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Sunday, June 23, 2013
“We’re from Pittsburgh,” said one of the men at the restaurant table next to me.
“Welcome to Roanoke,” I replied.
“Thanks. Glad to discover the lost colony!”
That recent exchange reminded me of when we moved here 15 years ago, when many friends thought we were moving to Roanoke Island or Roanoke Rapids. How could this area be such a secret when similarly sized mountain cities like Asheville, N.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn., were better known? A five-minute drive from our new house took us downtown, with museums, restaurants and performing arts, while a five-minute walk took us to a trail to mountain hiking. Nearby was a baseball stadium in Salem with a mountain range as the backdrop for soaring home runs, Floyd with its music and crafts, the Blue Ridge Parkway with its Peaks of Otter, and Blacksburg with all that a university town has to offer.
I learned that a major reason for Roanoke’s lack of visibility was lack of regional marketing. Salem, Roanoke and Blacksburg have more to offer together than apart, yet too often, they seem to compete against each other. This is true of municipal councils and staff, the multiple chambers of commerce and varied arts organizations.
Limited resources for branding and marketing the region are further strained by division among entities with duplication of services. Embarrassing public bickering within city councils doesn’t help. The lack of coordination has kept our region from reaching its potential in attracting visitors and businesses. With traffic in and out of Roanoke restrained, flights at our regional airport have been cut back, making access more difficult and the area less business-friendly.
Ten years ago, I was new to the Mill Mountain Theatre board and saw how arts, sports and outdoor organizations tried to handle regional promotion in isolation from each other. Regional marketing almost became my pet cause, but my attention was diverted when Mill Mountain Theatre’s near collapse and subsequent re-emergence consumed available time and energy.
When I saw that The Roanoke Times was hosting an “Economic Development and the Arts” symposium, I went to see if progress has been made. I was not alone. The banquet room at Hotel Roanoke was so full, I had to sit behind a breakfast bar. Despite the distracting smell of bacon, I enjoyed a panel discussion by representatives of government, arts and economic development.
Much of the panel’s focus was on the need for arts organizations to be more fiscally efficient. Having seen Mill Mountain Theatre struggle when it had unsustainable overhead expenses, I certainly agreed. Yet, what about the inefficiency of regional marketing by the kinds of entities the panel represented? During Q & A, I asked if progress has been made.
I was encouraged by what I learned then and later. The good news begins with local government councils working more cooperatively among themselves and with each other. The Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, through partnerships with the local governments and the business community, provides information on accommodations, events, dining and recreation to the business and leisure traveler. The CVB is promoting a regional brand: Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
This spring, Salem, Roanoke and Roanoke County increased their lodging tax rates and dedicated a fixed percentage to the CVB to market the region. The overall budget for regional promotion grew this year from $1.3 million to $2.3 million.
Regional cooperation is growing beyond marketing. Sharing water resources, partnering in medical services and research, and widening the Interstate 81 corridor are examples of rapidly multiplying ties binding the Roanoke Valley and the New River Valley. Perhaps the best symbol of a shared regional identity is the recent $13 million state grant that will link greenways. Salem and Roanoke, once separated, now will be joined by a symbolic green cord.
Further progress is needed. The marketing budget for the region still falls $4.5 million short of Asheville, which has so successfully marketed itself. More needs to be done to help potential and actual visitors know exactly what is available at any given time in regard to sports, the arts, special events and outdoor recreation.
Regional cooperation cannot be a pleasant passing season. We who live in this area should demand that regional cooperation continue and then support progress through our own participation. Knowing that the economic health of the region is at stake, let’s not regress to intra-squad competitions within the region when a much bigger game must be played. The brightest future for quality of life in our valley is with Virginia’s Blue Ridge becoming known as one of the best places in the nation to visit, live, work, serve and raise children.
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