Roanoke Gets Serious about Competing for Young Professionals

roanokeby James A. Bacon

Roanokers know they have a challenge stemming the drain of educated young people, just like every other small metropolitan area in the United States. At least they’re asking the right questions: What does it take to recruit and retain young professionals? The Roanoke Regional Chamber is hosting an event later this month, Xperience 2015, to communicate to young professionals that the Roanoke and New River valley regions “can be hip and happening places to live, work and find career mentors,” in the words of Duncan Adams writing in the Roanoke Times. Or put another way: “Roanoke doesn’t suck.”

The starting point for any conversation is to recognize that the economic realities of the Knowledge Economy are stacked against smaller metropolitan regions. Big metros offer young professionals two very important things that small metros don’t: larger mating pools and larger job markets. Educated young people who have options of where to live will tend to gravitate to larger metros that provide a wider choice of mates and careers.

But some do choose to live in places in Roanoke. The trick is to figure out what kind of people they are and what made them decide to settle there.

As the urban heart of Southwest Virginia, Roanoke does have some “cool” stuff, Adams observes: craft breweries, downtown lofts, greenways and quick access to outdoor recreational amenities. So, it’s not as if young professionals are moving to a cultural wasteland. I would add, from my own personal experience as a young professional who lived in Roanoke four years during the early 1980s, the city enjoys exceptional natural beauty and has a small but vibrant downtown, not to mention a lower cost of living than larger metros. I loved the city and was sad to leave for better career opportunities elsewhere.

The challenge isn’t reaching the young professionals who live in Roanoke already. They know what the region offers. If they see career opportunities, many if not most will stay. The challenge is persuading young people from outside the region, not drawn by ties of family and friends, to give it a chance.

I’m still waiting for a community like Roanoke to conduct a market segmentation analysis of young college graduates. If I would have to hazard a guess, I would say 90% of college grads would have no interest whatsoever in moving to a place like Roanoke. But maybe 10% would. What characteristics do they have? Do they have a strong preference for outdoor activities like hiking, spelunking and canoeing? Do they hail from smaller towns? Are they more likely to be religious? Do they tend to be more culturally or politically conservative? Identify those characteristics and then devise targeted marketing campaigns to people with those traits. In the age of social media, that may not be so hard to do.

Western Virginia has a remarkable number of colleges and universities, from Virginia Tech and James Madison to Washington & Lee, VMI, Bridgewater, Hollins, Eastern Mennonite, Roanoke College and Mary Baldwin — just to name institutions within a two-hour drive from Roanoke. I would conjecture that students who choose to attend such institutions are more likely to appreciate the assets that Western Virginia has to offer and would be more likely than graduates of other institutions to consider settling down in the region. Perhaps there is some way for Roanoke to tap into the steady stream of college graduates.

Small metros like Roanoke face an uphill climb. The task is not hopeless. But they have to take the next step of identifying the niche market where they can compete in the talent recruitment marketplace. And then they need to organize their communities around creating and supporting the assets those niche college grads are looking for.

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19 responses to “Roanoke Gets Serious about Competing for Young Professionals

  1. There are three legs to the pedestal that small city governments can attack following the Austin/Denver model which has proven to work in attracting young talent.

    1) Promote the cheapest housing YOU CAN GET. Encourage higher density as much as is possible, encourage core growth, and put out lots and lots of marketing material showing how cheap it is to rent/buy in Roanoke. If salaries are 1/2 of that of NOVA, but rent is 1/3rd of that as NOVA, then Roanoke should make that as evident as possible. New development should be place making, the younger generations continue to flock to places that have a sense of community/urbanity with walkability to bars, retail, restaurants, etc. Many don’t care about how MUCH space we can have anymore, largely we care about the QUALITY of that space.

    2) Move on from the idea that you are a commodities town. You’ll never be able to keep a sustainable economy if all you are is a commodity town because all the wealth is just being stripped (literally) from your area to the processing/exporting side that doesn’t happen in your town. The best you can hope for is a couple decades of boom before a collapse, if not shorter (see Williston). Attract businesses by again showing how cheap it is to set up shop, by showing how affordable labor is, by touting whatever infrastructure you have in place to support business, and by laying out continued future plans to improve that infrastructure. You will attract the types of businesses that your infrastructure supports. If you only have throughway-highways, you will only attract businesses that need that; so don’t be surprised if 1/4th of your resident employment is in low paying freight jobs, or big box store retail.

