Downtown Industrial Core
“Industrial Cores,” the Brookings Institute calls metro areas like ours. Cities with aging populations, slow growth, lack of higher-education facilities and attainment, and low levels of diversity.
One way to look at it: Roanoke is a lot more like fellow Industrial Core Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) than it is the “Next Frontier” MSAs like Austin or Denver, which are characterized by above-average population growth, diversity and educational achievement.
Dig a little deeper and you find the Roanoke MSA (cities of Roanoke and Salem, counties of Roanoke, Botetourt, Franklin and Craig) at number three among the 11 Virginia MSAs for oldest population; and at seventh for educational attainment.
Compare us to like-sized MSAs across the country, and again the picture is mixed at best. While the MSA is more diverse than eight of the 10 comparable MSAs, Roanoke saw a lower population growth betweeen 2000 and 2009 than five of the metros, including Boulder, Green Bay and Lincoln, Neb.
But despite the economic crisis that has plagued the nation over the past few years, Roanoke has managed to sustain a relatively comfortable economy. According to a Moody’s Précis METRO report for early 2010, the medical and retail industries have allowed our metropolitan area to keeps its head above water during the economic downturn. Carilion Health Systems is the area’s top employer with almost 10,000 employees, accounting for almost 7 percent of Roanoke’s employed labor force as of early this year.
Roanoke’s relatively low unemployment rate is another indicator of the metropolitan area’s economic stability. In fi rst quarter 2010, 7.2 percent of the MSA’s labor force was unemployed, compared to 7.8 percent in Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford, and 11.6 percent in Danville. Although higher than the state rate, Roanoke’s unemployment rate is 27 percent lower than the national rate of 9.9 percent and also lower than the rates of comparable-size Columbus, Ga-Ala., and Fort Smith, Ark.-Okla.
Social Security may well overshadow job security as a primary concern for the Star City. With the exception of Bristol and Danville, Roanoke has the oldest population in the state. Between 2000 and 2009, the MSA saw an increase of 15 percent in the 45- to 65-year-old age group. According to Proximityone.com, 23 percent of the MSA population is over 60, compared to 16.9 percent in Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford and 17 percent in the nation. Roanoke’s population is older than that of Boulder, Lincoln and Green Bay, to name a few.
Beth Doughty, executive director of Roanoke Regional Partnership, says that although you cannot deny the increasing age of the population, there is value in an older population in terms of disposable income and social and physical infrastructure. The aging of the population is the result of the “baby boomer cohort on steroids,” according to Doughty, referencing our MSA’s portion of the 78 million people born between 1946 and 1964. While Moody’s report blames the departure of young educated residents as the cause of the aging population in Roanoke, Doughty points out the influx of young people that come to the area for work and play, but who are not included in population counts.
“Many young people come to Roanoke from Blacksburg and other surrounding areas for the recreational opportunities,” Doughty says. “There are a lot of good things going on, such as an emphasis on outdoor and adventure activities and efforts in the urban center.” Doughty also points out the number of young people who work within the MSA but do not necessarily reside here. “It is premature to judge short-term changes,” she says.
Another pressing issue that seems to be holding the Star City back from reaching its full potential is the slow growth rate. According to the Moody’s report, “slow population growth will ultimately relegate Roanoke to a below-average performer at the far end of the forecast.” Between 2000 and 2009, the MSA population increased by about 5 percent, while other state metro populations, including those of Winchester, Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, increased by double digits. Comparable MSAs like Fort Collins-Loveland, Colo., and Fort Smith, Ark.-Okla., also saw significantly greater population growth than Roanoke.
One reason for the slow population growth could be the decrease in net migration in the last five years. In 2004, Roanoke saw a net change of 1,700 migrants, but in 2009 that number fell to 1,200. While Doughty points out that there are still more people moving to Roanoke than away, the sluggish population growth continues to be a hindrance to the Star City’s potential success.
Although the increase in population as a whole is slow, the increase in diversity in Roanoke is promising. With white residents making up 85 percent of the population, there are growing black and Spanish-speaking populations. According to the Refugee and Immigration Services of Virginia Web site, the Hispanic population has more than tripled over the past 10 years in southern parts of the state.
Doughty acknowledges that while Roanoke continues to be a predominantly white population, there is a 61-63 significant immigrant population that should be taken into consideration. Roanoke has greater diversity than four other Virginia MSAs, although it still has a long way to go before it reaches the level of the nation’s most successful metro areas.
Another potentially positive aspect of the Roanoke MSA is its proximity to higher-education facilities. “Roanoke is not a college town,” Doughty says, “but we have 21 schools within 60 miles of us.”
Nevertheless, Roanoke still trails the national average in educational attainment. According to the Census Bureau 2006-2008 American Community Survey (ACS), 15.7 percent of MSA residents hold a bachelor’s degree (17.5 percent in the U.S.), while 7.8 percent hold a graduate or professional degree (10.7 percent in the U.S.). (Other sources cite higher fi gures, but with Roanoke still lagging.) As college tuition prices increase, more young people are entering the work force without post-secondary degrees. The Brookings Institute study claims that younger Americans are not making the same level of progress on educational attainment as older generations did, which could threaten upward progress in living standards and technological innovations.
Comparable MSAs, including Boulder and Lincoln, showed higher educational attainment than Roanoke, which is partly due to the location of universities in these metropolitan areas. Charlottesville and Northern Virginia also had higher rates than Roanoke.
“The proximity to Virginia Tech is a definite positive for Roanoke,” Doughty says. But with a large majority of the educated population entering retirment in the next few years and the steady increase in tuition rates deterring students from attending college, educational attainment could become another obstacle towards progress in the Star City.
The Milken Institute’s annual ranking of the 200 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. for 2009 named Roanoke number 126, up from 181 in 2004. It seems that the MSA is showing progress despite the aging population, slow growth rate and average diversity. Other comparable MSAs in the nation, including Utica- Rome, N.Y., Fort Smith and Fort Collins-Loveland also improved in the rankings between 2004 and 2009, while some, such as Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol, fell behind in the same period. For now, Roanoke escapes being labeled an “Industrial Core,” but we have demographic work to do before achieving a position among the top metropolitan areas in the nation.