With the worst of the pandemic behind us (it is behind us, right?), bands are back on tour again. Some of my favorite groups are hitting the road. The Arkells. The Beaches. The MONOWHALES (all caps, please). Unfortunately, none of them are coming anywhere close, perhaps my fault for having exotic music tastes. But I caught James McMurtry at the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount a few weeks ago – and a third-row seat is tough to beat anywhere. I have friends who caught Tedeschi Trucks in Lynchburg (the band also played Rocky Mount), others who camped out at the Rooster Walk festival in Henry County.
Good times, good times.
Meanwhile, I feel like my day job has taken me on another type of tour – an economic development tour.
First came an event at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC that highlighted how the Roanoke Valley (with some help from the New River Valley) is building a cluster of life sciences businesses – a cluster that has now drawn $180 million in research funding, more than in all of Roanoke’s official peer cities put together. (Maybe now outside journalists will stop referring to Roanoke as a “gritty former railroad town” whenever they swoop in.)
Next came an event at the Volvo plant in Pulaski County that highlighted how the New River Valley (with some help from the Roanoke Valley and elsewhere) is building a cluster of transportation-related businesses that now employ 79,000 people across a vast swath of Southwest and Southside – and have positioned the New River Valley as a finalist for a $75 million federal grant to bring more research and development.
Then came the annual Southwest Virginia Economic Forum at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, which was something of a two-fer. We heard lots about the Southwest Virginia economy, of course, but thanks to one of the speakers, who was from Danville, we also heard a lot about Southside Virginia (or Southern Virginia, as some prefer – the two areas may or may not cover the same geography). Specifically, we heard about how Danville is positioning itself as an advanced manufacturing center – not so much the aspirational goal, which is well-known, but the details behind how it’s doing that.
Between these events, one clear theme emerged: Some communities are animated by what I’ll call a “big economic theory.” They have a specific goal of what they’re trying to achieve, economically, and a clear idea of how they’re going to go about doing that. All these places stand as textbook examples of communities that are in the process of building a new economy. Roanoke used to be a railroad town; now, in the words of former city manager Chris Morrill, the city is transitioning “from train town to brain town” – brain research being one of the specialties at the research institute. Pulaski used to be a mill town; now it’s where Volvo is building autonomous vehicles. Danville hit rock bottom when both textiles and tobacco collapsed. Now it’s rightly billing itself as “the comeback city,” with advanced manufacturing prowess as its defining feature. All these transformations are incomplete but they are certainly ongoing, and the communities involved have a clear way to describe them.
One of the speakers at the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum was Julie Brown, director of advanced learning for the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. She talked about the importance of prospects hearing the same message when they meet with different stakeholders in a community – local government, schools, business leaders, the works: “What impresses them, they go to different places, they hear the same elevator pitch,” she said.
That reminds me of when I was with The Roanoke Times, back when it was still owned by Norfolk-based Landmark Communications. At the time there was a corporate executive who said he wanted everyone to know the company’s mission statement so well that if he encountered someone in the elevator and asked them to recite it, they could. He was also the type who would do such a thing – although I was never called upon to deliver such a recitation.
All this prompts four thoughts and two questions, which I hope might be useful.
- These communities with a “big theory” aren’t betting on a single company, they’re betting on a whole cluster. I referenced Volvo in Pulaski earlier but the transportation cluster in the New River Valley is a whole lot bigger than that. It involves a whole network of suppliers, often several counties away. It involves the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the second biggest in the country. It involves startups such as Torc Robotics, now part of Daimler. It’s not even confined to vehicles with wheels: Google’s Wing has made the New River Valley a test site for commercial drone deliveries.
2. These clusters have grown up organically. There was never a referendum where people voted for this cluster over that cluster. Nor was there some secret cabal at the country club that decided these things. They just happened. Volvo’s predecessor, White Motor Co., first located in Pulaski County in 1974. Many things have spun out of Virginia Tech being a top-flight engineering school. (Thought experiment: Try to envision this transportation cluster without Virginia Tech. You can’t.) Likewise, the life sciences cluster in the Roanoke Valley wouldn’t have happened without Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic. If the former Roanoke Memorial Hospital had decided years ago to sell itself off to some out-of-town chain, then this probably wouldn’t have happened. Having a Roanoke-based hospital system to join forces with Tech has been key. (Disclosure: Carilion is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions. See our policy. You can be a donor, too.) Silicon Valley didn’t become Silicon Valley out of nothing; it partly grew out of the region’s prior expertise in military research into communications, which, in turn, grew out of the organic resource of a naval base.
The congressman from Silicon Valley will be in Blacksburg Thursday, June 9, as part of the Cardinal News speaker series. Rep. Ro Khanna makes the case that the nation’s technology sector should be more widely distributed. He’ll be speaking about how smaller communities can develop a tech sector. The event is free but registered is required; for details, including how to register, see here.
