No big deal

That doesn’t mean nothing is happening in the Roanoke and New River valleys

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Print this page by Tim Thornton
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Michelle Mitchell and Jamie Danek, of Humm Kombucha, and
former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Courtesy Humm Kombucha

The title of Roanoke Regional Partnership’s 2016 annual report was “Best. Year. Ever.” — making any other year without similar results almost seem like a letdown.

“[2017] was different in a couple of ways,” says Beth Doughty, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership. “It was still a very active year. This year it was more focused on expansion than another year like last year.”

Another year like 2016 would have been pretty amazing. Deschutes Brewery and Ballast Point Brewing Co. picked the Roanoke area for their East Coast outposts. Eldor, an Italian automotive ignitions manufacturer, selected the area for its first North American production facility.

In 2017, the big new company was Humm Kombucha. Humm is no slouch, bringing 50 jobs and a projected $58 million annual economic impact, but it didn’t generate the excitement of Deschutes, the other Bend, Ore., company that’s moving into the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology.

“People want to know, ‘What’s the big deal? What’s the big announcement?’” says Jill Loope, Roanoke County’s director of economic development. “It hasn’t been so much about any one big deal.”

Instead, she says, the county has focused on preparing for future development.

“We’ve been taking on a lot of projects that have been laying the groundwork or the foundation for future economic success and stability,” Loope says. “It is a different approach. It is more community capacity building than maybe we have traditionally looked at, but they’re all geared toward building a better, strong community for the long term. We’re investing in our future. That requires vision, commitment, patience.”

Notable projects
That doesn’t mean nothing visible happened last year. Dignitaries broke ground on a $90 million expansion of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute that will double the number of research teams working there.

Also, Appalachian Power announced plans to add about 100 project management and engineering jobs in Roanoke while moving an additional 100 employees to the city from another location. “Appalachian Power is extremely happy to be able to have these transmission employees join us in our downtown location,” Chris Beam, the company’s president and COO, said in a statement. “We’re confident that they will benefit the business environment in downtown Roanoke.”

When the plans were announced last November, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe described the project as a major win for Virginia. The Roanoke transmission operation “will manage the systematic upgrading and modernization of AEP’s entire grid, representing a $4 billion company investment across its service territory.”

That grid includes more than 40,000 miles of extra-high-voltage transmission lines and 224,000 miles of distribution lines, serving nearly 5.4 million customers in 11 states.

“They could have put those jobs anywhere,” Doughty says, “but they realized this was the right place to put those jobs, both for the talent they could attract here and the cost of living here and the livability of the area. This is a place where people like to be.”

To accommodate all those people, Appalachian Power will invest $12.7 million in renovating much of the company’s 71-year-old downtown Roanoke building and constructing a parking garage. Roanoke-based MB Contractors is managing the construction.

In another development, PowerSchool, a California-based education technology platform, announced plans last year to more than double its Roanoke-based workforce by adding 96 jobs, taking up two floors of the former Norfolk Southern Building. Norfolk Southern sold the building after moving operations to Norfolk and Atlanta in 2015. PowerSchool came to Roanoke in 2016 when it acquired local startup Interactive Achievement. “Again,” Doughty says, “they could put these jobs anywhere.”

In other announcements, Phoenix Packaging, a manufacturer of plastic food and beverage containers; Lake Region Medical, a medical device maker; Modea, a provider of web, application development and marketing solutions; and FoxGuard Solution, a cybersecurity and compliance company, all decided to expand in the Roanoke and New River valleys last year.

Of the area’s top 10 deals based on potential employment, eight were expansions that are expected to create nearly 800 jobs. The two new companies on the list, Humm and foam-and-tape manufacturer Koinonia, account for fewer than 100 jobs.

Changing tasks
While attracting new businesses is still a big part of the job, economic development has changed, Doughty says. “I work on projects that I never would have imagined I would work on when I started in this business 27 years ago,” she says. “At the end of the day, what we are as economic developers are connectors. We’re connecting questions and answers, needs and resources, problems and solutions and opportunities with people and localities.”

The partnership created Roanoke Outside to promote the area as a place to enjoy biking, hiking, kayaking and other outdoor activities. More recently it has hired a “talent solutions” person — someone to “build and widen the pipeline of talent to our region,” Doughty says.

“When you focus on the 10 biggest deals, that’s fine,” she says. “That’s certainly not the whole of economic development.” On one recent day, her schedule included a meeting about a shell industrial building, talks with the industrial facility authority, a discussion about talent attraction and an appointment with representatives of a business prospect. “And that’s just this morning,” she says. “That’s the diversity of what’s going on in economic development.”

Roanoke County’s Loope would add to that list redevelopment projects that turn old schools into apartments and an old barn into a brewpub. The new buzzword is “eatertainment,” Loope says. That concept involves bringing more restaurants, hotels and microbreweries to the area. The county, for example, is working on public-private partnerships to turn Explore Park, which has gone through several iterations, into a destination attraction.

“I think that’s going to be a big transitional project for the region,” Loope says, talking about the cabins, campgrounds, aerial adventure course and bike skills park planned for Explore.

Then there are the studies intended to remake corridors and areas around the county. One plan is complete and ready to be implemented. Two others are scheduled to begin this year. “We need to really drill down and mine these areas because they’re village centers. They’re town centers,” Loope says.

A year without landing a hip West Coast brewery may seem disappointing, especially when it comes a year after landing two, but Doughty doesn’t see it that way.

When a packaging company decides to invest nearly $49 million in an expansion and a company that builds bucket trucks commits to spending more than $30 million on its expansion, those are good things in her estimation. They say something good about the region’s economy and its prospects for the future. “You’re not going to spend that money if your future here is not bright,” Doughty says. 

Roanoke/New River Valley’s recent deals

Company Location #Jobs
Altec Industries Botetourt County 180
Phoenix Packaging Operations LLC1 Pulaski County 145
Lake Region Medical Salem 136
American Electric Power Roanoke 102
PowerSchool Roanoke 96
Modea Montgomery County 55
Humm Kombucha Roanoke 46
FoxGuard Solutions Montgomery County 43
Koinonia Ltd.1 Pulaski County 40
Qualtrax Inc. Montgomery County 35
1 Company has headquarters in another country                    Source: Virginia Economic Development Partnership, 2017

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