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A group of prominent Roanokers takes quick stock of the past 40 years in Roanoke and looks into a collective crystal ball to predict what the next 40 will bring.
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Ed Walker (with wife Katherine):
“There are 450 people in the historic district of Wasena, but [if they are to improve the neighborhood], they have to earn more.”
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“Life will be ‘on-demand.’”
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“Hospital care will not be the norm.”
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“The goal is to restore housing and buildings, keep neighborhood schools and well-groomed parks.”
The story below is excerpted from our Sept./Oct. 2014 issue. For the full story view our digital edition for FREE today!
Projecting 40 years into the future is likely folly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun and it certainly does not mean we won’t do it. We will. We have.
But consider this first: A look back tells that in 1974 Ted Rappaport, former head of Virginia Tech’s mobile portable radio school, was not yet in high school and his major contribution to cell phone development was years away. The Roanoke City Market was still a den of iniquity, peopled by bums, hookers, johns and pimps. It was not a date destination. Center in the Square was an empty building. The City Market Building still sold hanging-quarters red meat. There was no 22-story bank building or amphitheatre and the Wachovia Building was under construction. The American Theatre had just been razed to make room for what was then Roanoke’s biggest version of glass and steel. Norfolk Southern offices were still offices and not an education center and senior housing.
The neighborhoods to the south, east and west of downtown were deteriorating and looked hopeless. People were moving out of downtown, not into it. The only homesteading included a few piddling efforts in Old Southwest. Tax credits for redevelopment? Nope. Not yet.
The Taubman Museum wasn’t a dream yet and two of the true downtown destinations – Heironimus and Miller & Rhoads department stores – wouldn’t be around much longer. The Roanoke Times had five editions, nearly 800 employees and had recently divested itself of a radio station and a TV station. Virginia Tech’s sports teams were mired in mediocrity and no conference affiliation, and received little or no national attention at the top levels. Public radio had been in existence here for less than a year and Blue Ridge Public TV was just 7.
The city was on the edge of major surgery to restore some of its vitality, but that was still four years off. It was a period of reflection and adjustment.
Which brings us to now. What will 2014 look like in 2054? And what will 2054 bring?
We asked a few people who might have some idea – in various important areas – to address this. When they finished laughing, they came up with this:
City’s Evolution I: Cross-cultural Connectivity
Ed Walker, Physical and Cultural Developer
Walker is often cited as the major opening shooter in Roanoke’s downtown overhaul. It’s been less than 10 years since he started and the results have been astonishing and contagious. Walker’s take:
Major renovations “for the past 15 years can be attributed to state and federal tax credits. That is major policy at work in a macro sense. If it goes away, [development] will be much less dynamic.”
He believes “emphasis on cooperation and cross-cultural connectivity [must be] meaningful. We need to connect people and the various parts of town, bring in 11th Street, Southeast, Melrose, and the like. …
“Projects downtown are lifestyle driven. There are great condos; ownership is big [for businesses]. There is a lot of mixed use, centered on lifestyle … Urban activists are using parts of the canvas. …
“One Big Idea is to learn from the past 40 years, both good and bad; 1974 was part of the darkest days of downtown. [We learned that] good government matters. We can take the lessons of the past and carry them forward. [Advances] have been good, but until there is a broader level of achievement, it is just good. [There must be concentration on] per capita income, creating space for entrepreneurs, as was done with CoLab.
“I feel good about where we are, but we need to create the eco system to figure out how more people can make more money. There are 450 people in the historic district of Wasena, but [if they are to improve the neighborhood], they have to earn more.”
Vital to the future is to “create that eco system that is cooperative, supportive and positive in every economic quadrant of the city. …
“I hate politics, but politics is part of it. It is foundational and it begins with good local government. If we don’t have [good political leadership] we will fall short. Good government at the lower levels deals with the public on the front lines.”
City’s Evolution II: In Position
Bern Ewert, former Roanoke City Manager
Ewert is given the bulk of the credit for initiating Roanoke’s most recent overhaul in 1979. He’s back at it as part of the $100 million development, The Bridges, across the street from Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute:
“Roanoke has a bright future and has turned the corner from its economic and cultural difficulties.
