Cape Charles - Homegrown Tools

Cape Charles, VA

Updated: 2020

With a local economy crippled by plant closures and environmental problems, Cape Charles bridges these challenges with the nation's first eco-industrial park.

Median Household Income2020$55,104
Poverty Rate 202016.0%
Proximity to Urban Center 43 miles to Norfolk, Va.
Proximity to Interstate Highway 38 miles
Case Study Time Frame 1990-2000
Municipal Budget FY20223.5 million
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
View Complete Case StudyUpdated: Cape Charles, 2020

In the mid-1990s, Cape Charles planned and developed an environmentally friendly “eco-industrial park.” This development was part of the town’s strategy to blend job creation with environmental protection. Located in Northampton County on the Chesapeake Bay, the town’s economy is rooted in fishing, farming and food processing. Over the last couple of decades, however, local food processing plants have moved away, and overfishing has decimated the fishing industry. In the wake of significant job losses and increasing water pollution, local officials committed to charting a new, more sustainable economic development path. Cape Charles is now the location of the nation’s first eco-industrial park, which has created new jobs for residents while limiting its environmental footprint.


What are the lessons learned from this story?


Environmental adversity can lead to economic opportunity. Cape Charles and county officials were in a predicament after food processing plants closed in the late 1980s. On the one hand, residents were desperate for jobs; on the other, the once pristine environment was being degraded. Cape Charles also faced threats to its water supply. The town had to come up with a strategy that would balance economic growth and environmental protection. In this case, public leaders decided to put a new spin on an old tool—the industrial park. As Andrew Barbour, the county supervisor, said, “We saw nature-based development as an asset and key differentiator in doing business.” This innovative approach to economic development set Cape Charles apart from its neighbors, provided uniqueness to the community and gave industries a reason to explore the town.


The process of building capacity and creating partnerships is as important as the outcome. The inclusive nature of the planning process for the eco-industrial park generated community capacity to do other things. In 2006, when the park was struggling to maintain occupancy, the local Chamber of Commerce partnered with the area community college and the Nature Conservancy to develop a certification course in ecotourism. Graduates of the course receive exclusive access to Nature Conservancy-owned barrier islands and can offer a more expensive and exclusive experience to their customers. The course has been extremely successful for both the town government and local business owners. This partnership was a direct result of the process that Cape Charles went through to explore sustainable economic development strategies (of which the park was only one option).