The region promotes activities at its mountains and riversAugust 30, 2010 6:00 AM
by Tim Thornton
Call him Roanoke’s Outdoor Man. Pete Eshelman spends his days promoting events that capitalize on the natural strengths of this Blue Ridge Mountain city. And why not? There are rivers to raft, trails to bike, mountains to climb, and caves to spelunk. And all that activity fits nicely with some of the most powerful drivers of the region’s economy — health care and education.
“Everyone agrees that’s part of what makes this area so great,” says Eshelman, director of outdoor branding for the Roanoke Regional Partnership. “But it was a story that wasn’t being told.”
Roanoke has spent much of its history trying to be like someplace else — Charlotte, Richmond or almost any other place that people won’t call a gritty railroad town. Maybe that phase of the city’s life is over. “I think we seem to be more comfortable with ourselves than we were 25 years ago,” says former Roanoke County administrator Elmer Hodges.
The city’s emerging image as an outdoor mecca has encouraged the growth of number of businesses catering to adventuresome tourists, such as outfitters and bicycle shops. The buzz about the region’s quality of life also is helping it attract and retain highly trained professionals.
Eshelman’s job is to tell Roanoke’s new story. He organizes and promotes events such as the Blue Ridge Marathon. In April the race drew 942 runners and had an estimated economic impact of nearly $350,000 (in spending on hotel rooms, meals, gasoline, etc.). Next year, Eshelman says, “We’re actually adding some elevation to it. We’re actually billing it as America’s toughest road marathon.”
Eshelman also organized the Gear Junkie Treasure hunt, which brought 300 people from 15 states to Virginia’s Explore Park in July to traipse around the woods with compasses, maps and GPS devices trying to win their share of $40,000 worth of gear.
As another facet of his job, Eshelman tends to a website, roanokeoutside.com. It provides maps of 75 trails and information about caves, rivers, museums, birding, disc golf, wineries, farmers’ markets and other attractions.
This fall, Roanoke Outside plans to host an adventure tourism entrepreneur workshop. Shawn Hash probably could teach the course. Two decades ago, Hash and his brother, Tyrell, started an adventure tourism business, Tangent Outfitters. “We had a Toyota truck, which we still have, and two canoes and four mountain bikes,” Shawn Hash says.
This has been a growth year for Tangent, one of four outfitters based in Giles County. On one recent day, Hash led a bike tour. That same day Tangent had Boy Scouts on the New River, church campers on a two-day hiking-biking-canoe trip, boats rented out to a Unitarian convention, and four rafts filled with fishing clients. “It’s just this really organic sustainable growth model,” Hash says. “I just think it’s beautiful.”
Other entrepreneurs tapping into the region’s outdoor appeal include Stratton Delaney and Aaron Dykstra. Delaney set up a bike boutique called Keirin Culture next to a Roanoke blues club, while Dykstra was named Rookie of the Year at the 2010 North American Handmade Bicycle Show for his Six-Eleven Bicycle Co. creations. “I think a lot these people moving in are really adding to the positive energy,” says Lisa Soltis, economic development specialist with the City of Roanoke.
These companies aren’t big employers (Tangent, for example, employs only about 18 people during its 10-month season), but Joe Meredith, president of Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center (CRC) in Blacksburg, thinks they have an effect larger than their numbers suggest. “I think [a region’s quality of life] is becoming more and more important [in recruiting talent] because the fact of the matter now is that individuals can work wherever they want to work,” Meredith says.
The CRC, founded in 1985, provides a nurturing environment for high-tech companies. The last survey of the park’s 2,200 workers showed that fewer than half received their degrees from Virginia Tech. “So what that tells me is that this is not just people who went to school here and love it like everybody does and decided to stay,” he says. “But they’re people that are coming because of high quality job opportunities.”
CRC encompasses 27 buildings and 1 million square feet of space. The roads, fiber optical cable and other infrastructure for the park’s second phase should be completed in the next 12 months. That phase eventually will add another million square feet to house up to another 3,000 employees, but Meredith isn’t willing to guess when all those jobs will be filled. “Of course, the big challenging question is when,” Meredith says. “Anybody who says they can predict that is just goofy.”
Growth comes easier than it used to. “In the early years, when we stood in a cow pasture and gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech,’ it was challenging,” Meredith says. “But when a prospect comes here now and sees that we have over 140 companies and looks at the incredible entrepreneurial culture that exists here, it’s kind of like, ‘I get it. I understand why people come here.’ … And what the value is, frankly, is a concentration of extremely smart people who have really interesting ideas.”
A lot of smart people also are attracted to the region’s colleges and universities. (About 90,000 undergraduates attend 21 institutions of higher learning within an hour’s drive of Roanoke.) Forty-two students began classes last month in the region’s newest school, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, in downtown Roanoke.
The medical school is a joint venture between Tech and Roanoke-based Carilion. Clinic. It has a faculty of 350 professors, many of whom already work at the university and the clinic. A research institute connected with the school opened this month.
The medical school and the research institute have proved to be a valuable recruiting tool for Carilion in hiring more than 200 physicians as it transitions from a traditional health system to a patient-focused system similar to the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic.
Another major Roanoke employer, Advance Auto, invested about $10 million renovating 245,000 square feet of a former shopping mall to consolidate its offices. Almost 1,000 of the company’s 1,600 area workers are housed in the new center. The company has done well in hard times, perhaps because more people are keeping their cars longer. Sales in the second quarter, which ended in July 17, were $1.4 billion, up from $1.3 billion the year before. Earnings per share rose from 83 cents to $1.16
Advance Auto was founded 78 years ago by the Taubman family. Donations by Nicholas Taubman, a former Advance Auto CEO and U.S. ambassador to Romania, and his wife Jenny were instrumental in building the $66 million, 81,000-square-foot square foot Taubman Museum of Art.
The museum, which opened in late 2008, formerly was known as the Art Museum of Western Virginia when it was located in the Center in the Square. That building, which houses many of the city’s other museums and art organizations will begin $27 million in renovations next June.
Another downtown building, the 89-year-old Roanoke City Market Building, will undergo nearly $5 million in renovation, closing from Labor Day until next Memorial Day.
Those buildings border the city’s farmer’s market, which traces its roots to 1882. That market — and eight more farmers’ markets — also are on the list of activities, events and attractions Roanoke Outdoors promotes. And why not? All that rafting, biking, climbing, and spelunking can build up quite an appetite.
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