It’s probably been a decade since I’ve been to Virginia Tech. I spent a year living in Blacksburg about 30 years ago and I visited with some frequency during my tenure as editor and then publisher of Virginia Business magazine, but I haven’t had much cause to return to Hokieland recently until this weekend when the Bacon family visited to expose the Bacon male progeny, who has expressed an interest in pursuing an engineering career, to the top engineering school program in Virginia. (Sorry, Wahoos, but it’s true, Tech engineering is No. 1 in Virginia.)
It is remarkable what has transpired in Blacksburg in a mere decade — both in Virginia Tech and the surrounding town. Slowly but surely Virginia Tech continues to gain ground against other engineering schools in the hyper-intense competition for resources, cutting-edge programs and prestige. Tech ranks in the top 50 nationally for total R&D expenditures but the College of Engineering ranks among the Top 10 undergraduate engineering programs in the country.
The College of Engineering also has generated considerable spin-off economic activity. We’re not talking Boston or San Francisco-style impact, but Tech’s Corporate Research Center — in essence, a corporate park for companies interacting with the university — has grown to 31 buildings employing 2,700 employees. That’s small potatoes compared to, say, Northern Virginia, but it’s pretty darned impressive for Southwest Virginia. Indeed, the performance is all the more impressive considering the fact that Tech is not situated in a major labor market, is geographically remote and has lousy airline service.
One benefit of Tech’s isolated location is that the physical setting of the New River Valley is stunningly beautiful. And I’ll say this about Tech’s campus: It may not have the world-heritage quality of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda and Lawn of the University of Virginia, my alma mater, but university leadership has done a superb job of maintaining architectural continuity over the years — all buildings are built of Hokiestone. I hesitate to say so but the Virginia Tech campus overall is more aesthetically pleasing than the hodge-podge of UVa outside of the Rotunda-Lawn core. Furthermore, the Hokies have paid close attention to the art of “place making” over the past couple of decades. The campus is much more inviting in many small ways than it was when I saw it last.
Another virtue is that the town of Blacksburg has been evolving in a positive way. County planners have permitted developers to increase the density of buildings around the perimeter of the campus. Far more apartments and commercial establishments are within walking and biking distance of the Virginia Tech campus than there were when I last visited. The town has replaced two busy signalized intersections with roundabouts, and I spotted a couple of tandem buses rolling through town.
My main concern is that Blacksburg’s prosperity is built upon a mountain of student indebtedness. But rising tuition is hardly unique to Virginia Tech. Indeed, the College of Engineering probably could do just fine catering to out-of-state students willing to pay significantly more than in-state students do. The College of Engineering does not charge what the market would bear, to the benefit of thousands of Virginia students. All things considered, I’d be delighted if the Little Porker ended up at Virginia Tech.
Update: The densification of downtown Blacksburg continues apace. Town Council approved 4 to 3 yesterday (Oct. 15) construction of a 37-bedroom, four-story condominium on the edge of downtown. The project had stirred controversy because it bordered a neighborhood of single-family houses. The developer argued that the condo would be located within walking distance of Virginia Tech and downtown.
There’s plenty more room for Blacksburg to densify without impinging upon old neighborhoods — just up-zone the Main Strip commercial strip. Vast acreage there is dedicated to parking lots and low-rise shopping centers. If the town council encourages mixed use and runs those tandem buses down Main Street, it can accommodate the town’s population growth for many years to come.