    3) Stop the politics of stupid. Young people have moved on from the generational arguments of the 20th century. When most of us hear some of the crap old people say, we take note and try to stay away from as many of those types of sentiments as possible. You can call this an echo chamber, but frankly I’m ok with being in an echo chamber of people who don’t think black people were better off during slavery, or an echo chamber of people who don’t think being gay is a sin and condemns you to hell, or an echo chamber of people who don’t think evolution is a lie and the earth is 7000 years old.

    From what I can tell (from my half a dozen experiences in Roanoke) 2 and 3 hold it back from ever becoming a good place to live (atleast for my generation).

  2. I thought we all agreed that it’s not the young professionals coming or going, it’s whether or not there are real job opportunities for them.

    you can’t create job opportunities by convincing young professionals to come live somewhere – where there are no jobs for them.

    this sounds ever so much like supply side economics – where folks say if
    you provide the jobs – people will buy the products – rather than there has to be a demand for the product before you can actually build a plant that will meet the demand.

    the best educated young professionals are not going to “fix” Roanoke by moving there if there are no jobs for them. right?

    or am I being stupid again?

    • No, you’re not being stupid. Young professionals won’t stay long if they wind up being chronically underemployed. I see it as a chicken-and-egg problem. You need a supply of educated professionals to attract business. You need business’ jobs to create a supply of educated professionals. One hand feeds the other.

      Emphasizing talent recruitment by itself will fail in the long run. Any such effort must be tied to strategies to create jobs, either through inward investment or fostering entrepreneurship.

  3. Interesting piece.

    But I’m afraid the writing is on the wall for Roanoke.

    Tysons Engineer hits a home run with that post. I don’t think Roanoke offers any of the 3 traits mentioned.

    Another problem for Roanoke? Here’s my hypothesis. The emergence of Charlottesville, Staunton and Harrisonburg. In 1980: Harrisonburg/Rockingham had a combined population of 76K. Albemarle/Charlottesville had a combined population of 94K. Roanoke-Salem-Roanoke County had a combined population of 195K. Staunton/Augusta had a combined population of 74K.

    Weldon Cooper estimates for 2014? Harrisonburg/Rockingham had a combined population of 131K. Albemarle/Charlottesville had a combined population of 150K. Roanoke-Salem-Roanoke County had a combined population of 217K. Staunton/Augusta had a combined population of 99K.

    I think part of what has happened to the Roanoke region is that it used to be “the only game in town” in terms of a nice mountain/natural setting “metro area” in Western Virginia. Obviously, the Harrisonburg/Staunton/Charlottesville metros have been “discovered”, grown, and matured and a lot people who may have viewed Roanoke as their “mountain city” destination in 1980 may be moving to those other Western Virginia localities instead.

    It’s a hypothesis, to be sure. But the growth patterns are interesting.

    • That’s a really good observation. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you are absolutely right.

      It also would be interesting to look at the population change in Blacksburg/Christiansburg/Montgomery County as well.

      • Here’s the amazing fun fact for the week. If you want to talk about “steady” or “stagnation” (depending on your perspective):

        1970 Roanoke-Salem-Roanoke County population: 181K
        2014 Roanoke-Salem-Roanoke County population: 217K

        In 44 years, the area’s “grown” about 20%.

        Roanoke City?: 1960 population: 97K
        2014 population: 99K

  4. I just did. As Blacksburg and Christiansburg are towns, they are included in Montgomery County’s population numbers.

    In 1980, Montgomery County had 63K. Weldon Cooper’s 2014 estimate is: 97K.

    Yeah…when you throw in Montgomery, I think the hypothesis gets even a little warmer…..people have discovered other bucolic/mountain areas in Western Virginia and the Roanoke area has lost its monopoly on that market.

  5. I would be fascinated to see a town actually do a marketing campaign aimed at getting upcoming college grads to think about moving there. It seems like such a good move, but I’ve never seen a town try it. Advertising space in the college paper (or on facebook) is cheap. And college grads are confused and open to anything. Just plant the idea in their head… “hey – we’re here and we’re cool and we want you.” I think it might be a powerful idea for some of them (or at least make them not immediately write off jobs they see in Roanoke or elsewhere).

