The main building at the old American Viscose plant, showing three of the site's four smokestacks. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
The main building at the old American Viscose plant, showing three of the site's four smokestacks. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

We think of Roanoke as a railroad town but that’s only partially true. For much of its history, the city was both a railroad town and a factory town – the main factory in question being American Viscose, aka “the silk mill,” which was hailed as the largest rayon factory in the world.

At its height in the 1920s and ’30s, the plant employed 5,500 people (in a city of just under 70,000 then), a figure that rivaled the number working for the railroad. The American Viscose plant in the southeastern part of the city operated as its own community – with a gymnasium, dining halls and even dormitories to house the young, single women who came from surrounding rural communities to work there.

The plant’s abrupt closure in 1958 – by then rayon was being supplanted by nylon, acrylics and polyester – came as a shock to the community that thought big employers would last forever. “It was the most letdown thing that ever happened to Southeast, to tell you the truth about it,” one Viscose retiree told The Roanoke Times in 1998.  “It led people to believe that you couldn’t depend on a big company, that they were just as likely to terminate as a small company, that even if they were pretty good size, it didn’t really mean that much. The loss of it was great.”

This was the beginning of a post-industrial era, although no one would have imagined calling it that then. It was also just one of two economic shocks in the late ’50s that rattled Roanoke’s confidence and set the city on a new economic trajectory. The other: Norfolk & Western announced it would switch from coal-burning steam engines to diesel locomotives, which eliminated thousands of jobs systemwide. Just like that, one big pillar of the Roanoke economy was gone and the other was shrunk.

The collective community response was a determination to diversify the valley’s economy, a process that continues some six decades later. One part of that response: Some of Roanoke’s leading families joined together to form the generically named Industrial Development and Investment Company, which bought the old Viscose plant with hopes of converting it into some other industrial use.

That never really happened, at least in a large-scale way. For all my time in the Roanoke Valley – a span now measured by decades – the Viscose plant with its four giant smokestacks and broken windows has loomed as a relic of a bygone era. Tucked away on what most Roanokers would consider the back side of Mill Mountain, away from main thoroughfares, the plant is “hidden in plain sight,” says developer Ed Walker. It’s possible to live in Roanoke and never have any reason to drive down Ninth Street or Riverland Road to pass by this old industrial hulk. It’s almost as if the Viscose plant were an embarrassment, something never discussed in polite society.

That’s why Tuesday’s announcement that Walker is buying the property with plans to redevelop the site is such a shock. I’ll confess that when City Manager Bob Cowell briefed me on the plans, my reaction was to utter a not-very-literary “Holy crap!”

We live in an era where developers delight in rehabilitating old buildings into new uses (Walker being one of the first and most prominent such developers in this part of the state), but I, like many in the Roanoke Valley, always just assumed that the Viscose plant was beyond all hope. Too big to be economically practical. Too contaminated with environmental problems to be worth tackling. Too out-of-the-way to be marketable.

Now, suddenly, all those assumptions look wrong – and the implications are enormous. Those implications also extend beyond Roanoke. The western part of the state has been the hardest hit by the economic transformations that have seen traditional employers decline or sometimes die altogether. Now we’re witnessing a kind of a renaissance, as signature properties that once were considered liabilities are now being remade into assets.

In Danville, the so-called “white mill” of Dan River Fabrics – which in 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart used as a backdrop to bemoan the city’s decline – is being transformed into an $85 million housing and commercial project. (Stewart, for the record, was about two decades too late. Danville’s turnaround is one of the most remarkable comebacks around.)

In Amherst County, the shuttered Central Virginia Training Center site that overlooks downtown Lynchburg will soon go on the market as a developable property – thanks to state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, persuading the General Assembly to appropriate $25 million to pay off the bonds.

In Salem, the old Valleydale meatpacking plant is being turned into housing – the first new apartment construction in the city since 1986.

In Pulaski, the old General Chemical building is being turned into a brewery. In the Botetourt County town of Buchanan, the old Groendyk manufacturing plant is being turned into a mixed-use property with housing and retail. I could go on and on. In the coming years, all these communities will look completely different.

This is the larger context that the redevelopment of the old American Viscose plant into Riverdale – the historic name for that part of Roanoke – fits into.

Walker, who is responsible for many of the biggest rehab projects in Roanoke, Salem, and Danville, has had his eyes on this property for a long time. “To most people, it’s a behemoth and people’s thoughts are negative,” he says. “To me, it’s a dream come true to be able to spend decades tinkering with this.”

It’s also been a property that’s been unavailable because the owners weren’t interested in selling. I said that the Viscose plant was never reborn as a manufacturing facility and that’s true. The main building, the one with twin smokestacks, looks as if it’s been unattended since 1958, even though part of it is occupied. But the other buildings are not completely vacant – something that may come as a surprise to many, and certainly came as a surprise to me when I toured it recently. The site actually teems with activity; there are said to be 63 tenants in the sprawling complex, a sort of makeshift “maker space” to use the modern term. Those tenants are an eclectic mix, ranging from artists with studios and the Star City School of Ballet to sheet metal shops and welding shops – and junkyards, lots of junkyards, both official and unofficial. Walker’s not sure how many junked vehicles are on the property – certainly hundreds, maybe in the thousands. This is a place where people bring their wrecks and simply abandon them because the whole place has an abandoned, post-apocalyptic feel about it. A handmade sign points to Roanoke Airsoft. A concrete company that makes burial vaults operates out of one building; vaults are scattered outside. Two giant dinosaurs (models, not the real thing) inexplicably stand guard outside one building, the “Art Rat” mascot from the old Marginal Arts Festival is outside another. Blue Ridge Nightmares, the annual haunted houses run by the Center in the Square arts complex, appropriately operates out of here.

