Virginia Tech robotics lab

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.


Virginia Tech campus -- very bike friendly
Virginia Tech campus — very bike friendly

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6 responses to “Virginia Tech: What a Difference a Decade Makes”

  1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Ohhhhh hooooooooo, I smell a scandal here. Is one of Virginia’s premier bloggers using his platform to engage in a little back scratching boosterism on behalf of his progeny?! Quelle scandale! I see the quid, but we’ll have to wait a few years for the pro quo won’t we? It’s well known you hate the rest of the state, so I can only imagine there is some ulterior motive here…

    1. Ha ha! Bacon may be chatting up the admissions committee through his blog for the possible benefit of Oscar Meyer, Jr. However, in Blacksburg he deals with significant issues. The improving quality of a major university, architectural continuity, transportation systems. Where is the gushing endorsement of a newly opened bagel shop proving the entrepreneurial mettle of the town? Why isn’t Bacon stunned to find an out-of-town band playing music requiring him to declare that he loves this town?

      It’s not that Bacon hates non-Virginia Richmond. It’s more that he puts on rose colored glasses as thick as coke bottle bottoms when he gets within a stone’s throw of River City.

      Outside of Richmond Bacon deals with meaty issues. He is generally fair and balanced (to copy a phrase). Within Richmond Bacon sees El Dorado – the lost city of gold. Every shop is the beginning of an economic renaissance. Local sparrows become majestic eagles soaring on angels’ wings. The James River becomes Victoria Falls.

      I am not sure what Bacon smokes when he’s back home but I want some of it. Maybe NoVa would become Valhalla after a couple of puffs.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    The fish rots from the head.

  3. Well. … Bacon likes Richmond but he lives in Henrico just like DonR in NoVa, hardly a ringing endorsement of their respective urban areas…

    I myself live in an exurban area but not because I moved here.. not unless you count “moving” here 50 years ago when the county had a population of 15,000 and most commuters went to Quantico on Route 1 because there was no I-95 and no I-495.

    Now, to give DonR credit, I recall he grew up in a place called Groveton…eh and went to high school where?

  4. dbcook256 Avatar

    Mr. Bacon, you should definitely plan a visit to downtown Lynchburg sometime next year after the Bluffwalk is scheduled for completion. Talk about a downtown in full revitalization. I have lived in downtown Lynchburg for nearly three years now and the pace of new renovations and revitalization has gained substantial momentum in the past year. Nearly $100 million has been poured into downtown since 2010 and more projects are in the pipeline. Here is a roundup of all the new developments in downtown Lynchburg since 2010:

    -Completion of 200 lofts and apartments in two years in several new renovation/adaptive reuse projects (mainly Lynchburg Riverlofts, Cliffs Edge Lofts, Parlor Lofts, James River Condos, and Midpoint Apartments). All of these units are nearly at 100% occupancy which has nearly doubled the downtown residential population.

    -Currently 90 lofts and apartments under construction in downtown mainly focused on the new Bluffwalk area (1220 Commerce Street) and 13th and Main.

    -Fast tracked funding and construction of the new Bluffwalk pedestrian zone set for completion in January which will be a small scale version of the downtown mall in Charlottesville. Already 176 new lofts have either been built or are under construction along the bluff walk and two new restaurants are in the works.

    -Several new businesses moving in on Main Street including a large downtown grocery market (Grassroots Grocer) at Main and 13th with 20 new lofts above which will fill in a food desert gap set to open in November. New Irish pub (Kegney Brothers) set to open in Novermber as well. Others include Cao Chocolate Shop, a new cigar lounge, Pastiche at Main, Dominos pizza and Skybox.

    -Ongoing $13 million Academy of Fine Arts Theater as the cultural jewel of Lynchburg’s art and theater scene.

    -$4.6 million expansion of the Amazement Square Children’s Museum set to begin next year.

    -Construction of a new $8 million bus transfer center at Kemper adjacent to the Amtrak station which concentrates the city bus plaza, Greyhound, Amtrak (two daily trains and a third to be added in 2017), and the Kemper trailhead all in one multi-modal hub.

    -Striping of 4 miles of new bike lanes in one year with plans for several more next year.

    Additionally there is currently $500 million in new construction and development at Liberty University including a new medical school, library, new dorms, academic buildings, etc which will transform the campus. Liberty added 1,000 new residential students this year alone.

  5. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    I’ve always maintained that the key to Virginia is to make Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and Roanoke-Blacksburg into thriving areas. You simply can’t “write off” rural Virginia and expect a first class state.

    I was in Lynchburg a couple of months ago, and I was very impressed with the difference in downtown versus ten years ago. It’s worth checking out if you’re in the area.

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