A new cohort of regional economic developers band together
There’s a new wave of “super collaborators” driving economic development in the Roanoke and New River valleys.
Many of the top positions in the region’s public and private sector economic development engines have turned over in the past couple of years. In multiple cases, individuals who had held positions for decades decided to retire or move on to other jobs. But most of the people taking their places are hardly newcomers to the region, or even their organizations.
“To a large extent, we’ve been promoted from within, so we have institutional knowledge,” says John Hull, who was named executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership in January last year. Before that, he had been director of market intelligence for the nonprofit regional economic development organization since 2010.
“I think we’re super collaborators,” Hull says. “We were already a great team at a lower level.”
His peers in similar positions agree that economic development collaboration is more critical than ever before in the region, which stretches from greater Roanoke, the largest metropolitan area in western Virginia, southwest to Christiansburg and Blacksburg in the New River Valley.
“We definitely have a history of working together but I do think whenever there are new folks involved … it’s a good time to see how we can collaborate with people in our region and outside our region too,” says Katie Boswell, who became executive director of Onward New River Valley last December. Previously, she oversaw marketing for Blacksburg-based Onward NRV, formerly known as the New River Valley Economic Development Alliance.
During much of 2020 and 2021, these new leaders couldn’t gather in person to talk through plans and strategies. “Now that things have opened up, we’re able to get together more,” Boswell says. “Our mission and our goal is to attract and retain world-class jobs and talent.”
That would be nearly impossible without the groundwork done by former economic development officials, Boswell and the other new leaders say. Tapping into funds available from the state’s GO Virginia economic development initiative, their predecessors pushed forward on projects like Wood Haven Technology Park in Roanoke County. They also brought together public and private entities to create destinations such as the Virginia Tech Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke, which includes the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.
“They were working together and really set the foundation for a lot of these projects,” says Erin Burcham, who became president of Verge, a regional technology alliance, at the beginning of this year. She also is executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, a post she has held since summer 2021. Before that, she worked at the Roanoke Regional Partnership and the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center, giving her a broad background in some of the region’s biggest forces in economic development.
The new leaders, with their varied strengths and skills, are “looking at problems in a different light,” Burcham says. And they’re figuring out solutions, especially when it comes to positioning the region as a hotspot for biotechnology and innovation. Integral to that process, Burcham says, is Brett Malone, who became president and CEO of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in the middle of 2020.
Malone himself is an innovator, and early in his career he co-founded an engineering software company at the Corporate Research Center. He went on to take leadership roles in companies across the nation involved in biotechnology, robotics, engineering and software. Malone returned to the New River Valley to replace his former mentor, Joe Meredith, who led the CRC for 27 years until his retirement in February 2020.
“Having someone with that skill set to come in and help us get biotechs from the startup stage” is a big coup, Burcham says, adding that Malone’s expertise creates “renewed energy” around that goal. “We’re saying, ‘How do we move this forward, and how do we move this forward fast?’”
‘A new revolution’
Indeed, Malone finds himself energized by the region’s prospects. “There’s a new revolution going on,” he says, quickly adding that he and other economic development leaders are not afraid to think big.
A case in point, he says, is the approval of $15.7 million in state funding to renovate a Carilion Clinic building in Roanoke into Corporate Research Center lab space for life sciences researchers and entrepreneurs. Roanoke leaders were asking for a CRC expansion similar to what’s happening in Blacksburg, where 2,500 square feet of lab and studio space is set to be completed this fall. “I came in and said, ‘Why not?’” Malone recalls.
During this year’s General Assembly session, Malone and several other economic development officials from the region made the pitch for funding the Roanoke lab and innovation space. “All of us showed up on the doorstep in Richmond — not just one or two,” he says.
It’s that kind of teamwork that will bolster economic development initiatives going forward, Malone says. “There’s really a lot of trust among the team and there’s also clear skill sets that complement each other. …We know our roles.”
Marc Nelson, who was named director of economic development for the city of Roanoke about a year ago, says he was excited when Malone “came over to this side of the mountain” to talk about what they could work on together. “That really kicked off a good partnership with us.”
Nelson, who worked for the city for nearly 10 years before stepping into this role, makes a point to meet regularly with peers in the surrounding counties and nearby cities, as well as those at the regional technology alliances that have formed in recent years.
