The Atlanta skyline. Courtesy of Mike Mann.

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This has become known as the Anna Karenina Principle, after the novel in which those words were written. Feel free to debate how much that applies to real-life families, but the 19th century Russian novelist may have inadvertently been a pretty good analyst on 21st century economic development.

Whenever there’s a major sports championship, I indulge in a research challenge: to look at the two cities involved in a major sports championship and see what economic lessons we can learn from them.

Over the years, I’ve learned that economically successful cities all share some common characteristics. Namely: They have deep talent pools, top-flight universities (which help produce those talent pools), a lot of technology jobs (that’s what’s driving the economy these days), young demographics, and appealing quality-of-life factors, which help make the city a place where young, talented people want to move and stay. Now, what those quality-of-life factors are certainly varies from place to place – they are certainly different in Tampa (whose football Buccaneers and hockey Lightning made it to the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup finals earlier this year) than in Montreal (whose Canadiens hockey team also made it to the cup finals). But they all have something going for them. You don’t see many successful cities in places where people don’t want to live.

Those five common traits are a problematic list for us here in Southwest and Southside Virginia. We can check off some of those boxes with a flourish: Top-flight universities? Yep. Got those. Quality-of-life attributes? Absolutely, particularly if you like the outdoors. We’ll beat Montreal on that any day, but particularly any day in February. Technology jobs? That depends. We certainly have a growing technology sector in the New River Valley but rural areas in general suffer on that score. Deep talent pools? Umm, that’s a challenge in some fields. And young demographics? Let’s just say we’re working on that.

These five traits are so predictable that the real challenge is to find others. Yesterday I looked at Houston. Today, it’s Atlanta’s turn at bat. Three things stand out about Atlanta beyond the usual five things.

  1. Atlanta is a transportation hub. Railroads converge there. Highways converge there. And airlines converge there. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the busiest in the country and the rankings aren’t even close – 103.9 million passengers in 2019 compared to 84.5 million for second-place Los Angeles. All that air service is one reason Norfolk Southern decided to move its headquarters from Norfolk to Atlanta. That’s a sore subject in Roanoke, because a lot of those jobs used to be in the Star City, but it’s still true. Roanoke benefits in some ways from being a transportation hub in its own right but also probably suffers because of the unreliability of Interstate 81. Even though we increasingly live in a virtual world, there’s still stuff that has to move from place to place. Until somebody invents a Star Trek-like transporter system, all those Amazon packages have to get to your door somehow. So, yes, transportation matters. That’s why improvements to I-81 are so crucial. It’s why some have pushed the proposed Interstate 73 as a way to better connect the Roanoke Valley to Greensboro and North Carolina in general. (Forget the whole Michigan-to-South Carolina part; for our purposes, it’s that Roanoke to Greensboro leg that matters most.) It’s why Martinsville and Henry County want the Southern Connector, it’s why far Southwest Virginia wants the Coalfields Expressway, and so on.
  2. Atlanta has a start-up culture. Here’s the figure that surprised me most as I was researching Atlanta: 33% of the jobs there are said to be from startups. That figure is distinctly higher than the national average, which the U.S. Census Bureau puts at 27%. The website Roofstock ranks Atlanta as eighth in the country for startup formation. (Last Vegas ranks first, followed by Orlando, Austin, Miami, Dallas, Denver and Phoenix ahead of Atlanta. That serves as a map of the economy to come.) This whole startup culture is an area that we need to work on. (The Valleys Innovation Council is all over this for the Roanoke and New River valleys; what about other communities?) For a long time, Southwest and Southside were overly dependent on big employers – the railroad in Roanoke, textiles and furniture factories across Southside, coal companies in far Southwest. Now they’re gone or mostly gone, and we need to learn how to take care of ourselves. The whole subject of what constitutes a “startup culture” and what that “startup culture” needs is one that people have written whole books on, but in general you need entrepreneurs willing to invest, workers who fit their required skill set, and venture capital. Here are some other questions: The Roanoke Valley has a business accelerator program through RAMP (it stands for Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program) that takes startups and helps them grow. Danville has something similar in The Launch Place. Lynchburg has the Lynchburg Innovate Partnership. That’s not meant to be a comprehensive list, but the point is we do have programs in some places and surely need them in others. One little-noticed opportunity: In 2018, Virginia enacted a law sponsored by then-Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and then-state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County, that allows localities to turn old schools into enterprise zones where lower taxes apply – a creative case of turning liabilities (abandoned schools) into assets (potential business incubators). I don’t know if any localities have done this; if so, I’d love to hear about them.
  3. Attitude matters. This is the hardest of all to measure and perhaps the easiest to overlook. Twelve years ago, the website Global Atlanta posted an interview with developer John Portman Jr., who traced Atlanta’s rise to global status. One of the things he cited was a civic attitude. “The whole feeling about Atlanta has always been positive,” he said. I can’t speak for every community in our region but I can testify that for a long time Roanoke was hobbled by an inferiority complex. That’s why the city’s victory over Asheville, North Carolina, and 48 other locations in 2016 to land the Deschutes Brewery was so important.. The real victory wasn’t the brewery (which has yet to be built and may never be built) but the sense of accomplishment. Attitudinally, Roanoke has been a different place since. Much of Southwest and Southside is home to communities that have had a hard time of it, as traditional employers have declined or disappeared entirely. It’s natural in such circumstances to feel down about yourself. But the future isn’t won by moping around or saying, “Oh, we can’t do that.” You know who’s doing the best job of this right now? I’d put my money on Danville. (Once the casino opens, I suppose I really could put my money on this.) Danville hasn’t completely turned around its economy yet but it sure seems to have turned around its attitude, proclaiming itself – with some justification – as “the comeback city.” Atlanta’s been one, too, ever since 1864. You might say Danville has a little bit of Atlanta in it.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.