By William Skaff
Skaff is a retired director of policy analysis, Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C. He lives in Roanoke County.
Roanoke County’s unelected government officials have at least 12 future town centers in mind, including Reimagine 419 (“Why 419 plan matters,” Aug. 26 editorial). The intention is clear: transform the county into a predominantly urban area, as these mini-cities will only expand over time. Whereas Roanoke City’s Design 79 is intended to revitalize a deteriorating city into a vibrant city, by contrast, Reimagine 419 is intended to convert a thriving rural area into a city. This is the difference, and this is the point. We choose to live in the county precisely because it is not a city.
There is little evidence of community support in the county for Reimagine 419. Despite the pretense of community involvement, 150 people attending meetings and 350 people filling out a survey are hardly a majority, when the impacted population is more than 64,000 people, according to the Reimagine 419 Plan itself. The county made no attempt to conduct a statistically valid survey of these residents.
In fact, independent surveys of Roanoke Valley residents and visitors overwhelmingly favor the opposite of Reimagine 419, specifically, the rustic character of Roanoke County — a mix of built and natural environments where the natural predominates.
In June 2018, The Roanoker magazine published the results of its readership survey, “Best of Roanoke.” The Gold answer for “Best Reason to Live in the Roanoke Valley” is “The Mountains, Outdoors and Scenery.”
Similarly, in March 2018, Expedia posted on its Web site “Americans Pick Their Favorite Destinations” travel survey. Roanoke was Number 11 in the top 25 favorite medium and small towns. Roanoke is favored as “a rustic getaway tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Roanoke County is already the new economy, not the old. Service industries predominate, including health care, education, professional, scientific, technology, finance and insurance. Roanoke County is a self-sustaining economic system of considerable vitality. If growth is measured in terms of wealth generation, then we are already growing.
If the county’s rustic character is preserved, it will always offer a desirable retreat from denser parts of the state, exactly what will attract people and businesses in the future. The independent surveys prove this.
Actual behavior of young people and established white collar workers indicates that they are, in fact, quite mobile and seek a variety of attractions that these high-density developments simply cannot provide. How much time do you think residents are going to spend walking the streets of the Tanglewood Mall parking lot to stare into a Starbucks window? Or, is the Berglund Center for the Performing Arts and the Taubman Art Museum going to move to Tanglewood Mall?
Roanoke County has no shortcoming that is resulting in an aging population. The Baby Boom Generation has caused a demographic ripple that moves through age spans over time. This is not a detriment, but an asset: because older generations have completed their earning years, they have more money to spend, invest, and donate than younger generations.
Moreover, despite deaths, the population of Roanoke County has remained stable over the past 10 years. As you note, people are moving to the County every year to make up the difference. And isn’t this the point: the County is already attracting new residents just the way it is — because it is rustic, not urban.
If Roanoke County remains rustic, it will offer an attractive alternative to the employees of the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center and related businesses, instead of more of the same — urban density, with its high taxes, sporadic and dwindling services, and high crime. The County will easily attract its share of these employees because 419 and its environs will not resemble Roanoke City.
Yes, as you observe, we live in a free market economy, which is economic democracy. The market determines what is built, and the people are the market. They vote with their dollars. Those living here and moving here will choose what kind of housing they want.
In contrast, the entire planning and implementation process of the town centers resembles command-control economics, whereby bureaucrats force upon us their idea of what is good for us. There is a difference between comprehensive planning—useful to plan for future infrastructure needs, and central planning—imposing on residents an environment that they do not want.
Planners assume that urbanization equals progress. True progress is preserving quality of life while the population and the built environment increase. People living in a particular area determine quality of life — for us, rustic, as The Roanoker magazine and Expedia surveys demonstrate.