“It’s not that everybody’s young, but there are a lot of new people,” Nelson says. “I can’t recall any place I’ve been that we’ve seen this many changes in leadership within such a short period of time.”
The Roanoke and New River valleys include several counties and cities. Based in Roanoke, the regional partnership led by Hull also works to draw new business to Salem, Covington and Vinton as well as the counties of Alleghany, Botetourt, Franklin and Roanoke. Likewise, Onward New River Valley led by Boswell represents Radford, Blacksburg and Christiansburg as well as the counties of Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski. Not all those municipalities have dedicated economic development staff. But of those that do, many have seen changes recently.
Tommy Miller became director of economic development for Salem in April this year. He had been a senior business investment manager for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. In nearby Bedford County, Pam Bailey was promoted to director of economic development last year. She had previously overseen marketing and business development.
Largely driven by a previous generation reaching retirement age, the widespread turnover throughout the region has led to “looking at things we didn’t always do,” Nelson says, such as community development partnerships and opportunities to bolster entrepreneurship. “We’ve always done retention and expansion very well,” he says.
He also points to the securing of $15.7 million in state funding for the Carilion renovation in Roanoke as a catalyst for continued collaboration among the region’s new development leaders. About $10 million in additional renovation money was secured from other public and private sources. The development of this new space is expected to create 250 jobs through startup businesses over the first five years.
“I cannot express to you what a game changer this is going to be. … This wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” Nelson says.
Burcham echoes Nelson’s praise for the Carilion project. “It just kind of fueled the fire,” she says. It’s always difficult to secure funding for major projects, particularly if those projects don’t have a proven track record.
“We’ve taken a couple of shots on goal,” Burcham says. Some have led to funding arrangements; others have not. “We have a driven team that says, ‘We’re going to do this. … We’re going to find a way.’”
But, she adds, the leaders before their cohort took over should be credited with their forward thinking. Their predecessors supported education advancements and created the infrastructure that allows their successors to move ahead with efforts to attract new industries.
“There’s a need right now to diversify our economy,” Burcham says. That’s why the new economic development drivers are banding together to make that happen. Securing the funding for the upcoming Carilion renovation project, slated to be completed in 2024, is “an example of a big win,” she says.
Beth Doughty, who retired in December 2020 after 22 years as executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, says the new generation of regional leaders come well equipped to continue achieving those types of successes. “When you have new people or they are new to the position, they’re generally younger and they bring a lot of energy to what they’re doing,” she says.
Certainly, a significant portion of the leadership changes in the last couple of years could be categorized as “generational turnover,” Doughty says. “I think that’s a good thing.” Younger leaders, she adds, bring fresh ideas and new ways to approach challenges.
During her tenure at the partnership, Doughty, who’s now a fellow at the Danville Regional Foundation, was recognized repeatedly for her economic development efforts in Roanoke. But “economic development has gotten broader,” she says. It used to be largely about business recruitment. While that’s still a big component, there are now many other parts to building regional economies, including entrepreneurship and innovation.
“What you’re going to see is that Roanoke and the New River Valley are keeping up with what the trends are and where the opportunities are,” Doughty says. In the big picture, the region’s economic development “talent is aligned with the opportunities.”
Next year, Jill Loope will retire after 23 years as Roanoke County’s economic development director. She says the exodus that she and many peers are embarking on is “a mixed bag … of people making life decisions.”
At 56, she’s not planning to retire completely but is ready to try something new. “I think it’s a natural evolution, a natural progression,” Loope says. “It’s driven by each individual’s circumstances.”
Nonetheless, several long-timers like Doughty and Loope are moving on. For instance, Jeremy Holmes took over the role of executive director of the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission in summer 2021. He replaced Wayne Strickland, who retired after 42 years with the commission. At the end of this year, Eric Sichau will move from vice president of membership services to president of the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce. He will replace Joyce Waugh, who is retiring after more than two decades leading the chamber.
Beth Simms was named director of economic development for Franklin County in April 2021. Before that, she served as cultural and economic development director for Rocky Mount, a town in Franklin County. Even though Franklin’s industries have traditionally been blue collar, she’s working closely with leaders in Roanoke and other nearby cities and counties to be part of the overall effort to diversify the regional economy.
Says Simms: “We’re really excited about the biotech opportunities and those kinds of initiatives.”