What does the average Virginia Tech undergraduate think about Roanoke? Probably not much at all. I may be speaking for myself, but during my first few years as a student in Blacksburg, Roanoke was a way point for my travels from home to campus. I visited downtown, ate dinner in Grandin Village, and stocked up on bulk goods at the Sam’s Club, but I never took a minute to learn about the city’s incredible history and its promising trajectory.
My interest in Roanoke blossomed from an opportunity to visit the city’s Transportation Museum. After declining an hour-long wait to ice skate at the Berglund center, we stumbled upon the museum while driving around the city. With the facility was closing in half an hour, the gentleman at the front desk kindly waived our admission and let us explore the museum for free. We quickly found ourselves lost in the history of the city through its interactive exhibits and plethora of locomotives and vehicles. My childhood love for trains was reignited and that night I began to read about parts of the city’s history that I found interesting.
About a year later, I found myself in a studio class where students had the choice of working on a technical report for Roanoke’s new master plan or a development project in Floyd. As I had a passing interest in City, I quickly decided to join the Roanoke team. Our mission was to tell the story of Roanoke- past, present, and future- as well as gather a myriad of data on demographics, the local economy, the environment, crime, housing, etc.
After four long months, we had a finished project. A deeper investigation of the report told the story of the “magic city;” a place that was seemingly built overnight by the railroads 150 years ago, and was now emerging as the innovation capital of Southwest Virginia and the greater Appalachian region.
To the passerby, Roanoke is a small city, a sea of lights alongside Interstate 81, a mall, a handful of hikes, etc. To those who study the region, Roanoke is a case study- a post-industrial rail city making its comeback. The city has gained research facilities, medical, nursing, and first-responder schools, breweries, and new industries and is becoming renowned for its seemingly endless amount of outdoor amenities. If not already, I posit that Roanoke will become a leading southeastern city, possibly in the same vein as Charlotte, North Carolina or Greenville, South Carolina.
An office-wide meeting with the Roanoke’s City Manager, Robert Cowell, highlighted this extraordinary trajectory, but made it clear that change is not without its costs. While the City is seeing growth once more, it will have to shrug years of downturn, poverty, aging housing stock, and a checkered past with redevelopment and renewal. The city’s recent growth has been tremendously beneficial to select groups, while others have remained in poverty. Additionally, the recruitment of top minds in medicine, engineering, etc. could certainly mean gentrification for the city’s traditionally ethnic neighborhoods.
While these challenges are daunting, and have been mishandled in the past, I believe that this new generation of city leadership is well equipped to handle these problems and grow inclusively. For instance, promising efforts in the realms of economic and community development have seen minority businesses flourish and historic communities come together. If I have gathered anything from my interactions with numerous city officials, it is that Roanoke is growing the right way, and my hopefulness and excitement for Roanoke’s future is not misplaced.