Roanoke, Small Metro
If you go looking for the Roanoke Valley in 2010, I swear you can find it right there in the broad panorama available to occupants of the high VIP boxes at Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium. The real truth, of course, is that you can also get this same stunning view from the cheap seats, but since this is a story about economic development we’ll set the scene a little higher.
The best time of day is about 6:30, during the height of a Friday night pre-game in late April, when everything is so fittingly plump with expectation. The stands are filling, the hot dogs are selling, and the field looks like something right out of a W.P. Kinsella novel, with the perfectly clipped grass cut by the brilliant white of the lime as the ballplayers move through their warmups with the relaxed sort of motion reserved for the truly athletically gifted.
The sun is bright but not too bright, just enough to render startlingly clear the backdrop of the valley’s handsome hills. Man, they are some lookers. Nature always busts out her best duds this time of year along the Blue Ridge. If the developers and promoters want to find a scene that captures so much of the essence of this place, they would do well to shoot this sucker wide and post it as a mural out at the airport and slap it on all the postcards and brochures they mail out trying to lure business and industry and jobs to our sweet little corner of the universe.
Yet even as I survey this reassuring spectacle I’m reminded of the limits of vision. Back in 1994, I recall being outraged to learn that the city of Salem planned to spend $7 million on a mere ballpark. “Are they out of their minds?” I said to my wife. “Salem has more community ego than any place in America.”
Later I learned that cost overruns and changes were driving the price of the park to almost $12 million. “That’s just crazy,” I fumed.
Today, you couldn’t build this place for $40 million. Without this stadium and the adjoining sports complex and Civic Center, Salem would never have snared all the major sports events the Roanoke Valley hosts each year and never could have hoped to partner with the Boston Red Sox, one of America’s premier sports brands.
Vision, it seems, is tricky like that. For example, there’s that other outrage of the 1990s, the $5 million footbridge that connects Hotel Roanoke to the City Market. It seemed like the ultimate white elephant at the time, but how could the city’s downtown ever have developed without it? Today, it sits as the perfect link, pulling together the stately presence of the hotel and the city’s nightlife and shops to give the metro much of its mojo.
Conversely, what seems like a good idea at the time can soon be revealed as nothing short of idiocy. I’m sure that was the case a few years back for the folks whothought it reasonable to spend lots of local money to hire an out-of-town consultant who came up with the idea to rename our region NewVa.
Never in a million years will this place ever call itself NewVa. At least I hope not.
I travel a bit in my work, and I always tell people I’m from Roanoke, the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. You can’t project a much better image than the Blue Ridge. It’s simple, yet it conjures up all the grandeur and romance of our place.
“Life’s pretty uncomplicated along the Blue Ridge,” I tell people. Then I stretch it out a bit: “If you want to find a traffic jam, you have to go out and hunt one down.”
If I wanted to cite further proof, I could tell them that the region boasts among its magazines The Roanoker and Blue Ridge Country, and fittingly enough the company that publishes those magazines is named “Leisure.”
An Anniversary as an Occasion
In fact, we’re here to celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Roanoker, which in many ways is also the anniversary of our region’s most important sense of self. For that is chief among the many contributions made to this community by its publisher, Richard Wells. He is a primary advocate of defining our place and one of the guardians of its improvement. So it’s no accident that the anniversary of the magazine also marks the region’s growing awareness of economic development.
Yes, Wells hired me to write this piece, but he has no earthly idea that I’m going to turn part of the focus on him. Despite nearly four decades of magazine publishing, Wells retains his boyish looks and his passion for this place. He’s spent much of that time demanding that local leaders get their act together in terms of development.
“What’s the plan?” he asks of the region’s economic development bureaucracy. It’s a question he’s been asking for 35 years in magazines dedicated to savoring the people and promise of Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
To be honest, there’s a trace of bitterness and disappointment in his voice as he discusses the subject these days. He sees a record of untapped opportunity in terms of the region’s growth. Why hasn’t Roanoke become a Charlotte, or at least a Greensboro or even an Asheville?
And that issue, in turn, raises more hard questions about the future of the valley. Make no mistake, Wells also retains a guarded optimism. But as he pushes forward he wants to pause and look back, to learn enough to help the valley’s leaders gain greater focus in a time of tremendous economic challenge.
And, so, that’s my task here, to review the region’s economic development record and to pose that familiar question, “What’s the plan?” And better yet, to follow it up with another: “How’s it working?”
The Big Lick
Richard Wells’ questions about Roanoke’s future aren’t new. The place has been battling turmoil and doubt since it came to life as a railroad town in the 1850s when Western Virginia was still very much a frontier. Back then the town was largely known as Big Lick.
By the early 1880s, speculators had begun mining coal in deep Southwest Virginia, and railroad traffic increased dramatically. Big Lick became a city named Roanoke and like most railroad towns it featured a strange mix of saloons and bordellos aimed at slaking the thirsts of the workers and roughnecks that fed the early population boom. Soon enough came other industry, much of it serving the rail and coal business.
“Economic development” didn’t even seem to be a clear concept in the public mind back in the day. Government in Roanoke was young and had its hands full figuring out how to keep the hogs off the streets. Any progress just sort of happened.
American Viscose, a rayon plant that would eventually employ better than 5,000 workers, arrived in 1917. The mill jobs drove yet more population growth, though Roanoke remained largely a railroad town, its downtown tied to the schedules of passing trains. As such, the city has always seemed eager to grow beyond what an out-of-town writer once described as its “gritty” image.
