Back to Big Lick

The old Norfolk & Western Railway headquarters complex, with Hotel Roanoke in the background.

The old Norfolk & Western Railway headquarters complex, with Hotel Roanoke in the background.

by James A. Bacon

In the early 1880s, Gilded Era industrialists created a railroad junction at the town of Big Lick in the Roanoke Valley, opening up the western Virginia coalfields to development. The community renamed itself Roanoke after the river running through it, and the newly formed Norfolk & Western Railway set up its headquarters there. In the late 19th century, Roanoke was a boom town: a hub of railroad traffic and manufacturing and a gateway to the burgeoning Central Appalachia coal industry.

Eventually, the boom subsided, but Roanoke continued to fare well. Besides hosting a number of corporate headquarters, the Star City of the South, so named for the giant star on Mill Mountain, served as the retail and administrative center for much of western Virginia. When I lived there in the early 1980s — covering the coal and railroad beat for the Roanoke Times — Roanoke was a delightful community surrounded by natural beauty. I enjoyed living there and was sad to leave.

But my personal journey mirrored the intractable economics that Roanoke, and other cities its size, is struggling against. As a young reporter, I didn’t see much of a career path upward. To get ahead, I had to move. Ambitious young professionals in other fields faced the same dilemma. No matter how much they liked living there, many had to relocate to rise in the world. As the United States evolved into a Knowledge Economy, large metropolitan regions enjoyed tremendous advantages over Roanoke-sized cities by virtue of larger labor markets.

Roanoke has stagnated since I lived there. The writing on the wall appeared as early as 1982 when the Norfolk & Western Railway merged with the Southern Railway and located the new corporate headquarters in Norfolk. The top jobs left the city but, as part of the deal, the combined Norfolk Southern Railway did keep a major administrative presence in Roanoke. Now, three decades later, comes news that 500 employees working in marketing, accounting, information technology and other departments — desirable white-collar jobs — will be moved to Norfolk and Atlanta.

The company said it is closing the Roanoke office building to achieve departmental synergies, to make better use of its real estate assets and to support its goal of streamlining its management workforce. According to the Roanoke Times, Norfolk Southern President James A. Squires described the action as a consolidation having nothing to do with work force or business issues peculiar to Roanoke. The Roanoke office was less utilized than the offices in Norfolk and Atlanta, he said.

But that’s disingenuous. Of course the move had everything to do with Roanoke — or, more precisely, the size of its labor market. If Norfolk Southern had excess space in Norfolk, Atlanta and Roanoke, in theory, it could have shut down a Norfolk or Atlanta office and consolidated employees to the other two. Office space in Roanoke, I’m willing to wager, has the added advantage of costing less. But, the fact is, Norfolk and Atlanta are much larger labor markets, making it significantly easier for the railroad to recruit employees with white-collar skills.

The migration of corporate operations and white collar employees in the United States goes one way — from smaller cities and towns to bigger ones. The process does not work in reverse.

Looking back, Roanoke had one shot at bucking the trend — hitching up with the scientific and engineering brainpower at Virginia Tech. In theory, Blacksburg and Roanoke could have supported one another, with Virginia Tech spinning off high-tech start-ups and Roanoke providing financial, legal and other professional services. Despite the efforts of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council to bridge the 42-mile gap, the hoped-for synergies never really materialized. The Roanoke and New River valleys are divided by rugged mountains and connected by a single thread, Interstate 81. The 45-minute travel time created a psychological divide that has been hard to overcome.

It’s tremendously sad. The people of Roanoke are good people. In my personal experience, they are friendly, community-minded and egalitarian in spirit. It doesn’t seem fair that their economic prospects are leaking away because of forces beyond their control. But the world isn’t fair.

Update: I have to modify my categorical statement that the migration of corporate operations from small cities to big cities is a one-way flow. The very day I published this post, Edelman Technology, a German manufacturer of industrial equipment, announced its intention to locate its North American headquarters in Rocky Mount, roughly 30 miles south of Roanoke. The company will hire five to 10 employees including  software specialists, electricians and industrial equipment maintenance staff. So, there are exceptions to the rule. They are few and they are minor, but there are exceptions.

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7 responses to “Back to Big Lick

  1. why would banking leave Richmond and go to Charlotte?

    why would CSX build it’s main operations in Jacksonville Florida?

    why would the Navy move a carrier to Mayport Florida?

    What drove these decisions – and more specifically – was there anything that Virginia could have done – or not done to influence the moves?

    it’s said and reported that Virginia is not very business-friendly but I’ve never really got a good feel for what those things are that we do or don’t do .. that caused businesses to locate or move elsewhere.

    we’re doing something wrong because we rank something like 48th in private sector economic development.

