Brant Sherwood of the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs celebrates. Photo by Mark Sawyer.

People say there’s no good news. People are wrong. There’s lots of good news. It’s just usually not as dramatic as the bad news. Yes, life is unfair. Today, though, is your lucky day. Today is a column full of good news and only good news. Don’t get used to it, OK?

  1. Roanoke’s minor league hockey team is playing for the league championship. No, we’re not turning into a sports publication, even if we are giving veteran sportswriter Doug Doughty’s college sports notebook a trial run. (Let us know what you think.) I suppose I could riff on how unlikely it is that the eighth-place Rail Yard Dawgs – the last seed in the playoffs – have made it to any round of the playoffs in the Southern Professional Hockey League, much less the final round. I’ll leave that to the actual sportswriters. Instead, let me offer a few words about the cultural aspect of hockey.

One of the many things that makes the Roanoke Valley unusual is that it has a professional hockey team. There’s been pro hockey in the Roanoke Valley off and on since 1967, when the Salem Rebels first took the ice. That’s not something anyone expects in Roanoke, yet there it is. We on this side of the state are accustomed to not having things that folks in the urban crescent do. Here’s a pretty notable exception. Richmond doesn’t have a team. Roanoke does. Both Roanoke and Lynchburg have developed a subculture of hockey fans. Lynchburg, with the LeHaye Center at Liberty University, has a full-fledged ice culture that Amy Trent wrote about last fall. When pro hockey returned to Roanoke in 2016 after a decade’s absence, attendance was strong – an average of 3,136 per game – but many wondered what would happen when the novelty wore off. The second year, though, attendance didn’t drop – it grew, to 3,360. It grew again for the third year – to 3,498 – and again for the fourth year – 3,522. When the team skipped the 2020-2021 season due to the pandemic, many wondered whether fans would come back. They did. The team averaged 3,393 fans this year, fourth best in the 11-team league, not bad at all considering that much of the winter was dominated by the omicron variant, not the odd-man rush. (The best drawing team is in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Huntsville Havoc average 4,811 fans. The lowest is in Danville, Illinois, where the Vermilion County Bobcats drew 1,492 per game.)

When the Rail Yard Dawgs made the playoffs in 2018, they played their first playoff game ever in Lynchburg – Roanoke’s Berglund Center was already booked that night. The presence of the LaHaye Center and a hockey culture in Lynchburg makes me wonder if someday we might see a minor league team there, just as we have the Lynchburg Hillcats and the Salem Red Sox in minor league baseball. Think of what a sports rivalry that would be. Also think of what that says about our culture. It makes it a little harder for outsiders to stereotype us, if nothing else. And if they do, hey, time to drop gloves, right?

Roanoke plays the first two games on the road against the Peoria Rivermen, starting tonight. But the team is guaranteed at least one game in the best three-of-five series – Monday, May 2. And, if they win one of those first three, there’ll be a fourth game in Roanoke on Tuesday, May 3, before the series returns to Peoria for a possible game five next Thursday. One game or two, think of it this way: We’re playing hockey in Roanoke in May.

  1. We’re making the case for a passenger train to Bristol. Elsewhere on Cardinal News today you’ll find an item about how ridership on the Virginia Breeze buses has rebounded since the pandemic. These are intercity buses run by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. There are now four of them: from Blacksburg to Washington, from Danville to Washington, from Martinsville to Richmond to Washington, from Bristol to Washington. (All roads don’t lead to Rome; they lead to Washington, apparently).

Seeing things come back from the pandemic – be it hockey attendance or bus ridership – is obviously a good thing. But there’s even better news beneath the surface here. “The Valley Flyer has surpassed expectations on every level, from on-time performance, total ridership, and operating costs expenses being met by passenger fares,” says department spokesperson Amy Friedenberger. This seems reminiscent of the Amtrak route to Roanoke, which so many were skeptical of in the beginning yet turned out to be so popular, and so profitable, that there’s now a second train on the way.

Meanwhile, let’s look at that newest route. The Highlands Rhythm route from Bristol didn’t open until November. It started with 639 riders for the month. Now it’s up to 1,126 in March. That’s more than either of the more established Danville or Martinsville routes and already closing in on half the traffic of the Blacksburg-to-Washington route, which has been around for five years. “The department has high hopes for the Highlands Rhythm route because of the popularity of the Valley Flyer, and this route traveling along a similar corridor and giving riders another option for departure times,” Friedenberger says.

We’ve all become inured to hearing about government programs that don’t work. Here’s one that clearly is. So that’s good news. And there’s also the potential for more good news: The early success of that Bristol-to-Washington bus service suggests that there would also be strong demand for passenger rail along that route. And that’s the long-range goal. Right now, there’s been approval to extend Amtrak to Christiansburg but after that, the big push will be to extend the route to Bristol. Just in case anyone questions whether there’s demand, all they need to do is look at these ridership numbers.

