Musings from the VT Office of Economic Development’s newest staffer and sole technical writer
I’ve lived in Blacksburg for about three years now, as a student at Virginia Tech. And until I began working in the Office of Economic Development (OED) here at Tech, I didn’t think about the region in terms of economic development. I hardly knew what the term meant, let alone that it impacted everything around me.
Within the first few weeks of starting, I began to see the scope of the OED’s work, both in terms of distance (projects come in from across the state on a regular basis, like our projects in the Town of Hillsville looking at healthy corner stores and Rural Retreat proposing uses for a historic train depot) and in terms of the project size (it could be something small or something that takes months, years to look into, like the Kauffman project, a process that began over a year ago). In realizing both of these, I also had to start understanding the terms associated with the projects the OED does, like economic impact analysis, feasibility study, workforce study, and the like. Of course, all of these have to do with how the OED helps partners achieve their economic development goals.
I was invited to sit in on a panel at Grandin Colab in Roanoke for the OED’s Kauffman project, in which the OED is surveying entrepreneurs in the region to gain an understanding of what metrics might be useful for understanding a region’s economic ecosystem. This panel was transformative in helping me understand this region that I live in, and it contextualized all of the stories I’d already started writing about the OED and its partners.
Entrepreneurs and experts from around Roanoke sat in the panel and discussed the region’s strengths and its gaps, where it has room for improvement. This room we were in, inside the Co-Lab (which I highly recommend, because quite frankly, I would love to live in Roanoke just to be able to use their office space), housed years of experience between all of the people offering up their insight on the region and its economic health. It’s not hard to pick up on things when people like the ones in that room were speaking; everyone was so thoughtful in their feedback and each truly understood the region — not to mention, their passion for the area was evident.
Sitting in that room, I started to connect the dots. The university I attend was brought up frequently, and while I had known that Tech was influential and massive in terms of resources and manpower, I hadn’t thought about how it impacted everyone else around it. I hadn’t thought about how it serves the region, even down to the mom-and-pop shops on Main Street. I hadn’t thought of Tech as a hub for entrepreneurs and startups (I tend to focus more on the goings on for liberal arts), but it is. So is Roanoke. And the big question is how do we better connect the two so that each brings out the strengths and fills the gaps in the other?
That was a large focus of the conversation — evaluating how the two cities work together, and how it could be even better. But there was also a focus on just why doing business in the region is good for entrepreneurs, and it made me appreciate where I live even more than I did before. Low cost of living and the picturesque mountains were both quality of life factors that played into why some entrepreneurs want to do business in this region. But with the good, comes the bad, and some around the table pointed to lack of investors — or perhaps more so, a lack of visibility in investors — as one downfall in the region. But with these negatives, comes a positive: identifying this problem is the first step in fixing it. And around the room, everyone was optimistic about the region, gaps and all.
And they should be.
Lately, it seems like the area has been taking off in terms of economic development. In the region, entrepreneurs have access to resources like the Co-Lab, Small Business Development Center, the Acceleration Center, and Virginia Tech — with VT KnowledgeWorks, the Department of Food Science and Technology, and the Center for Power Electronics Systems, among other great resources. And now, with successes like the Deschutes Brewery on its way into Roanoke, along with Italian car parts manufacturer Eldor Corp. in neighboring Botetourt, it’s clear that this region is loaded with resources and is growing and evolving. The question on the region’s collective mind seems to be, what’s next?