The origins of today’s Portsmouth Partnership lie in the response by city business leaders to the challenges created by the post-World War II business climate. Having seen a tremendous influx of workers and jobs as the war effort ramped up, city leaders feared a mass exodus at war’s end. In response, these individuals created the Portsmouth Industrial Foundation in March of 1948 with a two-fold purpose: to attract new manufacturing business to Portsmouth, and to attract and retain small- and medium-sized businesses by providing loans. A fund-raising campaign raised $250,000 to fuel the effort.
The PIF advertised widely that it would provide the closest thing to a turn-key agreement for an interested manufacturer: it would generally assist ” . . . in the location of new industrial concerns in the Greater Portsmouth area . . . Provide architects, engineers and building contractors who [will] . . . examine your manufacturing requirements and consult with you on the type of building you need” and provide financing “at the lowest possible rate.” What was not to love? The first to respond was the E-Z Thread Company, which broke ground on its 25,000 square foot manufacturing facility in July of 1949 with plans to employ over 400 people. Others were to follow, and city managers from as far away as Boston, Roanoke, Minneapolis, and Salinas, California rote to inquire about this innovative new program.
Many smaller businesses needed small loans to either establish themselves in the city or to expand their operations. Accordingly, over the next 40 years the PIF made over $2,500,000 in loans to over 35 businesses, several of which are still in operation today. All told, the PIF’s efforts produced hundreds of jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of tax revenue for the City of Portsmouth.
The Portsmouth Partnership
By the early 1980s Portsmouth suffered from the ills shared by many older cities which, having grown to their geographic limits, had no open space remaining for new development. In contrast with the nearby cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk, Portsmouth suffered from the compounding effects of slow economic growth, population loss, high unemployment and a loss of retail establishments. Moreover, the public’s perception of the city’s declining fortunes overshadowed the many unique and valuable attributes of this beautiful, well-located and historic city.
It was a determination to address this poor image that drove the Chamber of Commerce and the city’s citizen leaders to form the original Portsmouth Partnership. A kick-off breakfast was held in May of 1983 and, six months and $1,236,000 in committed funds later, the Portsmouth Partnership was officially in business. The new organization embarked on an ambitious program which included a national industrial advertising campaign, the creation of a fully-equipped briefing center and meeting facility, and an Industrial Ambassador Program designed to attract and welcome new business prospects to town. A research budget and Speakers’ Bureau were created. A professionally-led public relations campaign promoted Portsmouth locally, regionally and nationally, and the Partnership provided a budget for the promotion and production of local festivals and events. In 1984 Portsmouth’s Enterprise Zone was created; within just two years, having doubled in size, it was the most successful in the state.
Today’s Portsmouth Partnership
By 1990, although many positive changes had been brought about by the previous 40 years’ efforts, many challenges remained for Portsmouth. Both the City’s and homeowners’ budgets were strained due to the fact that roughly 50% of the city’s land area remained exempt from property tax. Retail businesses continued to leave the city, taking with them both tax revenues and jobs. And as school enrollment within the city fell, the school system was wqueezed between decreasing revenues and increasing numbers of empty desks.
But an innovative spirit continued to drive Portsmouth’s citizen leaders, who saw opportunity as they surveyed these challenges. They determined that a merging of the Portsmouth Industrial Foundation and the Portsmouth Partnership could produce a stronger and more focused organization with the vision, energy and assets powerful enough to meet the demands of successful development. Accordingly, the organizations’ merger in 1991 gave rise to today’s Portsmouth Partnership.
Today’s Partnership continues to adapt as it helps Portsmouth meet the challenges of life within our growing, competitive region. While standing committees focus an issues such as education, transportation and the maritime industry, new affiliates have also been created: the Greater Portsmouth Development Corporation and Partnership Development Foundation work to turn neglected properties into businesses which produce jobs and tax revenue; the Portsmouth Partnership Foundation serves as a permanent supporter of worthwhile projects within the city; the Vann H. Lefcoe Leadership Foundation and its annual leadership class works to identify, educate and encourage future city leaders and volunteers; and PortsEvents works to put “feet on the street” through events such as First Friday’s “Concerts in the Courtyard” series and a seasonal, weekly Farmers’ Market, both held at the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center’s 1846 Courthouse Museum at High and Court Streets in Olde Towne.
Sixty years after the initial volunteer effort gathered steam, today’s Portsmouth Partnership continues an energetic tradition of innovation as it strives to provide the highest possible quality of life for Portsmouth’s citizens.
In 2009 the Virginia Downtown Development Association awarded the Partnership’s newly-formed PortsEvents affiliate an Award of Merit for Business Development, Promotion and Marketing, and presented three-time Partnership President David Tynch with its prestigious John Marlles Commitment Award.