Reinventing Roanoke as Virginia’s Outdoor Capital

by James A. Bacon

The Roanoke Valley doesn’t have any natural amenities more special than those of other communities along Virginia’s magnificent Blue Ridge Mountains. What it does have, at a very propitious time when the COVID-19 epidemic is scrambling the traditional calculus of where businesses and individuals decide where to locate, is an organizational infrastructure to the promote assets it does have.

Founded as a Norfolk & Western railroad town in the late 1800s, the City of Roanoke has been traumatized by the loss of N&W industrial and headquarters facilities over the past two decades. Reinventing the economy hasn’t been easy. The dynamics of the Knowledge Economy have long favored large metropolitan areas with deep labor markets, and with a population of about 220,000, the Roanoke Valley (Roanoke City, Roanoke County, and Salem) lack critical mass. The main exceptions to the “urban agglomeration” trend were towns with research universities, such as Virginia Tech. But Tech, separated by a mountain range and 45 minutes travel time, was almost in another world.

The Roanoke Regional Partnership (RRP), the local economic development organization, recognized years ago that it needed to rebrand the region. What did the region have that other small metro areas did not? Among other assets, it has the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and, nearby, Virginia’s second largest lake, Smith Mountain Lake.  “We’ve had these assets,” said Beth Doughty, RRP director. “We treated them like wallpaper instead of an economic sector.” But under Doughty’s leadership, that thinking changed.

The latest edition of the Virginia Economic Review, a quarterly publication of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, describes how Roanokers have worked diligently in recent years to reinvent the region as a community for outdoor lovers. The tangible economic payoff has been limited to date. But Roanoke may now find itself in the right place at the right time as the COVID epidemic has forced businesses and people to rethink their commitment to big-metro living and acceptance of technologies like Zoom makes it easier for them to work remotely.

Rebranding a community as an outdoors-friendly community takes time. The first step is inventorying what you’ve got. In 2009, RRP hired a director of outdoor branding, who then began cataloguing the region’s outdoor offering — from where to put in a kayak on the James River to how to get to McAfee Knob. Then the Roanoke Outdoor Foundation (ROF) organized a marathon. The country has lots of marathons. What makes this one different? The course runs through the mountains. The following year ROF launched the Roanoke GO Outside Festival, an event that has grown to 35,000 visitors.

It also takes years to mobilize government and community resources to build on those natural amenities — zoning for the green space, acquiring land for parks, creating the kayak landings, opening mountain-bike trails, building the overlooks, and the myriad of little things that eventually add up to a big thing.

The biggest economic-development coup occurred in January 2020 when California-based Traditional Medicinals committed to invest $29.7 million to establish an herbal tea manufacturing and processing operations in Franklin County just south of Roanoke. “It was incredibly important that we found a location which embodied our company values,” said the company CEO in announcing the expansion.

Reinventing Roanoke as an outdoor town more likely will prove to be a lure for attracting talent. Only part of the population puts outdoor lifestyles at the top of their list of priorities when deciding where to live, and, let’s face it, America’s western states clobber the eastern states for “outdoorsy” lifestyles. But for those who, for reasons of career or family prefer to live on the East Coast, Roanoke enjoys a competitive advantage. That branding makes it easier for an entity such as the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion to recruit physicians and researchers.

Insofar as corporations invest in communities where they can recruit employees with the skills and talents they need, Roanoke’s ability to attract human capital may lead to more corporate investment down the road. But the process takes time and commitment.

The Roanoke region’s marketing materials (see video above) don’t hesitate to lay claim to outdoor assets outside of the Roanoke Valley itself. If communities up and down the Interstate 81 corridor pursue similar strategies — organizing outdoors events, investing in outdoor amenities — the effect could be synergistic.

There’s no magic wand for reinventing an economy. There’s no guarantee that Roanoke’s bet on the outdoors will work. But it makes a heckuva lot more sense than doubling down on the old manufacturing-recruitment strategy of decades past. Roanoke’s approach is far more in sync with the times. As someone who lived there a half-lifetime ago and loved the people and loved the place, I’m betting that the strategy will pay off.