If you’re in downtown Roanoke today, take a look around and you’ll see something unusual: There’s nothing unusual.
The days leading up to Thanksgiving used to bring a very different feel to downtown. Suddenly, downtown was full of young adults — college students home for the holiday who were out shopping with their families. Or maybe hitting the bars. Or maybe both. Hey, we don’t judge.
Last year, though, we noticed that the days before Thanksgiving didn’t feel all that different. Yes, there were still all those college students, wearing their school sweatshirts and clutching their shopping bags. In the past, it was obvious that the median age of people downtown had suddenly dropped by several decades. Last year, though, the pre-Thanksgiving crowd felt much like any other day of the year downtown. That’s because the demographics of downtown have changed in some very significant — and noticeable — ways.
Next year’s census should bring us some actual statistics to tell us just how much downtown has changed — and, more specifically, just how many people are living downtown. Some estimates range up to 2,000. Is that too high? Or maybe too low? Ideally, the census will tell us. In any case, whatever the number is, it’s a lot higher than it used to be. At one point, the number of people living downtown felt close to zero. Now an entire neighborhood has been created downtown — and many (though not all) of those people living downtown are certainly younger than Roanoke’s median age of 38.4.
It’s the creation of this new neighborhood — with living spaces carved out of formerly vacant office buildings, warehouses and what have you — that helps explain why Roanoke has reversed decades of population decline and is now growing again. Just how much the city’s growing, well, we’ll know for sure next year. But we know the city’s population hit 100,220 in 1980 and then fell to 94,911 by 2000. The 2010 census showed the city growing again — up to 97,920. The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia —the state’s official keeper of demographic data — estimates the city’s population is 100,033, so close to its historic high. Furthermore, the center projects that this growth will continue, albeit slowly. Downtown doesn’t explain all of that, but it explains a big chunk of it. We also know that Roanoke has seen another remarkable demographic turnaround. For decades, Roanoke — like most of the rural counties in this part of the state — saw young adults leave and not come back. That’s now changed. Cooper Center data show that in the five years from 2010 to 2015, Roanoke gained more young adults than it lost in the previous two decades put together — a net of 793 coming in versus a net of 441 going out. The bottom line: Roanoke, for the first time in generations, is experiencing an in-migration of young adults. And get this: Data compiled by the website Apartment List shows Roanoke is attracting millennials at a faster rate than even hipster Portland. Roanoke up 5%. Portland down 13%. Portland is like, so, yesterday.
One more piece of data: Even as the nation ages, Roanoke’s median age is starting to fall. Not by much, mind you. It used to be 38.7— so it’s only down by 0.3. And that’s still higher than the national median of 38.1. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable that it’s coming down at all.
There are lots of reasons for this: A Roanoke economy that is finally starting to figure out the new economy. A generation that has come to prefer urban housing. A generation that also can’t afford to buy houses in the suburbs. The arrival of the medical school and the whole Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center. The growth of the Jefferson College of Health Sciences into what is now Radford University Carilion. Roanoke — a city that once bemoaned the lack of a university in its borders — has finally become a college town, just not a traditional one.
And it shows. You can see it every day downtown. Medical students with their textbooks in the coffee shop. We recently had a chance to check out the bulletin board inside The Ponce De Leon — the 90-unit apartment building that many Roanokers know as the old Crystal Tower office building. There were no fewer than three fliers for competing dog-walking services. Of course, there’s also been such a problem with unscooped doggy-do that many downtown properties now require dog owners to submit their canine’s DNA because somebody — we’re not sure we want to know who — goes around and does DNA testing on unattended dog poop on the sidewalk. This is the new Roanoke.
This may feel like it all happened suddenly, but it didn’t. This year marks 40 years since Design ’79, the innovative community participation project led by then-city manager Bern Ewert that was instrumental in the revival of downtown. In the mid-’70s, downtown was in such sad shape that it was an embarrassment. Arthur Taubman, then chairman of Advance Auto, declared that a “downtown cancer” was eating away the city.
Now, downtown is a point of pride, sometimes maybe a little too much so for some people. Next year, we’ll have city elections — in November, not May, since council members just extended their own terms. There are typically voices in those elections saying the city is paying too much attention to downtown and not enough to “neighborhoods.” Umm, downtown is also a neighborhood. And that complaint misses one essential point: Most of the money going into downtown now is private investment. The city’s big investments — springing out of that Design ’79 — were decades ago. Downtown Roanoke is a classic case of government action (and yes, spending) spurring private investment. It’s also a good example of how policies sometimes take decades to play out — in this case, four decades. Many of the people now living downtown weren’t even born when city officials long since gone made the decisions that now shape their lives. (Here’s where you can ironically say “OK, boomer.”)
Now, for the flip side: The turnaround of downtown Roanoke remains a work in progress. When U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was in Roanoke in June, he told business leaders that “what I did notice when I went around last evening was quite a few empty storefronts, so there’s obviously [a] lot more repair that’s needed.” You could literally see people cringe. He was right, of course, that’s not how we see ourselves. He noticed the empty storefronts. We notice all the young adults who are now walking past them.