“Education will be a major component of the next 40 years. Virginia Tech, community colleges, the Higher Education Center and Roanoke’s public schools will remain strong and successful. The more talent we can hoard, the better we will compete with other countries. Foreign-born Americans are 50 percent more likely to start a business than native born Americans,’ according to Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post. More immigrants will come to the Roanoke Valley and English-as-a-second-language programs will expand and become more important.
“Medical services and medical research and technology may be the most important sector in Roanoke’s economy. There are nearly 8,000 jobs at the Carilion/Virginia Tech medical complex on Jefferson. It will grow and prosper, as will The Bridges project.
“The Roanoke region has a large inventory of affordable, attractive housing. Preserving the city’s historic housing stock will be critical. Over 65 percent of Roanoke City’s housing was built prior to WWII. Today there are 13 National Historic Districts protecting historic structures. There was a day when city council and the Roanoke Regional Housing Authority wanted to tear down large swaths of this housing and buildings. [The goal now is to] restore them, keep neighborhood schools and well-groomed parks as part of neighborhood redevelopment. This single strategy will keep Roanoke positioned to attract new business and residents over the next 40 years.”
Local Issues: A Virtual World
Bonz Hart, CEO of Meridium
Hart’s name comes up in just about any conversation about Roanoke as a technology center because this company has come from its garage-like beginnings to be a major player on the world stage. That did not happen without vision and at the center of the vision is the mild-mannered, easy-smiling, tie-rejecting Bonz Hart. Here’s what he sees in our future:
“Home and office will continue to be merged with many working from home. Air travel will be reduced because holographic meetings will be almost face-to-face.
“Forty years from now we will still require visitors/passengers at our airport in Roanoke to carry their bags up emergency exit stairs for some flights. This will be less of an issue because many meetings and family events will be virtual.
“Internet speed will continue to be a cause for concern (the faster it is the more you do), since we will be doing so much from home. The fastest local speeds will be a key relocation factor for companies.
“Community activity will increase as people work from home they will seek social time to replace ‘work water cooler’ time.
“Roanoke is well positioned to be a safe destination to live/work as we develop a world class outdoor recreational reputation. The Roanoke River will be a major tourist attraction. There will be white-water parks and fly fishing. Hover boats will shuttle people from downtown to Explore Park to Smith Mountain Lake.
“Virtual education from Virginia Tech will attract lifetime learners that want proximity to the physical campus.
“Democratization and transparency of data via the internet will continue to change government as global effectiveness comparisons lead to a consumer report of government services with consumers demanding effectiveness not platitudes. This creates the ‘pull’ for regional cooperation and service optimization. Roanoke will lead the way with transparent optimization viewable on-line which will rationalize services regionally.
“Life will be ‘on-demand.’ The ability to ‘print’ parts, tools, food will mean that proximity to suppliers will be less important. Entertainment will be on our schedules, never theirs, and holographic displays will create virtual live entertainment in your home from global sources.
“Our Star will require drone-aware radar repellent after drones from around the world are mysteriously attracted to our neon star [insert wink emoticon here].”
Health Care: Winning the Nobel Prize
Nancy Agee, President and CEO Carilion Clinic
Agee has been one of the primary innovators at Carilion Clinic, the region’s largest health care operation, bringing the common touch to one of the most sophisticated and advanced institutions in the state. She didn’t do that without knowing what’s next and what comes after that. Here are her brief thoughts about what’s to come in 40 years. She sent her thoughts to us from rural France while on vacation.
“It’s 2054 and together, Virginia Tech and Carilion are pre-eminent clinical, academic and research institutions with worldwide reach. Known throughout the world, VT-CRI’s research has found that allergic reactions stem from the same genome and can be ‘switched off.’
“This led to the cure for the common cold and cures for reactions to such things as bee stings, shellfish and poison ivy and thus, our researchers were awarded a Nobel Prize.
“Health care has changed much from the archaic times of previous years. Diagnoses and treatment plans are largely computerized. Invasive treatments are rare and blood sticks are unnecessary, revolutionizing diabetic care, for instance.
“Home monitoring is usual and hospital care is not the norm.”