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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Route on which Riverside Smithfield Hospital will be located.

Jackson Kirkham circles the bright, clean new classroom at Hardy Elementary School. His shock of orange-red hair bobs as he counts the seats.

He doesn’t start first grade for another week, but he and his younger sisters are here to get a sneak peek at his new school.

It’s going to be a big shift for him, coming from a small private kindergarten where he was one of just 10 students. 

Jackson’s seat count concludes: 24. That’s a lot more classmates than kindergarten.

“Do you think that’ll be fun or crazy?” his mom Kathleen Kirkham asks.

“I dunno. Probably fun,” he says, before getting distracted by his friend Norah walking into the room.

Kirkham moved to Smithfield in 2013 after growing up across the river in Newport News. She and her three red-headed kids are part of an accelerating pattern of growth that is poised to reshape this traditionally agrarian community.

“I always see more people in the area as more potential friends for my kids and more people to connect with more services, stores available to shop, things like that,” Kirkham said. “I've been excited about, you know, us growing a little bit.”

The new Hardy Elementary can accommodate nearly 30% more students than were enrolled at the old building out back - a testament to the expected need in the not-too-distant future.

As core cities like Portsmouth and Norfolk see their populations declining and struggle with finding space in built-out areas, Western Tidewater is surging.

For the last decade, growth has exploded in northern Suffolk. But further west, quaint little Isle of Wight is quietly expanding too.

Dirt is turning all along Routes 17 and 258, the main roads that link northern Suffolk to the town of Smithfield through northeast Isle of Wight. And the closer you get to the town, it seems that every cotton field is spoken for - 500 homes planned over here, 350 apartments over there.

County officials say they’re ready for the growth, both to support it as it ramps up and putting up speed bumps to slow it as much as they can to maintain the county’s small-town feel.

Hampton Roads heads west

People like Kirkham have slowly but steadily moved to Isle of Wight for the last couple decades, attracted by a slower pace of life and more scenic communities still within the driving distance of major employment centers. Greg Grootendorst, deputy executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, said Hampton Roads has the third highest rate of people living in one jurisdiction while working in another.

Moving out to the country and driving to work is not uncommon in Hampton Roads. As residents seek affordable housing and high quality of life, they’ve increasingly looked west.

“A lot of the development pressure has pushed to Suffolk and Isle of Wight, and that's where we're seeing the growth,” Grootendorst said.

Grootendorst has spent the last 22 years doing projections and forecasting for the regional planning group. He’s spent most of that time waving the flag of westward migration, projecting that Suffolk and Isle of Wight will be the region’s growth centers in the coming decades. 

And so far, he’s been right.

Hampton Roads’ growth rate has slowed from around 1% annually in the 1970s to below 0.4%. Built-out localities are seeing population declines, even as the number of households in places like Norfolk increases. (Grootendorst says the trend nationally is toward fewer people per household.)

Isle of Wight is now growing at more than four times the regional average, according to U.S. Census data, making it the 9th fastest growing community in the state. The county hit 40,000 residents in 2022, nearly doubling in size over the last three decades.

Sized Benns Grant
Photo by Ryan Murphy 

Hundreds of apartments overlooking a cotton field are going up at Benn's Grant, a development that's already seen more than 500 single family homes built in recent years.

Almost all of that growth is concentrated in the northeast quadrant of the county between Smithfield and the Suffolk city line, 5 minutes by bridge to Newport News.

And now, the population in that area has reached a tipping point, packing enough people in a close enough area to attract significant commercial developments that could herald a population boom like neighboring Suffolk has seen in recent years.

Suffolk, unlike its 6 regional city peers, is currently growing at more than 2% per year.

Several businesses are planned as part of different mixed residential and commercial developments along the main drag in Isle of Wight. A new Publix grocery store is slated to break ground soon, much to the excitement of residents who haven’t had many grocery choices within the county.

And the biggest project: the county’s own hospital.

Riverside just broke ground on a 50-bed hospital on Route 10 next to Benn’s Grant, a sprawling subdivision where hundreds of homes have been built in recent years and new apartments overlooking cotton fields are still going up.

Riverside Smithfield will have an emergency room, four operating rooms and more, meaning residents will no longer have to head to Suffolk or Newport News for a broken leg or routine surgery.

Once those commercial projects open their doors, it’ll be another set of draws for a new wave of residents considering the county.

“You're gonna see the residential, (then) major commercial, which begets more residential, which begets more commercial,” said Don Robertson, the assistant county administrator and a lifelong Isle of Wight resident.

A delicate dance

Between what’s recently been built, what’s under construction, developments in the design phase, projects that are approved but dormant and what’s expected to come before the planning commission soon, about 5,200 new residential units in northeastern Isle of Wight could attract thousands of new residents in the next few years.

That means there will be growing pains.

Officials said the county is working to manage those as best it can, containing the growth and ensuring Isle of Wight keeps that rural feel. That’s been a major concern for long-time residents and newcomers.

“That's a delicate, delicate dance in terms of how do you integrate development into what has historically been and wants to continue to be into the future: A rural community,” Robertson, the assistant county manager, said. 

“People who are native to these communities have very strong feelings about, you know, not changing what they grew up with, what their families have grown accustomed to.”

Board of Supervisors chairman William McCarty represents the northeast area of the county where the most growth is happening. He said he and other board members are going even further to try to tamp down development.

“We can't force it, but I can have a conversation with (developers) to say hypothetically, take a 400-unit parcel of land in Carrollton and reduce it to only 82 single-family homes. That mitigates impacts,” McCarty said.

He said they’ve also shot down entire proposed developments to stop things from going too quickly.

That’s proven popular. McCarty and others were elected to the board of supervisors eight years ago riding a wave of anti-growth sentiment and are now seeking their second reelections.

McCarty noted that while many want the benefits of growth, like more supermarkets or restaurants, few want to see hundreds more houses going up in the field across the way.

“I think it's important for citizens to realize if you don't have the rooftops and the road counts, you don't get those extra services that people so often want,” he said.

The chairman proudly notes their approach to managed growth has basically paid for itself. They haven’t raised taxes in the last eight years despite spending more on things like sheriff’s deputies and fire-rescue to accommodate the rising population.

But making sure services keep up with demand will be a growing challenge. 

That’s why Hardy Elementary is built to manage hundreds more students, despite school enrollment being mostly flat for the last few years.              

Sized Hardy Kids
Photo by {Name} 

Future Hardy Elementary School students check out the playground from the new school's second floor during an open-house on Aug. 28.

Much of Isle of Wight’s migration in recent years has been retirees or older professionals without kids, a fact developers are capitalizing on with a 55-and-older community in development near Carrollton. 

Back at Hardy, a handful of kids are lined up at a second-floor window, looking out over the playground. It’s still surrounded by temporary orange fencing as the construction crews finish off the last bits of landscaping.

Beyond the playground, a huge sky-blue water tower emerges from the field. Its emblazoned with “Hardy Elementary School.”

The water tower, like the school, is brand new. Though Hardy is on the west side of Smithfield, outside of the development zone where it’s still forests and farm fields, the water tower was installed to provide county water service to potential future developments - just in case.

“We're probably years away from that kind of thing happening, but the farther out we extend utilities, the potential of that grows exponentially,” Robertson said.

“It creates the opportunity for somebody to come in and say ‘I know this is outside of the development service district, but you have utilities here. I want to develop.’ So when and if that happens, our board is going to face a different dilemma.”

NOTE: Isle of Wight County Schools is a member of the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, which holds the broadcast license for WHRO.