That movement gained force right after World War II when a generation of civic-minded veterans returned home and vowed to improve the place. They erected the Star on Mill Mountain and dubbed Roanoke the “Star City of the South,” a quaint notion by today’s standards but also evidence of civic ambition. Most importantly, this movement cleaned up the raw sewage that had long fouled the Roanoke River as it ran through the heart of the city. Their efforts stimulated yet more growth but were met with a massive setback in 1958 when the American Viscose plant closed, stunning the community.
The loss of 5,000 jobs was the first great wake-up call that the city had better step up the pace to find a stronger, more sophisticated future. With the arrival of the 1970s, state government began taking a leadership role, but that actually loomed as a complicating factor for growth. Under Virginia law, counties and cities remained independent of one another as opposed to most other states where they were defi ned as joint entities. As a result, annexation battles had raged in the state courts for decades as cities grabbed county land across Virginia.
Finally the state declared a moratorium on annexation, but the bitter aftermath would dampen growth for decades, as hard feelings colored the relationships between Virginia’s cities and counties, something that observers say has long been a factor in Roanoke’s efforts at modernity.
Virginia’s cities and counties have remained fiercely independent of one another, and while there has been obvious strength and identity in that independence, it has also meant a lack of a strong regional perspective. Perhaps that helps explain how Western Virginia in the 1980s ended up with two smaller airports an hour away from each other in Lynchburg and Roanoke instead of one larger regional airport that might have spurred growth.
Perhaps as a remedy for its circumstances, Virginia state government began encouraging counties and cities in its various regions to join together to market their communities for economic development. In 1983, Roanoke localities and businesses formed The Regional Partnership to spur economic development for the seven different governments and numerous chambers of commerce within the Roanoke metropolitan area.
That sounded reasonable enough, but at the time Roanoke’s government leaders were nursing a host of petty differences. There was abundant speculation that any attempt at cooperation would be a challenge.
According to the plan, the Partnership would market the region but it would not actually make any economic development deals. Deal-making would be left to each local government. In turn, those governments would also have their own economic development departments, as would the major businesses in the region and the various chambers of commerce. When you add in the efforts of the various appendages of the federal government, such as the Small Business Administration, then you start to understand why public economic development efforts have posed such an immense challenge and why an observer such as Wells would harbor such skepticism.
At times, just sorting out the economic development bureaucracy can be dizzying.
It didn’t help that in getting started, The Regional Partnership raised its operating money from local government and business with projections that it would create 1,800 new jobs annually within three years. It did so by pointing to the thousands of jobs being created in Greenville, S.C.
That didn’t happen. Three years later, in 1986, The Roanoker pointed out that the Partnership had created an estimated total of just 700 jobs. The realization had dawned that this economic development thing wasn’t going to be easy.
“I’d like to have thought we could have immediately attracted a company, and I shouldn’t have expected that,” said Lucian Grove, the Partnership’s fi rst president, at the end of the three years. “We’re new at this. The main thing is that representatives of all governments and the chambers can sit together and mutually contribute on a warm, friendly and cooperative basis.”
That sounded nice, but it was during this period that two strong-willed executives moved in to run the primary governments — first Elmer Hodge as Roanoke County’s administrator and later Darlene Burcham as Roanoke’s city manager. The mix of personalities only added to the degree of difficulty for the challenge.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Bern Ewert, Roanoke’s former city manager, advised in 1986. Accordingly, the Regional Partnership soldiered on, working over the decades with the seven governments and as many as 230 businesses to drive growth, a continual effort at developing industrial and commercial sites and trying to interest manufacturers, retailers and service businesses in relocating here.
Now, that long-distance race has revealed itself 27 years later, and while the Partnership had clearly helped Roanoke find steady growth over the decades, the organization’s board decided in 2008 to shift the focus of what is known these days as the Roanoke Regional Partnership.
The New Roanoke
Beth Doughty is a veteran of Roanoke’s economic development experience. She started off working for John Lambert and Associates, the Roanoke public relations firm that played a role in the process. After working for both the Partnership and the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, Doughty became executive director of the Partnership in 2008, about the same time that the group began shifting direction. Today it boasts a staff of six and an annual budget of $1.3 million.
“We have more of a plan than we’ve ever had,” she says. But after three decades of economic development work, she also offers this startling admission. “We don’t have a bad image,” she says of the region. “We have no image.”
In its marketing efforts, the Partnership met with eight corporate decision-makers earlier this year. Only one of them had ever been to Roanoke, Doughty says. “No one knows where Roanoke is. They have trouble figuring out what state we’re in…”
The Partnership actually began confronting that reality before the 2008 global economic meltdown, Doughty says, when its board and leadership reorganized and raised more money, most of it from the private sector.
“Only a little” of the new money for marketing Roanoke came from government, Doughty explains. “The private part of it had been underfunded.” About 65 percent of the Partnership’s budget had come from the public sector, she adds. “It’s now 51 percent private money, 49 percent public… The new program is a hybrid of old school business recruitment and modern theories.”
That means the Partnership still hustles to market the properties developed by the local governments, but it has begun paying more attention to “branding” the Roanoke region.
That strategy is based on the data of recent studies and on new ideas about how to grow a community, Doughty says.
This new approach calls for communities to work on attracting people because some studies show that “jobs will follow people,” Doughty says. “The recruiting of big boxes (companies) is not the answer to creating sustained economic prosperity… In this model community development becomes more important.”
With this approach, it seemed only logical to focus on the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the recreation they offer. After all, people move to a place like Colorado because it has an outdoorsy image, which means that businesses and then jobs soon follow the population growth. Why not Roanoke?
“We have ignored it forever, trying to be like Charlotte, to be like someplace else…,” Doughty off ers. “We have one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail in McAfee Knob.”