A Region on the Rise

(above – An early morning hike on McAfee Knob can provide a breathtaking view of the sunrise. Brent McGuirt Photography – Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge)

Just as Lynchburg has seen major business and tourism growth over the past two decades, Roanoke has also experienced a gentrification that truly transformed the region’s identity. What once existed as a faded Appalachian city riddled with vacant buildings and overgrown railroad tracks is now a budding metropolis flush with opportunity. The Star City has become an incubator for some of the foremost thinkers, creators, crafters and explorers in the western part of the state.

Mountain biking is one of many great experiences visitors can enjoy while visiting Roanoke.
Sam Dean Photography – Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

The rapid growth of Roanoke is most visible in its numbers. In 2017, the city celebrated its seventh consecutive year of increased tourism spending, achieving a whopping $850 million in direct travel expenditures. That same year, Amtrak returned to the urban locality after a nearly 40-year hiatus, thus drawing tens of thousands of visitors and business members to the valley. Today, downtown Roanoke boasts over 900 firms in finance, law, medicine and the like and has achieved its lowest unemployment rate in 20 years. At the crux of Roanoke’s upward momentum is a collection of lifestyle businesses dedicated to solidifying and advancing the city’s status as the premier destination to work, live and visit in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

The influx of business to Roanoke was accelerated by the city’s residential growth in the early 2000s. Local developers breathed new life into historical buildings as they reimagined the empty spaces into luxurious and affordable residences. As a greater number of residents flocked to downtown from surrounding suburbs, the demand for better shops, eateries and recreation heightened. A crop of farm-to-table restaurants and quirky retailers appeared in the city, helping to launch its period of revitalization.

Experiencing this surge of life and business firsthand is Virginia Tech alum, Matthew Sams. Sams joined fellow Hokie and friend Greg Brock in Roanoke in 2012 when they, along with classmate John Cornthwait, became partners of Brock’s three-year-old LLC, Firefli. The digital ad agency launched in the outskirts of downtown in an artsy suburb dubbed Grandin Village. For three years the trio worked among the village’s street musicians and cyclist community before seeking a new office space downtown, or what Sams refers to as the heartbeat of the city.

As Firefli expanded, so did its client base, and it was during this phase of growth that Sams recognized the diversification of industries in Roanoke. Healthcare appeared at the forefront as interest in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine surged, with outdoor recreation, specialized law firms and national breweries following closely behind. “As more people who are specialized come to the area, they bring along other people and opportunities with them, so we’ve been able to reap the benefits of that [from a talent standpoint],” says Sams.

The beautiful overlook at the base of the Roanoke Star.
Sam Dean Photography – Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

About the time the agency transitioned to Market Street, Sams recalls building a website for former client, Roanoke Outside. The adventure-based organization drives local and regional attention to the beauty and opportunities Roanoke’s landscape offers. The site showcases the region’s 600 miles of trails, picturesque campsites, urban breweries, lake sports, natural reserves and more. “[Tourism] is definitely being used as a tool to generate new business,” says Sams. “[The city] is really using the outdoors and culture to create more awareness around the area.”

An expert on Roanoke’s tourism efforts is Catherine Fox, Vice President of Public Affairs & Destination Development for Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Fox has witnessed a myriad of changes to the region throughout her 30-year tenure with VBR, but she believes the organization’s most recent developments surpass all previous efforts to rebrand the valley into a workable, livable and walkable destination. At the core of these developments is Roanoke’s recent designation as a Silver-Level Ride Center, establishing the city as one of only 15 Silver-Level biking regions in the world. “That designation helped shape who we are and put us on the map in a way we hadn’t been before,” says Fox. It even prompted Roanoke’s self-proclaimed title as America’s East Coast Mountain Biking Capital, thus setting the valley apart from other recognizable cities like Asheville, Richmond, Virginia Beach, Harrisonburg and Alexandria.

Roanoke’s biking identity now serves as the focal point around which the city’s other marketable amenities fall such as arts and culture, sports, agritourism, lodging, craft beverages and mountain gastronomy. The metro-mountain persona is one Fox believes Roanoke wears well. “People locally have always been somewhat skeptical of who and what we are. I think they are finally finding something to be proud of,” she says.

One example of how Roanoke’s outdoor presence has strengthened its downtown population of lifestyle businesses is its Cheers Trail and Food Tours. The food- and drink-based excursions connect nature with cuisine as they flaunt the city’s unique history, mountainscape beauty and exceptional artistry of local brewers, distillers and chefs. The valley’s abundance of farmers, creamers and growers has long attracted the interest of regional and national chefs with a passion for the farm-to-table movement. The authenticity and homegrown nature of each plate connects diners with the land and local businesses in a flavorful and sustainable way.

Sunrise near the Roanoke Star on Mill Mountain in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Sam Dean Photography – Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Foot traffic through Roanoke’s restaurants, outfitters, hotels and fitness studios has also dramatically increased due in part to Amtrak’s return. An estimated 54,000 travelers arrived to and departed from the Norfolk Avenue platform during the rail’s first year. The proximity of the rail to the downtown hub promotes the city’s walkability and drives the local economy as riders eat, shop and stay at surrounding establishments.

Fox notes that while Roanoke continues to prosper, its development is nowhere near finished. Looking to the future, Roanoke sets its sights on the addition of seven to eight new hotels, including a boutique inn near the Amtrak station. Adding more flavor to the metro culinary scene is the Vinton-based sustainable burger joint, Farmburguesa, which is slated to open late July.

Reimaging underutilized sports arenas for disc golf, pickle ball, archery and dance are also on the city’s docket to drive more visitors and overnight stays to the region. “Our goal in the next four to five years is to grow from an $850 million industry to a $1 billion industry,” says Fox.