Economic development isn’t just about trying to reel in that next big fish anymore.

It’s about housing. It’s about workforce development. It’s about the arts and outdoor recreation.

It’s about creating a community that people want to be a part of.

That is the driving goal that Roanoke County leaders stressed Tuesday during their annual State of the County address.

“In Roanoke County, we need to think more about place-making and building quality of place, not only to attract new corporate investment, but also in support of new population growth,” said Chairwoman Martha Hooker of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors.

In a speech jointly delivered by Hooker and School Board Chairman Jason Moretz, the county offered an update on the slate of projects it’s undertaking to keep pace with a fast-changing world and invited the public to play a part in that work — by serving as student mentors, weighing in on corridor planning initiatives, and helping cultivate that sense of community so vital for localities that hope to grow and thrive.

“When you think about how far we’ve come in 20 years, it’s amazing to consider how far we could go in the next 20 years and what opportunities we might discover along the way,” Moretz said.

This marked the 18th annual State of the County address. Nearly 300 people attended the event that is hosted by the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce and was held this year at the Holiday Inn – Tanglewood.

In their remarks, local leaders cast a wide net as they discussed how the county and the region as a whole were building toward the future.

Highlights included last year’s return of passenger rail to the valley and rising traffic at the airport , investments in new trails and blueway connections , trimming county taxes for small entrepreneurs, and embracing cutting-edge technology like the artificial intelligence robot that the county libraries debuted this fall.

In the schools, Moretz said, educators are focused on hands-on learning opportunities that challenge students to problem solve through creative thinking.

County students have designed and produced their own products. They’ve drawn on their computer game skills to map out historical communities and independently crafted an artificial leg for an endearing pup named Spartacus.

These type of projects demand more than just blindly following instructions out of a book, Moretz noted.

“These students are creating an original design and have to think critically to meet and overcome each challenge,” he said.

“We may never know what opportunities our students will encounter during their lives. What we do know is that we are doing everything we can to prepare these students — your students — for whatever may come their way.”

Both Moretz and Hooker spotlighted the county’s growing student apprenticeship program and urged their audience of business leaders to consider signing onto that initiative to help create more opportunities for career and vocational development.

Other priorities the county is sharpening its focus on include the demand for walkable neighborhoods and unique, modern commercial centers.

New housing options and community gathering places will be key if the county wants to advance, Hooker said.

“We should strive to create walkable and highly mobile neighborhoods, where people want to live, and a community worthy of business investment,” she said.

“These are the things that matter most to our future,” she added later, “the things that are needed to move our community forward.”

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