Forty years ago, Roanoke was engaged in a planning process called “Design ’79” that was intended to change the direction of a downtown that had deteriorated to what one civic leader at the time called “a frightening point.” Out of that sprang a downtown revival that has led to the vital — but still unfinished — downtown that we have today.
Last month, the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors approved a 20-year-plan to “Reimagine 419” — specifically the stretch of Virginia 419 around Tanglewood Mall. If it comes to pass, this could do for that part of Roanoke County what Design ’79 did for downtown Roanoke.
The supervisors, to their credit, have more vision than some of their constituents. Some of the public comments on the 419 plan show a basic lack of understanding of what the problem is. “Leave Tanglewood alone; we aren’t Northern Virginia,” one person said.
To be fair, comments such are those were in the minority. Most of those who commented were quite enthusiastic about the plan — which calls for converting the Tanglewood area into a “town center” with high-rise residential units and related business. For the benefit of those who are still in the “leave Tanglewood alone” category, let’s take a big-picture look at what the problem is, and why Reimagine 419 could be part of the solution.
n The Roanoke Valley is trying to build a new economy. This isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially at a time when the national economy is splitting in two — a relative handful of communities that are growing jobs and all the rest who are losing them. Economists call this “the great divergence.” Here’s the statistic that matters most: Over twenty years, two-thirds of the localities in the country have lost jobs — even though the nation as a whole has gained more jobs. The challenge for small metros such as ours is to make sure we’re on the plus side of that divergence. How can we do this? Again, big-picture stuff: We need to make sure we have a skilled workforce. The old economy was tied to fix assets — mines, ports, railroads, etc. The new economy is far more mobile — jobs go to where the workers are and workers can go anywhere they want. Things are a bit more complicated than that, but keep in mind why Amazon chose Northern Virginia. It wasn’t because Virginia offered the biggest financial incentives — we didn’t — it was because Northern Virginia offered the biggest labor pool of tech talent (and Virginia promised that Virginia Tech would help create more). All that is a long way of saying: If the Roanoke Valley wants to succeed in the new economy, we need to focus on quality-of-life amenities so that we can attract and retain a work force that companies want. In this particular case, it means more urban-like housing options. As the 419 plan states: “The young, educated workforce [the county] needs to build in order to draw new employers has demonstrated a strong interest in living in vibrant, urban areas, not conventional, drive-everywhere suburbs.”
n That line also highlights another problem Roanoke County is trying to fix: Its population is aging. To be blunt, it’s dying. Deaths outnumber births — and by an alarming rate. Only three other localities in the state have a bigger imbalance of deaths vs. births — Henry County, Danville and Pittsylvania County, none of which are exactly the most inspiring comparisons. (Roanoke County is in no danger of becoming Northern Virginia). The only reason we don’t think of Roanoke County as a dying community is because enough people move in every year to make up the difference. Still, that doesn’t change the underlying fundamentals: The county needs to figure out how to attract younger residents — both for the valley’s larger workforce needs and for its own demographic balance. If younger workers prefer more urban housing, then the county needs to get with the program — which is what the 419 plan does.
n Finally, Roanoke County needs to relieve the tax burden on homeowners. A staggering 87% of the county’s property taxes come from residential properties. It may seem counter-intuitive then to create a plan aimed at attracting more residents to property now owned by commercial interests but (a) a lot of those commercial properties are dying and (b) part of the goal of the town center concept is to create the demand for more businesses so the county can broaden the tax burden.
Here’s the big opportunity: The growth of the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center, and the businesses that are starting to spin out of the research there. This is epicenter of what potentially could be the Roanoke Valley’s version of the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Roanoke is at work promoting an “innovation district” or “innovation corridor” to connect the medical complex with downtown to create a seamless row of development.
But that can run the other way, too, from the medical complex out to Tanglewood. Roanoke County is essentially trying to create its own downtown, one that could be the southern axis of a business and community ecosystem that could be connected to the original downtown with bike trails and greenways. That would require some cooperation with the city — and more spending from the county than supervisors are comfortable with — but there’s no real reason why this couldn’t happen.
Now, for the troublesome details. Just because Roanoke County has approved this plan doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. We live in a free market economy. Government can build infrastructure (those aforementioned bike trails) but it’s not building fancy condos. The properties in question are owned by private businesses. Those owners will have to want to do this. There’s certainly some incentive. In 2000, Tanglewood Mall was sold for $38.7 million. In 2016, it was sold again — for $23.7 million. You don’t need to be an accountant to figure out the math. The current owners presumably like to make money. They will just need to be persuaded — by somebody — that they can make more money with a new town center concept than with an outmoded mall. That’s often easier said than done. It’s always easy from afar to tell somebody else what they should do with their property. In this case, by afar we mean the 525 miles between Tanglewood Mall and its owners in the southern suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. We have lots of properties around the Roanoke Valley owned by local people who haven’t done anything with them. Why should Blackwater Resources care about Roanoke County’s grand vision? So there’s no guarantee this Reimagine 419 will actually happen. But we’d all be better off as a community if it did.