York Sparkles in Business Survey

The Jefferson Program in Public Policy at the College of William & Mary selected York for a class project in 2006. The analysis judged York to have the best climate for business among its peers, equal to that of Albemarle and Hanover.

Curiously, James City was next.

While a fresh analysis of the business climate in James City County found that the negatives tend to outweigh the advantages, a similar review of business attitudes among 15 Virginia localities found York terrific.

Jim Noel, York's economic development director, said, "We were very happy. That's Number 1 among our peers in Virginia, and it didn't really cost us anything to find out."

That contrasts the nearly $39,000 James City paid a consultant for the report, which was completed in April but only released this week after the Gazette requested it.

The supervisors finally got the report Wednesday morning, though in an internal memo chairman John McGlennon cautioned that the report was part of a larger study still being completed by county staff.

Gauging the needs and attitudes of businesses is becoming increasingly important as local jurisdictions look beyond flat tourism and a declining military presence to sustain tax revenue.

Every other year Noel sends everyone who holds a York business license a 20-question survey.

The City of Williamsburg is in the midst of its first business survey, which was sent to 652 businesses in the city. Results are due this fall. Michele DeWitt, economic development manager for Williamsburg, is eager to get the results. "Our response rate is over 20 percent, with more surveys coming in," she said. "That's higher than we expected."

York had a nearly 18% return rate on its 2006 surveys, up from 14% previously. York and Williamsburg base their surveys on samples from Business Retention & Expansion International, a North Dakota association begun in 1989 by economic development experts.

DeWitt said the city's survey has a heavier emphasis on retail because there's a stronger retail component among the city's businesses.

The W&M class rated the jurisdictions on six criteria: business cost, labor, regulatory climate, economic climate, growth pros­pects and quality of life (see box). The students based their benchmarks on a May 2006 feature in Forbes magazine that ranked the "Best Places for Business and Careers." Virginia finished No.1 in that survey.

Applied locally, James City ranked first in three categories. York placed in the top three in four categories. So how can James City fare so well in one study and so poorly in another?

Both James City and York rank among the worst in regulatory climate. York predicted that would be a problem because of a combination of restrictions based on the environment and a heavy military presence. James City has long been criticized for its regulatory zeal, and at least one participant in the James City-funded study called the planning staff "adversarial." James City's permitting process is viewed as arduous at best, especially for small-business owners.

Noel said York's survey helps him get an early indication that a business may be unhappy.

"If we get a response that suggests the business may be looking to move, or says it doesn't plan to renew its lease, that's a red flag," he said. "We immediately make contact with them to see what's behind it."