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Cyclists pedal along the newly-completed Garden City Greenway in Roanoke in January. A new study benchmarks Roanoke against five peer cities when it comes to outdoor amenities. Roanoke ranked second in greenways behind Boulder, Colorado, but the study notes that Boulder is extending its greenways at a faster pace than Roanoke is. Boulder is also adding cycling events at a faster rate than Roanoke. Our editorial at left takes a deeper look at the study and how it ultimately ranked Roanoke.

We’re at the end the school year, which means a lot of people are wondering about their grades.

Just as students focus on pulling up their grade point average, so, too, do communities — figuratively speaking, that is.

In the case of the Roanoke Valley, we now have in hand a study produced by the Roanoke Outside Foundation, an offshoot of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, the main economic development agency for the region stretching from Alleghany County to Franklin County. Think of this as a grading exercise. For the past decade or so, the partnership has been “re-branding” the region, pitching us to both potential employers and potential residents as an outdoors-oriented community. More accurately, a hip, outdoors-oriented community. So, how are we doing?

The foundation conducted one benchmarking study in 2012, so we can now measure ourselves two ways — both against where we were then and how we stand today against five peer cities. Those five: Asheville, North Carolina; Boulder, Colorado; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Greenville, South Carolina and Portland, Maine. So let’s check our grades. The study covers 18 different categories — with grades in each one — before it finally adds them up into an overall score. We won’t cover all of those. Some, measuring things like the miles of major rivers or square miles of lakes, don’t really change. Others, though, do —or can — and that’s where public policy comes into play:

n Outdoor amenities. This includes things such as dog parks, greenways, rivers, lakes, wilderness areas and such. In 2012, we ranked a close second behind Asheville. In 2018, we were once again a close second behind Asheville. They aren’t making rivers and lakes every day but some things do change — dog parks get built, greenways get extended. On that front, Roanoke has been doing well, but others have been doing better.

n Miles of greenway. One of the biggest success stories in the Roanoke Valley over the past few decades — change comes slowly —has been the greenway system. (Same for the New River Valley, too, but it’s not part of this study.) Until the early 1990s, the greenway simply didn’t exist. Now it’s one of our best amenities, even though it still isn’t finished. “Finished,” however, is a relative concept. Last year, Montgomery County supervisors chairman Chris Tuck proposed that the greenways in the Roanoke Valley and New River Valley be linked together in a grand trail system that would stretch from Greenfield in Botetourt County to Galax. That’s a decades-long goal, but it’s entirely possible.

The greenways measure is particularly telling. In 2012, we had 23 miles of greenway. By 2018, we had 32. Each year we add a little bit more. Last month it was announced that Roanoke County has been offered 253 acres of land that would allow the greenway system to be connected to the trails across the Carvins Cove Natural Reserve. That’s “only” two miles of trail, but represents a kind of “golden spike,” connecting the urban trail system with Carvins Cove.

As greenway systems go, we’re in a good place. In 2012, we ranked second only to Boulder in the benchmarking. This time, we’re still second to Boulder. On the other hand, the gap between the two cities is growing, because the Colorado city is adding greenways at a faster rate than we are. We added nine miles; Boulder added 13.

n Running events. In 2012, Roanoke had four major running events within 50 miles. Last year we had six. Once again, though, others were adding events at a faster rate. Boulder now has nine. The benchmarking study sorts things out on a per capita basis to account for population difference. In 2012, Roanoke ranked first for running events. Now we’re second behind Boulder, both on a per capita basis and a raw number basis.

n Cycling events. You don’t even want to know this one. Or maybe you do. In 2012, we had 10. Today, we still have 10. Back then, Boulder had 24. Now it has 71. We don’t know what’s happening in Boulder, but something is happening. Basically, Boulder is making things happen — adding both infrastructure (greenway miles) and creating events.

n Diversity of amenities. So far, we’ve focused on categories where Roanoke, despite all its efforts, is falling behind relatively speaking — partly because we want to call attention to those things that need attention. On the other hand, this study (like the one before it) highlights some of our fundamental strengths. Other peer cities might have their strengths in particular categories — we’ve just seen some of Boulder’s — but one of Roanoke’s strengths comes under the less-than-sexy heading of “diversity of amenities.” Other than beaches, there are a lot of different outdoors-related things to do around here. That’s why Roanoke ranked first in 2012, and still ranks first. These are strengths to trade on, and build on.

n Health-related scores. While we may be pitching ourselves as an outdoors-oriented community, and clearly a lot of people are outdoors-oriented, not everyone is and it shows. Of the six places measured, Roanoke ranked last for exercise. You might even say dead last. You won’t be surprised to learn that Boulder, with all those trails and running and cycling events, was first. We’re also overweight, ranking fourth out of six on obesity. First place? Yeah, Boulder. We’re also still smoking too much, ranking third out of six. First? Come on, you know.

n Our overall score. When you add up all these scores, we do much better than our abbreviated account makes us seem. In 2012, we ranked third out of six. In 2018, we were still third. The real change is who finished first. In 2012, it was Portland, followed by Asheville and then Roanoke. In 2018, it was — get ready for it — Boulder, followed by Asheville and then Roanoke. There’s a lesson there. Things change. Both ways. Portland has seen its number of cycling events fall, for instance. It’s added barely a mile of greenways. Boulder, meanwhile, has been doing all that and Roanoke’s been doing some of that.

There’s no real blue ribbon to be awarded here — this is a study, not an official ranking. But it does suggest that if Roanoke really wants to build on its outdoors reputation, there are some things that we ought to be doing, and perhaps doing “more aggressively,” to use this report’s language.

As far as grades go, there’s really only one grade that all these communities get, no matter where they rank: Incomplete.

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