Roanoke, Virginia’s regional, home-grown revitalization strategy a dramatic success

A decade ago, the U.S. Census counted 15 people living in the downtown of Roanoke, a city of 100,000 in southwest Virginia.

Now Roanoke is back on the map, with people at home and away starting to talk about it in a way they haven’t since the 1880s, when the “Magic City” sprang up out of nearly nowhere around a new railway interchange like some Far West gold-mining town. The downtown has been revitalized and, for the first time in its history, has 2,000 people living in it, many of them getting to and from other parts of the city via a refurbished greenbelt.

vision-valley1Roanoke has recently won many awards adn recognitions. It’s a six-time All-American City, one of America’s Most Livable Communities, and top Digital City. Situated between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, the Roanoke Valley has natural beauty and outdoor amenities that have always made it an attractive place to live, work, and visit. The valley now has a lower unemployment rate than the national average, growing health care employment, and stability in traditional industries that capitalize on its position as a transportation hub.

Passenger rail service to Washington’s Union Station is making its return, and a tourism industry is flourishing where none existed before. “Up until 2005, it was always, ‘Woe is us, and it’s so bad,’” recalls Beth Doughty, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, which markets the region to potential investors. “Now there’s a groundswell of love for the place, of community pride.

How did a small city in a disadvantaged region four hours from a major metropolis—one that had seen its signature industries atrophy or depart, that lacked so much as a branch campus of a state university—transform itself from the forgotten stepsister of the Appalachians into a formidable rival to Asheville, North Carolina? The answer has lessons for small, out-of-the-way cities everywhere: Roanoke’s people did it largely by themselves, in small steps and with an eye to assets and alliances in the wider region around them.

At some point we realized that we may never have the white knight come in with a Volkswagen auto plant and give us a quick win,” says Lisa Garst, a former city councilor in neighboring Salem who now heads Livable Roanoke Valley, a nonprofit that aims to engage citizens, governments and businesses in a regional planning process. “We realized what’s going to happen is going to come from people who are already invested here, know the value of the area and can stick it out for a 20-, 30- or 40-year time frame.

And soon it will be a beer city as well. Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery, the eighth-largest craft brewery in the country, announced in March of 2016 that it had chosen Roanoke for the site of its $85 million East Coast hub, bringing an initial 108 jobs. They had also eyed famed beer city Asheville, North Carolina and 48 other cities on the East Coast. Deschutes chief financial officer Peter Skrbek says he was drawn by logistics, clean water, strong public schools, and an outdoorsy culture akin to the company’s home in Bend, Oregon.

But the biggest thing was just being wanted by the community and their enthusiasm for us to come there each time we would visit,” he says. “I’ve never seen such enthusiasm for a company’s investment.

When the Deschutes news broke, one industry publication declared Roanoke the new Asheville. Over at the Roanoke Times, an editorial responded: “We’d gently beg to differ,” he wrote. “We’re the new Roanoke.”

See full Politico article by Colin Woodard.

See Roanoke Regional Partnership website & photo credits.

See Livable Roanoke Valley website & valley photo credit.

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