  1. Patrick County students are close to getting free community college. Last fall the Martinsville-based Harvest Foundation announced that it was making a 13-year commitment to pay the tuition for any graduating senior in Martinsville or Henry County who wants to attend Patrick & Henry Community College. That’s a bold, generational bet to turn around the economic fortunes of the region. Martinsville-Henry County suffers from low educational attainment relative to the rest of the world, which puts it at disadvantage in an economy that increasingly prizes education – not always a four-year degree, of course, but certainly some credentials program beyond high school.

After the Harvest Foundation did that, the Patrick County Education Foundation set about trying to figure out how it could do the same for students there. The initial estimate was that the foundation would have to raise $2 million a year, a pretty staggering amount for a county of 17,608 people where the median household income is $46,941. But then school officials did some re-calculating and discovered something: Thanks to the Harvest Foundation gift for Martinsville and Henry County students, that meant some scholarships that they would have previously used were now available and could go to Patrick County students. The state’s G3 program – which covers tuition and fees for students in certain in-demand fields – also takes care of other students in Patrick County. The bottom line: Instead of needing to raise $2 million a year, Patrick County needs to raise only $44,000 a year, which sounds much more doable.

If you want to look closely, maybe this isn’t entirely good news: The state provides a free K-12 education but the economy increasingly demands what amounts to at least a K-14 education, and localities are left to make up the difference. There’s a serious conversation we ought to have about equity here – the localities most in need of that K-14 education are the ones with the fewest resources. Why does Patrick County have to fend for itself? What about localities that aren’t so well-situated? Patrick County is just lucky there’s the Harvest Foundation in the county and city next door, whose gift set off a domino effect that lowered the price for Patrick County. That seems something worthy of a statewide discussion. If we’re really so concerned about a “talent pipeline,” why aren’t we paying for a K-14 education? In the absence of that kind of policy, though, let’s at least celebrate this: Patrick County is a lot closer to figuring this out today than it was a few weeks ago.

  1. That G3 program is working, by the way. Community college enrollment in Virginia is down 4% from fall 2020 to fall 2021. That’s not surprising. Community college enrollment is down all over the country and one of the major drivers is demographics – there are simply fewer people in the age cohorts most likely to go to community college than there used to be. (I discussed all this in an earlier column so I’ll spare you the numbers here.) However, enrollment in those programs covered by the G3 program – mostly health care, early childhood education, information technology, public safety, skilled trades of various kinds – is up by 9%. This seems to suggest (maybe more than suggest) that this program is working exactly as intended. Some more tidbits, courtesy of WVTF-FM, which first reported this story. Nearly half the students in these programs are 25 or older, which means G3 is engaging a nontraditional population. (Well, kinda, sorta. Community college students have always tended to be older.) And 11% of those students were receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which sure suggests that the G3 program is helping lift people out of poverty. (G3 stands for the slogan “get a skill, get a job, get ahead.”) Gov. Glenn Youngkin professes to be concerned about the community college system. Some might wonder about the political motivations but for now I’ll look on the bright side and say it’s a good thing to have a governor who cares about the community college system. G3 was a program that Youngkin’s predecessor, Ralph Northam, championed and so I understand that politically Youngkin might be skeptical. However, here’s a program that sure seems to be working – Youngkin ought to embrace this program so tightly that it feels like his own.
  2. People still respect politicians. In February, I wrote about the unusual friendship between two Roanoke Valley legislators, Democrat Sam Rasoul and Republican Joe McNamara. The specific occasion was that Rasoul had sent out letters to every student in his district who had made the honor roll. He’d also struck a deal with McNamara, who owns two ice cream shops. Students could take the letter to Katie’s Ice Cream in Roanoke County during a particular week in March and get free ice cream. I recently checked in with both legislators to see how this giveaway went. “I think he did alright,” Rasoul said. “He had good advertising to 4,000 families and half the people that came in bought other things so I think it worked out.” For his part, McNamara said “it went splendidly.” He also marveled at how many of the students who showed up had never been in an ice cream store before – perhaps a reflection of the sometimes challenging demographics in parts of Rasoul’s district. Here’s what really struck me, though. I asked McNamara if he had a count of how many students had redeemed their letters for ice cream. I figured he’d have a stack of letters that he could count. He did not. “A lot of people wanted to keep the little letter,” McNamara told me. “You don’t think these letters mean something to people, but they do.” So all across Roanoke there are kids who are treasuring their letter of congratulations from a politician. That seems pretty touching and ought to give us some hope. Go have some ice cream to celebrate that.

Dwayne Yancey

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