Virginia Tech aims to tackle state’s ‘coastal challenges’ with new collaboration in Hampton

Virginia Tech has had a presence along the downtown Hampton waterfront for nearly half a century.

In the 1970s, the university opened one of its Agricultural Research and Extension Centers here, dedicated to supporting the seafood industry. Recent years have seen an expansion of that center as well as additional research space.

Last week the school announced an extension of its physical presence, one driven by a desire to tackle the state’s “coastal challenges” from Hampton Roads to the Northern Neck.

The new Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator seeks to bring together the school’s experts with industry leaders and other local stakeholders.

Metaphorically, it’s like “a superhighway bringing the intellectual and research capacity to the coast,” said Robert Weiss, director of the school’s Center for Coastal Studies and a professor of natural hazards. “And then the needs back from the coast to Blacksburg, so that we can match the needs.”

About 60% of the state’s population is located in “the coastal zone,” Weiss said, as well as many major economic drivers including the Port of Virginia and the growing offshore wind industry.

There are also pressing environmental issues, such as sea level rise and the need to build resiliency through natural and manmade infrastructure, said Michael Schwarz, associate director of the coastal studies center and director of the existing seafood research center.

A lot of solutions needed in such fields — aquaculture technology, for example, or developing unmanned submersible vehicles to repair offshore wind infrastructure — lend themselves well to the technical expertise for which the Blacksburg campus is known, Schwarz said.

“Everything is on the table” for the new space, he said. “We’re just bringing more tools into the toolbox” of the region.

The collaborative space takes up the first floor of an office building on West Queens Way. It’s around the corner from the seafood research center and its $10 million revamped building set to open soon.

That building will have new facilities, including an aquaculture lab. But rapid growth of the research programs has outgrown not only the existing center but even the capacity of the new one. Virginia Tech leased additional offices last year for a seafood analysis and marketing program.

The coastal collaborator will be located one floor below, including a research bench space and loading dock area for waterfront testing and monitoring. The team plans to hire an onsite program manager, but most people using the space will do so temporarily, coming from the Blacksburg campus or other Hampton offices.

The idea is that industry partners or scientists could use it to work with the school’s researchers. Several companies have already expressed interest, Schwarz said.

Steven Lynch, Hampton’s senior business development manager, said in a statement that the collaborator “will expose the public and businesses in the city and region to research and technology developments that will benefit from the close proximity to the coast.”

Virginia Tech already has relationships with these coastal communities, Schwarz said.

“This is just bringing a lot of other areas of expertise into the coastal equation.”

Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208,