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Through the years, Walker has periodically checked in with the owners to gauge their interest in selling; the answer was always no. The bottom line really is a bottom line: Despite its vacant appearance, the property has generated revenue for its owners. Despite those repeated rebuffs, the idea of doing something with the Viscose plant always intrigued Walker. One corner piece of the property, with a five-story building, was cleaved off years ago. When it came on the market in 2018, Walker bought it – although he could never figure out what to do with the structure because it would be hard to market a rehabbed building that’s literally adjacent to what looks like a junkyard.

In November, Walker made one of his periodic check-ins with Bill Elliot, chairman of the ownership group. This time the answer wasn’t no. Over time, the owners have aged and sometimes passed on. Some heirs are as far away as Wyoming and may never have even seen the place. Over time, too, properties deteriorate and what had been steady if unspectacular income has a way of turning into unexpected expenses. Walker estimates that the roof work needed to restore the buildings could cost at least $5 million, maybe $10 million. The property owners’ newfound interest in selling set off a fast-paced search for funding and a series of negotiations with city officials that culminated Tuesday night with the Roanoke City Council approving a performance agreement and a deal whereby the city’s Economic Development Authority will issue a $10 million loan. (For the business details, see the story by Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel.)

Walker is paying $8 million for the property but says it’s unclear what it’s really worth. Some have told him the site is worth much more than that; others have told him that, because of all the work required, the site may actually have negative value. No bank would dare issue loans on such a problematic property. For the city, though, this seems an easy deal: If nothing happens, the property would only deteriorate further, and possibly get chopped up into smaller parcels that would make it difficult if not impossible for future developers to reassemble. This seems a very reasonable gamble to clean up the property, if nothing else. Cowell says the whole place only generates $100,000 in real estate taxes each year. If it gets redeveloped, it could generate many times more.

Walker’s track record in Roanoke and elsewhere is taking old buildings and making them usable again, although this project is far bigger than anything else he’s tackled. He’s not even sure how many acres are involved until surveys are complete – anywhere from 75 to 100 acres. Nor is he sure how many buildings are on the property. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which in 2019 added American Viscose to the Virginia Landmarks Register, counts 18 “contributing industrial buildings” although “contributing” seems the key word. The place has lots of little structures here and there.

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The site is laid out much like the small community it once was, with a network of roads with such functional names as Technical Street, Service Avenue, Power Street and Production Street. The buildings look quite sturdy – other than those troublesome roofs and broken windows. After seeing the place close up, it’s easy for me to imagine the place as its own distinct neighborhood – after a lot of cleanup and a lot of investment, of course.

And that’s the real key here. This isn’t simply a building rehab; this is the creation of an entirely new neighborhood in Roanoke. For comparison purposes, the site is about 60% the size of Roanoke’s downtown. It’s also just 1.1 miles from Carilion Clinic and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

That complex – the heart of Roanoke’s emerging life sciences sector – is the key to the project’s success, Walker says. The Valleydale project in Salem (another Walker project) will add 337 units. A Lynchburg developer has proposed a 768-unit apartment complex in the northeastern part of the city. Who knows how many units might get developed in Riverdale? Is there really a market for all that housing in the Roanoke Valley, a community of historically slow population growth? “The data is encouraging, and a lot of it has to do with Carilion,” he says. He’s betting on exponential growth in that life sciences sector, both from the hospital and startups spinning out of the research institute. The vacancy rate at the River House, the former ice house in the Wasena neighborhood that he redeveloped, is 0.43%, he said. Many tenants bike to work at Carilion on the greenway. Riverdale is exactly the same distance away, just in the opposite direction. If you want to use a single building to tell the story of how Roanoke’s economy is changing, you could tell it through that former ice house. Maybe someday you could tell it through the Viscose plant.

For now, Walker has no master plan for the property – that and a cleanup are the first priorities. (He’s budgeted $1.8 million for that but says the costs may run much higher.) All Walker knows is he wants it to be the ultimate mixed-used site – he sees some new construction for housing, some existing buildings rehabbed for housing and retail. He wants to keep most of the business tenants; the junkyards will have to go but he thinks the welding shops and sheet metal shops would be fascinating parts of a commercial neighborhood. He wants a recreation component that would connect with the Roanoke River Greenway, which runs along the perimeter of the property, and the Valley AFC soccer fields just north of the site.

The cleanup could come fast; a lot of tow truck drivers are likely to pocket a lot of money over the coming year hauling away all those junked vehicles. The master plan should be done by year’s end. The actual development might take 17 years. If it plays out as envisioned, “it really could be as significant as what we’ve seen in downtown,” Cowell says. More big picture: The med school and research institute and surrounding growth is all happening on a former industrial brownfield. If Riverdale is developed into an all-new neighborhood that plays off that life sciences sector, it will also emerge from a former industrial brownfield. In many ways, Roanoke is building an entirely new economy out of the ruins of the old one.

Dwayne Yancey

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