The former American Viscose plant in Roanoke. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
The former American Viscose plant in Roanoke. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

They say never read the comments.

I made the mistake of reading the comments – specifically some of the comments about Tuesday night’s announcement that developer Ed Walker is buying the former American Viscose rayon factory in Roanoke with plans to rehab it into a mixed-use property of residential, commercial and manufacturing.

Most were wildly enthusiastic but a few weren’t. There was one in particular that cries out for commentary – and context.

This was one of the comments someone left on The Roanoke Times’ site: “Are you kidding me? A good industrial area where instead of making a mixed use area, could be developing into an area where good paying jobs could be established. There are other places that would be much more appropriate. Either Walker is the best salesman ever or he has something on the city council members. This is running a neck and neck race with Salem for ignorant projects (their project is the Valleydale site).”

The Valleydale reference is about a former meat-packing factory in Salem that Walker is also rehabbing. (See our previous story on that.) 

I generally abhor getting into an argument with people on social media, but I’m working on the assumption that others may have the same thoughts, so let me address them. At the core of this comment appears to be the belief that both these sites – American Viscose and Valleydale – could be turned back into factories of some sort.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The world has changed. The economy has changed. 

First of all, manufacturing constitutes a far smaller share of the economy than it once did. This seems pretty obvious but apparently it’s not to some. In the 1960s, manufacturing constituted a quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product. In 2019, that fell to 11%. Last year, it was about 12%.

Please, let’s not engage in magical thinking. The old Viscose plant and the old Valleydale plant are never going to be factories again. The Viscose plant has been sitting there since 1958 and nothing ever came to replace it in the six decades since – yet we’re supposed to somehow believe that something still might? (Valleydale closed in 2006, so it’s sat vacant for more than 16 years.)

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard people pine for the good old days without seeming to understand how much the economy has changed. In 2018, U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart went to Danville, stood outside the former Dan River Mills textile plant, and ridiculously declared, “I want to see these mills working again.” Dude, the textile industry is gone and not coming back. We’re not doing anybody any favors to pretend otherwise. 

Yes, there are still factories being built – we had a statewide controversy this week because Gov. Glenn Youngkin nixed the state’s bid for a 2,500-job Ford electric vehicle battery plant out of concern that Ford’s Chinese partner might have ties to the Chinese Communist Party. These new factories, though, aren’t going to old industrial properties. They’re building new facilities full of high-tech equipment; advanced manufacturing is the order of the day. The biggest industrial announcement in the Roanoke Valley in recent years was the Eldor auto parts plant that landed in the Greenfield business park in Botetourt County (roughly 200 jobs so far). Eldor looked at the city – it was eyeing the same property in the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology that the Deschutes Brewery was. It had zero interest in Viscose. Nobody has. Likewise, Danville has become a poster child of a city for its economic turnaround, but those new employers locating there aren’t going to former textile mills, they’re going to places like the Cane Creek Centre business park – or, local officials hope, that Southern Virginia Mega Site that Ford was looking at.

“Speed to market” is the goal these days, meaning companies are looking for sites where they can quickly construct something. That’s why the Southern Virginia Mega Site lost out last year to Georgia for an 8,100-job Hyundai electric vehicle battery plant; the Georgia site was closer to being construction-ready. That’s also why Youngkin has proposed more money for site preparation — just this week he awarded $90 million in grants to 21 sites across the state — so Virginia has more “ready to go” sites. The point is: Companies aren’t looking at rehabbing some former industrial site with who knows what kind of environmental history behind it. They generally want a flat piece of land with all the infrastructure ready to go.

The choice is not to wait for some factory to drop out of the sky into the Viscose plant – or Valleydale, for that matter, because that’s just not going to happen. The choice is whether to do nothing and let those properties deteriorate further, or whether to rehab them into some other use.

Yes, Roanoke just loaned $10 million to a developer, another sore point with some commenters. So? If you want the site cleaned up, you’re going to have to pay somebody. Would taxpayers rather the property just sit there? Right now it’s generating only about $100,000 a year in taxes. Even if Walker does nothing else, he’ll at least get the property tidied up – right now, much of it is simply a junkyard for abandoned vehicles and who knows what else. If his plan comes to full flower, then the city will wind up with a property generating a lot more tax revenue. If you like the idea of teachers and police officers and firefighters getting paid, that’s a good thing. To quote from the news story that Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel wrote about the development: “An economic impact analysis commissioned by the city estimates that the new development could be responsible for almost $66 million in direct and indirect economic impact to the city by 2030, during its first phase of development. By 2040, it estimates the cumulative impact on the city at more than $326 million.” So for $10 million the city might get $326 million of economic activity? Why shouldn’t the city take that bet – especially when the alternative is doing nothing? It’s not as if there are other developers lining up to take on this problematic eyesore of a property.

The other part of the comment that got me started on this dealt with housing – that there are “other places that would be more appropriate.” Where? Roanoke, like many other communities, needs more housing. Some demographic realities: The city’s population is aging. In 1980, the city’s median age was 32.9. By 2021, it was 38.5. An aging population is an economic opportunity if you’re running a nursing home or a funeral service, but it’s a problem if you’re trying to grow your economy or fund city services. To grow your economy, you need several things but one thing you need is a labor pool. A shrinking labor pool is not a good thing; why would companies locate in a place where workers are becoming fewer and fewer? Roanoke, again like many places, needs younger adults – both to fill that work force, and to pay taxes to help support all the services that senior citizens expect.

That’s a very simplified account of how the economy works, but it will suffice for our purposes here today. That’s why for years we’ve seen the city try to create more housing opportunities, going back to the early part of the decade when Darlene Burcham was city manager. More recently, the city has seen a controversy over a proposed housing development on Brandon Avenue. Whether that’s the right place for a development, I don’t know – not my neighborhood – but, demographically speaking, the city needs more housing somewhere. Here’s an opportunity to create an entirely new neighborhood without displacing an existing one – that’s a rare thing. All those people who objected to the Brandon Avenue development ought to be cheering this proposal. If this Riverdale project (as the site will be known) results in housing that gets filled by young adults who otherwise might have wound up some place other than Roanoke, that’s a demographic win – and an economic win – for the city. Same with Valleydale in Salem. Since Walker doesn’t have a master plan yet, we don’t know how housing would get created in Riverdale, but we know his Valleydale project in Salem calls for 337 units. That’s at least 337 new people in Salem – new taxpayers, new customers for businesses, new workers for the local labor force at a time when baby boomers are retiring and employers are struggling to find workers. 

These are the big-picture factors at play here. The redevelopment of Viscose and Valleydale tick off some big boxes for the Roanoke Valley. They clean up run-down properties. They also add more housing; if those units fill up, they help expand both the workforce and the tax base. The notion that those properties would ever again be industrial sites is a fantasy divorced from our present economic reality. 

Once again, we have the remarkable story of Danville to cite as an example: Earlier this month a Wisconsin-based developer started construction on an $85 million project to build 150 apartments plus 550,000 square feet of commercial space. Where is this happening? Why, in that old mill where Stewart once stood. He singled out that building as a sign of the city’s decline; today it’s an example of the city’s rebirth. Same with Viscose and Valleydale.

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Dwayne Yancey

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