  2. 2 points:

    A. I have a friend who is an engineering professor at Tech. He makes many of those points about Roanoke and Blacksburg. It’s just a joke to talk of regionalism out there. Blacksburg is Blacksburg and Roanoke is Roanoke. Ask your average VT grad how many times they visited Roanoke in their 4 years at the school. Most of them never go unless they’re headed home and stop in Roanoke to eat at a fast food place.

    As he once told me…nobody would ever say Richmond and Charlottesville are a region. But it’s only 15 minutes longer from Charlottesville to Richmond than it is from Blacksburg to Roanoke.

    B. I agree with you about Roanoke. I lived there for 2 years and enjoyed it. Good people. But it’s also worth noting that the political leadership out there was and is lacking. Rather than identify the changes that were taking place in the economy (apparent in the early 90s how things were starting to change) and work together….Roanoke City, Roanoke County, and Salem have fought like cats and dogs for years over any and every thing. I’m sure you saw that during your time as a reporter.

    As an example: Roanoke and Salem each have their own civic center. That’s shows how absurd those localities have acted for years.

    • Just a counterpoint view – people who are from that area don’t think much of driving from Roanoke to Tech and beyond. For a long time, Roanoke was a place where people from western part of the state moved – including people from the New River Valley – and because of those ties, they didn’t regard Blacksburg as some far distant location that no one went. I do have actual personal knowledge of this.

      When you graduate, if you want to start a business, you probably do need to think about things like airports and cities. If you graduate from Blacksburg and want to stay in the area, or have a spouse in graduate school, Roanoke is a convenient place with some amenities Blacksburg doesn’t have, and I do know people who started businesses there.

      I don’t expect much in the way of formal regionalism, but I do know Tech graduates have started businesses in Roanoke, and the two cities affect each other economically. They could do more, definitely, but I think you’re underestimating the flow back and forth. A professor is going to have fewer reasons to go to Roanoke than a Tech graduate whose family is from there.

      The two civic centers in Roanoke and Salem are old – both are over 40 years old, at least, going by personal memory. I don’t think the cities have much in the way of regionalism, but I don’t think that’s the clearest indicator of current levels of cooperation.

      I actually WOULD say that C’ville and Richmond affect each other regionally – I’ve known plenty of people who lived in the one and had a spouse who worked in the other, many of whom lived some place like Louisa or Goochland to split the difference. Many of my Cville friends shop in Short Pump fairly frequently.

      So while not part of a region strictly speaking, nearby cities affect each other, they draw employees from each other, and they do affect where people move and live. They blend into each other – it’s not a clear cut line.

      Last comment – the final unraveling of Norfolk and Southern is definitely going to have an effect. Sad. It’s a nice city and a good place to live.

      • all of this makes me ask the question –

        is Virginia’s unique approach to independent cities rather than cities in counties a good approach to engender regionalism?

        or to put this a different way – if you have a city that is part of a county – in those cases what does “regionalism” mean and how is it different from the meaning we assign to it in Virginia?

      • I agree that Roanoke is a nice city. But it’s got some serious problems.

        3 enormous efforts highlight the Bacon trend. The City was in a big fight for Solstas with Greensboro-High Point. It would have been an enormous coup. But they went with NC, partly due to a better airport/workforce.

        Then the City was in a fight with Asheville, NC for Sierra Nevada’s east coast brewery. Again…it lost out.

        Advance Auto moved about 100 top positions to Raleigh out of Roanoke last summer. I know the City is worried that that could be a harbinger of things to come.

  3. Roanoke’s fate was sealed when it rejected the attempts to consolidate the city, county and Salem into one locality. Pure unadulterated racism, the fear of “busing” city kids into county schools, was 90 percent of the reason it went down. And during the years I lived there, I noted hostility to economic growth – a strong “we like this just the way it is” mentality. Grow or die, baby.

    • wow!

      and yes.. some of the problem is that localities try to do economic development aside from and in competition to their adjacent neighbors instead of promoting their best assets – as a region.

      and yes.. unfortunately there is the school thing… not only in Roanoke unfortunately.

      Perhaps, ignorantly, my impression of Roanoke was that it was a major railroad center – a cross roads, etc.. and everything else sort of followed along.

      There is a VOT Transportation Museum there ( I think it’s still there) and it’s in a building that I think was a terminal/warehouse/station etc.. and it has a lot of rail stuff including real rail cars.

      Of course I really like Salvage Dawgs.. on HDTV.. !!!

      but I thought Roanoke has been designated as a major intermodal transfer operation.. did that not pan out?

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