The Roanoke Valley. Courtesy of the Roanoke Regional Partnership.

There is much discussion these days about talent, workforce, population growth, migration, and the economy. These factors are inextricably linked as the region, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and our nation adapt to a new economic reality set into motion prior to, but greatly accelerated by, the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Recent Cardinal News coverage on migration and population growth has been beneficial in highlighting some of the dynamics driving population changes.  It is important to consider the longer-term trends as well as the larger context at the regional and state level – after all, businesses and consumers make decisions that cross local government boundaries and regions are functional economies defined by real economic relationships.  Coverage, for instance, has recently focused in on a single year of IRS migration data and in some instances at the locality level.  Other data are more comprehensive in scope and descriptive of trend direction.  I am happy to report the region is seeing net positive in-migration, even as the state overall sees more people moving out.

Mark Lautman’s book When the Boomers Bail: A Community and Economic Survival Guide (which I highly recommend for those who lead economic development strategies and for those who comment on them) predicted a generational shift in the workforce that would lead to widespread labor shortages roughly a decade ago. COVID simply accelerated a generational shift that was already well underway.

It seems almost daily we hear news about businesses being unable to fill positions, and the same is heard nationally and even globally among developed countries. The problem seems to cut across all industries, though the pain points are stronger for some rather than others. 

Where does that leave us in the Roanoke Region?

The good news is the Roanoke Region is actually better positioned than some areas of the country for a few important reasons – the region is a great place to live, work is being done to make it even better, and there is a trend of moving from large metros to smaller/mid-size metros. When it comes to migration, more people are moving in than moving out.  

“Great place to live.” Doesn’t everyone say that about their hometown?  Yes, probably – but it’s true.  Numbers don’t lie, and we have third-party validation to back it up.  Not only do we have livability accolades from Outside magazine, Men’s Journal, Runner’s World and more, data show new residents are choosing the region even as the Commonwealth has started to see outmigration (people moving away) on a net basis, largely driven by net losses in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Of course, there are underlying and complicated dynamics that shape migration.  Housing, for instance, is one of the key variables that directly impacts a region’s ability to attract in-migrants (people moving here). Housing inventories have been very low in recent years, another national phenomenon driven by reduced building activity following the Great Recession. For the market to grow, there must be more housing choices in a range of prices and settings.  

New home construction is a sign of migration and population growth that is yet to occur. And the signs of new housing development abound throughout the entire region. 

Moody’s Economy tracks housing permits and provides projections for the region through 2027.  Moody’s data show that building activity is accelerating and is expected to remain at a level roughly twice that seen in the pre-COVID years. The market is responding to demand, which is very encouraging and a sign of growth to come. This is a precondition to – and a sign of – the type of increasing migration growth we all want to see occur.

There is a “stickiness” to the region, a term coined by the Knight Foundation in its Soul of the Community study, that many have worked to foster. Intentional investments in a regional outdoor and livability strategy continue to pay off. The public and private sectors together have done a phenomenal job supporting livability investments in outdoor infrastructure, arts and culture, and in the redevelopment of our downtowns and village centers. These actions spurred on new business creation of the type that fuels community connection – restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, etc.  

But our work is far from done. The public and private sectors must continue to pull together to maintain our regional momentum. For instance: 

  • Our livability advantages require investment to maintain our beautiful assets.  Investment is needed also to develop new assets to remain fresh and relevant and to increase the region’s attractiveness to talent.
  • State and local governments must consider policies to encourage housing development that preserve and enhance community character as well as provide a range of housing choices.
  • Local programs to encourage neighborhood revitalization and investment can revitalize areas and contribute to growth and housing choices.
  • Education and workforce partners must continually evolve in ensuring maximum access and inclusiveness to training and educational opportunities, as our region cannot afford to fail when it comes to fully activating every member or potential member of the workforce.  
  • Economic developers must maintain strong relationships with private industry to understand the talent needs, provide that intelligence to regional workforce partners, and make connections with higher education.

The groundwork must be laid. Additionally, there are messages to be conveyed to audiences both internal and external to the region. Marketing to be done. This is where the Roanoke Regional Partnership comes in, together with its partners.

The Roanoke Regional Partnership is implementing several strategies as a part of the Thrive 2027 strategic plan aimed at attracting talent – younger and diverse populations, remote workers, entrepreneurs, new graduates, etc. The Partnership also is working to support its partners in workforce development by working on a joint strategy with the Greater Roanoke Workforce Development Board to increase career awareness, communicate the opportunities surrounding career pathways, and launch a regional web-based talent portal.

This is all in addition to continued efforts to attract new businesses, working with local governments on business retention and expansion opportunities, and developing regional real estate strategies in response to current industry demand.  

These strategies are all a part of the overall picture and are vitally important for growth. Even in 2011, Lautman prophesied the coming competition for talent. The good news is that the Roanoke Region is well positioned and is already net positive when it comes to attracting new residents, and, with housing development occurring at record levels, there is reason to be bullish on the region’s future prospects when it comes to migration, talent, and growth.  

With carefully cultivated strategies, coordinated action and partnership between the public and private sector, and additional investment, the region will succeed and thrive.

John Hull

Hull is executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership. The Partnership, founded in 1983, is the public-private economic development marketing and strategy organization supported by Alleghany,...