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It’s an economic story…it’s a recreation story. It’s both. Much of the Roanoke region’s economic vitality these days seems to be linked to quality of life, and the amenities offered here that include an expanding greenways system, hiking opportunities found in the adjacent national forests or along the Appalachian Trail, a growing interest in bicycle riding and other outdoor-related activities.
There is also a fairly new softball complex in Botetourt County and a major indoor recreation facility coming on line early in 2010: Roanoke County’s Green Ridge Recreation Center. Not everyone warmed up to the $30 million dollar pricetag, which became somewhat of a political football during the Board of Supervisors 2009 primary and general elections, but early public reaction in the way of memberships has shown that Green Ridge may be fulfilling a need. After all, other localities have operated public indoor fitness and recreation centers for years – why not here in Roanoke?
Roanoke County Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Pete Haislip was “thrilled” by the initial reaction when his department started selling memberships last fall. He also points out that non-members can just drop in to use the indoor and outdoor pools or take part in one of the camps, group fitness programs, teen nights, swimming lessons, etc. that Green Ridge will offer, beginning in January 2010.
That means out of town visitors can come by as well. “You don’t have to be a member to participate,” says Haislip. A daily admission fee, higher for non-Roanoke County residents, will be “affordable and accessible.”
Haislip was among a contingent from Roanoke County that toured the St. Louis area several years ago, looking at public recreation centers there. “This is all about quality of life. A parks and recreation system is an important factor.” For those considering the Roanoke Valley as a place to live, especially young families who may not be able to afford a more expensive private club, “it’s a piece of that puzzle,” says Haislip of a public recreation/fitness center like Green Ridge. (Initial base rates for family memberships are $75 a month, $66 for Roanoke County residents.)
Head back outdoors and you might find Pete Eshelman, hired by the Roanoke Regional Partnership about a year ago to fill a unique position. As director of outdoor branding, Eshelman is aiming to put a face on the outdoor amenities here, to create a culture that attracts those young professionals and families seeking a balance between work and play.
He talks about the “cycling opportunities,” here, both road and mountain biking, and about the “incredible” fishing venues found within an hour of the valley at venues like Smith Mountain Lake, Claytor Lake and the Jackson River. Hiking and trail running are a favorite topic as well. Stop people on the street says Eshelman and nine out of 10 will say that the area’s greatest asset are its outdoor amenities.
“All of this is really designed to attract people,” says Eshelman of the branding campaign. Few other localities across the country have hired someone in a similar position, although he points out the State of Utah recently did just that.
Eshelman points to a website he recently helped develop, RoanokeOutside.com, as the one-stop destination for information about outdoor activities in the region. Still a work in progress as of late 2009, it features an outdoor calendar of events that anyone can contribute to. It will also be searchable by the type of activity people are interested in and features maps to help users find trailheads, swimming holes and other natural wonders.
That addresses an issue that Eshelman and Regional Partnership Executive Director Beth Doughty have talked about before: providing more information on how to access recreational opportunities.
“We have all these amazing outdoor assets, but they’re really not user-friendly,” she says. Links to nearby restaurants, sporting activities and cultural venues suggest activities that hikers and bikers can do afterwards. Via the website, more than 2,000 subscribers have signed up for a weekly newsletter that Eshelman sends to outdoor enthusiasts.
He has also posted a survey at RoanokeOutside.com, asking people what outdoor activities they focus on and what improvements they would like to see. “It’s really designed for anyone outside the area, so they can research,” notes Eshelman, who was formerly with a wilderness adventure camp in Craig County. He even staged an outdoor film festival and trade show at downtown Roanoke’s Center in the Square last fall. “It was packed.”
Eshelman is also co-chair for the Blue Ridge Marathon, which will be run for the first time this April 24. The demanding course will take participants from downtown Roanoke to the Blue Ridge Parkway high above the valley floor and back down again. The website for the run, BlueRidgeMarathon.com, has received about 15,000 hits a month since it went up last fall and the 26.2-mile race has attracted interest from around the world.
Eshelman believes the Regional Partnership is making progress in highlighting the area’s outdoor assets, not only to newcomers – but to the locals as well.
“Let them know what’s here [so] they can promote it outside of the area.”