- Intentionality matters. This seems to contradict point two, and, in a way, it does. There was obviously an intentional decision to build a medical school and research institute in Roanoke – although that decision was enabled by some organic factors – Carilion was based there and Virginia Tech was nearby. There was some intentionality in Danville, too – the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research was founded in 2002 for the specific purpose of helping Danville build a new economy. The focus on advanced manufacturing, though, was not something plucked out of the air. It built on some of Danville’s existing strengths. So intentionality that builds on organic conditions seems to be the key. That’s why I’m so bullish on some of the things the InvestSWVA economic development group is doing. For instance, it’s trying to position Southwest Virginia to grab a piece of the manufacturing supply chain for the wind industry. That’s not as preposterous as it sounds. Southwest Virginia already has expertise in energy; who says that expertise has to be confined to coal? The coal industry also employed lots of skilled workers in things like electrical work and machining. Those seem easily transferable to building parts of wind turbines. Somebody somewhere is going to get the wind industry supply chain; why not Southwest Virginia? It’s like the quote attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
- Reinventing an economy is a generational enterprise. The railroad headquarters left Roanoke in 1982. Roanoke spent much of the ’80s and ’90s in a kind of daze, trying to figure what kind of town it was if it wasn’t a railroad town anymore. Politicians argued back and forth. There was lots of turnover on the city council, a reflection of a citizenry at odds with itself. During the decade that Darlene Burcham was city manager (1999 to 2009), she worked under three different mayors and 20 different council members. I’m not one who believes that frequent turnover in office is always a good thing: There’s something to be said for stability and consistency so that governments can make long-term decisions – and stick to them. Roanoke couldn’t seem to decide about some basic things, such as whether to keep or tear down the dilapidated Victory Stadium, and where to put a new amphitheater. And that was just one locality: Roanoke city and Roanoke County seemed perpetually at odds, over one thing or another.
Eventually, all that changed. It’s hard to point to any one thing that made it change. Some of those decisions got made, for better or for worse. Some politicians retired, or were retired, and a new generation came to power. There’s now been remarkable quietude in the city’s politics. The city went a decade – 2008 to 2018 – without an incumbent losing. Some retired but were replaced by newcomers who shared their general outlook. Incumbent Ray Ferris broke that string when he lost in 2018, but the city has now gone 12 years with just a single incumbent losing, which seems unusual.
Perhaps most importantly, Roanoke and Roanoke County eventually realized that their competition wasn’t on the other side of Peters Creek Road, it was on the other side of the world. Roanoke and Roanoke County have very different politics – the city is usually 60% Democratic, the county is 60% or more Republican – but they’ve found ways to work together on some important projects, such as a large-acreage business park that’s owned by not just two but three (with Salem) localities. Every locality used to want to have its own thing – now there’s a regional water system, a regional airport, regional lots of things. Regionalism now seems the default. And that regionalism now extends beyond the Roanoke Valley; the Roanoke and New River valleys are collaborating life sciences labs.
None of that, in and of itself, creates a new economy, but it has created a very different political environment that I’m sure the business community appreciates. (The folks in Pound should take note of all this.) The big economic change has been this: Two decades ago, the land along the Roanoke River was an industrial brownfield. Now it’s home to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. The city now has a scientific complex pulling in $180 million of research spending – and starting to spin off new companies as a result. I hate to sound like a cheerleader – it ruins my reputation as a cynical journalist – but it’s not hard to look at Roanoke and see the start of something big. It’s also taken 20 to 40 years just to get to this point. Ferris, the former city councilman, used to talk about “cathedral-building” – how the great cathedrals of Europe took generations to build. So do cities.
Roanoke isn’t unusual, either. Danville is another good example: That city hit bottom in 2000. We’re now two decades plus two years on from that event, and 20 years since the founding of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. We all want solutions quickly but they don’t happen that way. That brings me to my two questions:
- What about communities that don’t have a big economic theory? Just because I haven’t mentioned a community doesn’t mean it doesn’t have such a big, overarching goal, so the absence of a mention doesn’t mean the absence of a plan. That said, I do see some communities around Southwest and Southside that don’t seem to have such a plan. I wonder what will happen to them? I’m reluctant to name names – at least right now – but ideally residents there can figure things out on their own. Can they recite what their community’s mission statement is – a metaphorical mission statement, at least? If they can’t, whose fault is that? Is that the fault of local government for not articulating such a message? Or is it the fault of citizens for not paying attention? Or is it their fault for not voting in more forward-looking local officials?
- Does every community need a big economic theory? That seems a good question. (Glad I asked!) I suppose the best answer is, if your community leaves things to chance, then chance is what you get. Are you OK with that?