or historical as “Tidewater” may be for some, there are many others who perceive as too quaint or nondescript—especially when communicating with people outside the area. The newer “Hampton Roads” has similar challenges and perhaps even less clarity of meaning although it is still widely used by individuals, businesses and organizations.
The term “Hampton Roads” has proven problematic, not only for those in the tourism industry and business development community but for locals who may have grown accustomed to saying it yet admit they don’t know what it means and have an even harder time defining it for outsiders. It’s difficult to promote a region when you spend half the time explaining its name or where to find it on a map. Yet, old habits die hard.
“I wholeheartedly agree that developing and creating a better identification for the region is vital for tourism and economic development,” Scherberger says. “Understanding how that name for the region is used—that’s really where the rubber meets the road. Who is using it, how are we using it, and what message does it send out?”
Scherberger, like the other members of the committee, emphasizes the importance of process in coming to consensus on a name. That process, she notes, should involve “a lot of listening and creative thinking and facilitating” in ways that honor the deep-rooted connections people have to the area. There are family businesses, for example, that may have been handed down from generation to generation that incorporate Tidewater or Hampton Roads in their names.
“To think we are going to have a one-size-fits-all, although we should aspire to that, I don’t see it happening quickly because of the emotional attachment that a lot of locals have. There needs to be an inclusive process for discussion, bringing the best minds, the most creative minds that represent all facets of the community to the table.”
She cautions against picking any name, handing it down from on high and expecting people to jump on board. That includes “Coastal Virginia.”
“’Coastal Virginia’ sounds great and beautiful, but what does that include? I don’t think anybody on this committee thinks it’s going to be an easy task, but it’s an issue that has to be addressed. It’s how we get there and who comes along with the conversation to get us there.”
Bruce Thompson agrees that getting locals to embrace a single name, much less the specific name “Coastal Virginia,” is no walk on the beach.
“I think that’s the greatest challenge. Until it becomes sort of top-of-mind awareness that we are living in ‘Coastal Virginia’ and we are identifying with the region as such, I think it’s going to be a very difficult proposition. I think it first starts with having some of the mainstay organizations adopt whatever the new name is—like the Hampton Roads Chamber, like the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation.”
There are ideas like incorporating the name into wayfinding, directional and other signage around the region, working with Virginia Department of Transportation and municipalities to emphasize that doing so is critical to the success of the region.
But the real onus lies with the recreation and tourism industry, say Bruce Thompson and his committee colleagues. It’s their job to mobilize and engage key leadership to capitalize on growth and improvement initiatives on the state and regional level.
“That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” says Bruce Thompson. “The people with the dough to spend on promoting the industry, the ones who are already spending it, have to get together and say, hey, we are going to adopt this as our new branding because we see the benefits from a tourism perspective. Then they need to go to the community and the municipalities and make their case about how this will work for everyone.”
In a report the committee submitted in November 2017 to Jim Spore, who serves as chair of the local GO Virginia Regional Council and CEO of Reinvent Hampton Roads, the committee makes abundantly clear that the status quo won’t do. They may not be prepared to line up behind “Coastal Virginia” just yet, but they are ready to do what it takes to reach a consensus on a name worthy of this magnificent place we call home.
For a region steeped in history, our future may depend on it. Asked what our Founding Fathers might think of the term “Coastal Virginia,” committee co-chair and Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell Reiss says we might be on the right track.
“I think it would immediately resonate with them because the waterways were one of the primary means of travel for them. When waterways stopped, that’s where they built cities. It’s something they could relate to as part of their daily life.”
Hampton Roads vs. Coastal Virginia
We surveyed locals in-person on the Peninsula and Southside to learn more about their thoughts on what our region should be called.
Can you define the origin of the name Hampton Roads?
"I've been in the area for a while, but I haven't paid attention to [the name], but Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Hampton."
—Rowel Ragasa, Virginia Beach
"It was invented by local businessmen."
—Michelle Christenson, Virginia Beach
"The Confederacy and the war."
—Terry Seas, Hampton
"This area, the body of water between Ocean View, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. It's naval oriented."
—Allan Douglas Erbe, Hampton
When I say Hampton Roads, what comes to mind?
"The highway, the tunnel."
—Shannon Montgomery, Hampton
"I thought of New York and the Hamptons."
—Brandon James, Virginia Beach
"The seven cities."
—Anne Allison, Hampton
When I say Coastal Virginia, what comes to mind?
"Virginia Beach; it's one of the best beaches in the country."
—Terry Seas, Hampton
"Oysters, Virginia Beach, beaches…I would think Coastal Virginia is a larger area."
—Hans Feldmann, Norfolk
"It's a much better name than Hampton Roads. I think of the Eastern Shore, Virginia Beach."
—Thomas Berkley, Norfolk
"I like that. My region."
—Michelle Christenson, Virginia Beach