    • You’ve never seen a town do it? If you watch HGTV, Travel Channel, read any of those Forbes/USAToday/etc lists about best places, farthest money goes, see in Rolling Stone about the music scene, or food scene on Food Channel, or MTV show set in, or Bravo show set in; on places like Austin, Portland, Denver, and Atlanta then you are seeing the product of a conscientious marketing campaign by those places. Those pieces are paid for by the tourism/county boards.

      Not that there is anything wrong with that. They want people to know that there are other cities in America that have a lot to offer, and many of those places have the kinds of vibe that attract young people; it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. Of course eventually those cities also become expensive when lots of people move in but the great thing about America is there are lots and lots of cities that if they would shift their mindset could also be attractive places to live for the next century.

  6. “Western Virginia has a remarkable number of colleges and universities, from Virginia Tech and James Madison to Washington & Lee, VMI, Bridgewater, Hollins, Eastern Mennonite, Roanoke College and Mary Baldwin”

    And how is enrollment trending at all of these colleges, on the whole, and how many will still be around in 10, 20 years?

    Worth thinking about the forces at work. Richmond will cannibalize the college educated youths of Virginia who don’t end up moving to Northern Virginia. Online learning, community college, and whatever the next Big Thing in education is will cannibalize smaller colleges across western Virginia. Where does that leave Roanoke?

    What can Roanoke do to leverage its natural assets even more. Yes it’s beautiful, yes it has greenways, but is it a city known for its greenways? Has it maximized its recreational opportunities? Look at Richmond with whitewater rafting. That’s a brand. Roanoke doesn’t have that, yet.

    If Roanoke starts to develop a brand and leverage its natural tourism, it will begin to elevate itself in the minds of the 90% of college graduates who would never even consider it. That’s one step forward.

    • Tell me this: If I were a young college grad who wanted to move to Western Virginia….why would I choose Roanoke over either Blacksburg or Harrisonburg?

      While I agree that it has great natural beauty… do Blacksburg and Harrisonburg. I’d argue that at least Harrisonburg’s downtown is as lively, if not more so, than Roanoke’s. (I haven’t been to Blacksburg’s in a while.)

      And, if you follow rural Virginia, Roanoke’s biggest issue has always been with Asheville. Roanoke hates the comparison. But Asheville already uses the same branding techniques to much greater effect than Roanoke.

      • Because as a recent college graduate, eventually I want to feel like I’m an adult and no longer in a college town?

        Cville is big enough to be more than a college town. Blacksburg will never stop feeling like a town that revolves around the football calendar. Harrisonburg does not feel like it has any charm, but it’s been a few years since I’ve been there. It’s all sprawl, strip malls, chain stores.

        • Fair enough. Though if you haven’t been to Harrisonburg in a few years, it’s definitely on the upswing. My last visit was in 2008 until I went this past year. In those 6 years, they’ve done a great job with their downtown area.

          I honestly see a lot of similarities in Harrisonburg’s growth and Charlottesville’s. 30 years ago, it was tough to find anyone in Charlottesville who wasn’t employed by U.Va. or the local gov’t or service economy. It’s matured a lot to the point that, as you mention, it’s no longer a “college town.” There are a number of large non-university employers in the area. Plus, there are a lot of tech and biomed startups in town. The economy’s much more lively than 30 years ago. U.Va. is still the big dog, but it really isn’t unusual to find families in the area without a connection to U.Va.

          15 years ago, Harrisonburg wasn’t anything more than JMU and the local gov’t and service economy to support the university. When I visited last year, it was definitely maturing. It wasn’t all JMU purple in town. There were definitely start-ups and a small economy growing outside of the university. I don’t know that it will ever mature as much as Cville, but it’s definitely on the same path away from being solely a college town.

          I am going back to the Roanoke area this spring for a visit. I will be interested to get a “boots on the ground” view of Roanoke in 2015.

      • Asheville is a good comparison. Actually, Roanokers made that comparison 30 years ago when I lived there. Asheville is making the transition to a creative economy more successfully than Roanoke is.

  7. Mr. Bacon:

    I will do my best to find some good things going on in the Star City and report back!

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