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Roanoke, New River Valley recast region as a center for new ideas

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by Deborah Nason
For Virginia Business
September 2005

At VT KnowledgeWorks, a year-old business incubator in Blacksburg, the goal of some companies is not just to make a profit but to change the world. NBE Technologies, for example, is working on ways to enable LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to burn brighter, a development that could lead to the electronic devices replacing fluorescent tubes as the dominant source of lighting in offices and factories. “We have several emerging companies which have the potential to create structural changes in major world markets," says Jim Flowers, the director of VT KnowledgeWorks, which is helping 17 technology-related companies get off the ground.

The activity at the business incubator is part of a transforming, creative spirit that Flowers believes is spreading in Roanoke and the New River Valley. “This area is at 200 degrees — just getting ready to boil,” he says.
VT KnowledgeWorks is but one example of projects helping to reshape the region’s image. Long known as a hub for railroads and banking, the Roanoke area is trying to recast itself as a center for cutting-edge ideas and industries. These days the region goes by the moniker of NewVa, the result of a marketing campaign last year. It emphasizes the area’s quality of life and tries to boost a regional economy that has lagged behind other areas of Virginia.

Last year, the number of jobs in the Roanoke metro area declined 0.2 percent, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. In a more recent study, job growth was up 1.8 percent for the 12-month period ending in May after the Roanoke metropolitan statistical area was enlarged to include Franklin and Craig counties.

On the other hand, the new Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford MSA had job growth of 2.4 percent last year, but the rate has dropped sharply in the more recent May survey. Richmond-based economist Christine Chmura notes that the job growth ebbs and flows in Blacksburg because of the area’s dependence on Virginia Tech.

The region is changing more than its name. Several initiatives have begun to revitalize downtown Roanoke and promote technology-related entrepreneurship. City boosters are especially excited about Roanoke’s new $46 million Art Museum of Western Virginia, scheduled to break ground downtown this month. The 75,000-square-foot building was designed by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout, a protegé of Frank Gehry, the designer of the world-famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. “It won’t be hyperbole to say that [the museum] will have a transformational impact,” says Warner Dalhouse, a museum board member and former chairman of Dominion Bankshares. “It will transform people’s perception of [Roanoke], people who would not normally come here.”

The museum, which will replace the museum’s much smaller building, plans a fall 2007 opening. Officials expect 150,000 to 200,000 visitors annually — almost triple current levels.

Another initiative putting Roanoke in the spotlight was the city’s Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) housing and construction design competition. Started by local architects Gregg Lewis and Jennifer Smith Lewis of SmithLewis Architecture, the competition promotes the principles of environmentally friendly “green design” espoused by William McDonough’s popular book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. His philosophy is based in part on the idea of eliminating waste through recycling.

Last year’s competition attracted more than 625 designs submitted by architects in 41 countries, including 88 university design teams. In January, four professional and four student winners were selected. Groundbreak-ing was held in the spring in one of Roanoke’s urban-core neighborhoods for construction of the city’s first C2C home. “We currently have commitments for eight C2C homes [to be built here],” says Lewis. “But don’t be surprised if we have 30 to 50 of them in the next two years. What we’re hoping for is to have the broadest possible range of designs and strategies anywhere in the world. We’re enhancing the effort to re-urbanize Roanoke.”

That effort is already under way downtown as developers convert empty buildings into tony living quarters. At least eight prominent buildings are being renovated into condos, some of which expect to list for as much as $450,000. One of the new downtown homeowners will be Dalhouse, chairman of the board of brand-new HomeTown Bank. He jokes about living above the store — the bank’s headquarters will be on the first floor and his condo will be on the top floor.

Also living above the store is John Reburn, a refugee from Los Angeles. When the artist and former advertising agency owner decided to cash out and start over, he took three years to decide where to move. Deciding from a field that included Austin, Texas; Asheville, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; and Santa Fe, N.M., he chose Roanoke “because the potential was overwhelming.”

Reburn bought a building last year at the edge of the market district where he has his business, Roanoke Valley Printworks, on the first floor and his residence on the upper two floors. Reburn felt at home quickly. “As soon as I bought the building,” he says, “people — all artists — came by before I opened to welcome me. They offered to do anything they could; they gave me a social life. It makes you feel like anything is possible.”

Blacksburg’s downtown is also getting attention. The 2-year-old Blacksburg Partnership recently teamed with a private company to build the first downtown office building in years. Kent Square offers nearly 100,000 square feet of retail and office space and a 400-space public parking garage. The garage was badly needed to ease parking congestion, which is one of the reasons Blacksburg committed $2 million to the garage portion of the $20 million project.

The Blacksburg Partnership is “the first economic development partnership that brings together the town, the business community and the university,” says Bill Aden, president of the partnership and CEO of engineering firm Draper Aden Associates. The 25-member group also is taking steps to finance a community park and to adorn Blacksburg’s sidewalks during fall football weekends with 75 human-size Hokie Birds painted by various artists. At the end of the exhibit, the birds will be available for sale during a fund-raising auction benefiting the partnership.

Not far from downtown Blacksburg, in Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center office park, is VT KnowledgeWorks, the area’s first technology business accelerator and incubator. Flowers sees the program as a reflection of the region’s “fresh emphasis on technology commercialization.” Companies enrolled in the program represent startups, spin-offs from other companies and “ramp-ups” — companies refocusing themselves to get back on track. There are several program tracks, explains Flowers, each one essentially “a winnowing and focusing process.”

Another approach to regional technology commercialization was launched by the NewVa Corridor Technology Council (NCTC) which, in a nod to the new regional brand, changed its name from New Century Technology Council last October. NCTC’s newest initiative was its first annual Technology Accelerator Forum, held in June. The event brought together technology businesspeople, Virginia Tech representatives and U.S. Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Rick Boucher. The result was $950,000 in federal funding to establish the Biodesign and Processing Re-search Center, a joint project of the NCTC, Virginia Tech and Novozymes, a Roanoke County-based producer of industrial enzymes and microorganisms (see story on page 50).

The center’s research will include development of new products from agricultural and wood processing wastes. “This wasn’t just a general roundtable discussion,” says Ken Ferris, president of IHS iMonitoring in Roanoke and former NCTC president. “We had drilled down in advance of the meeting to identify just one initiative [that could have a major impact].”

Further evidence of the region’s growing momentum in research and technology is a budding biomedical cluster taking shape near downtown Roanoke. In July, construction began on the long-awaited Riverside Centre for Research and Technology. Four companies that focus on biomedical technology, including the Carilion Biomedical Institute, Luna Innovations, American Biosystems and Medical Enzymatics, have reserved space in the first building of what will be an eight-building, 1.1 million-square-foot research park.

For the past three years Roanoke has been the host city for another important competition, the statewide Virginia Technology Capital Access Forum. It allows early and mid-stage technology companies to present business plans to venture capitalists. Last year’s event attracted 20 venture capitalists, representing more than $3 billion of investment. More than 250 business leaders attended, many from outside the region. “This is part of a greater plan to spawn technology businesses in the region,” says Jim Hale, chairman of this year’s forum, and a lawyer with Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore in Roanoke. “It is important for potential businesses to see that there is a regional commitment to support them.”

As the Roanoke region evolves with a bent towards high technology, it wants to create jobs while maintaining its quality of life. “We’re not trying to be Northern Virginia,” Flowers says. Instead, he and other regional leaders are simply trying “to improve something that’s already good.”


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