Roanoke, Va., was founded in 1882 along the Norfolk & Western Railway. Smokestacks and coal cars anchored its identity. These days, the city’s image is a little greener.
In the late 2000s, business leaders asked the Roanoke Regional Partnership (RRP) to reevaluate the city’s approach to economic development. “We recognized that we were not taking advantage of some of the amazing outdoor assets that this region is blessed with,” says Victor Iannello, a businessman and board member of the Roanoke Outside Foundation.
Located at the crossroads of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, Roanoke provides abundant outdoor opportunities: the Roanoke River, 270 miles of greenways and trails, a 568-acre mountain park. Nearby George Washington and Jefferson National Forests offer hiking and mountain biking. The trailhead for McAfee Knob, the spectacular AT overlook, is 25 minutes from downtown. “Why not take that and make it a basis for economic development?” says Beth Doughty, executive director of RRP.
In 2009, RRP took the unusual step of hiring a director of outdoor branding, Pete Eshelman, to use the outdoors as a means of attracting commerce and investment. In 2013, he became the first director of the nonprofit Roanoke Outside Foundation, which promotes “conservation through recreation” as a community priority.
One of Eshelman’s first major accomplishments was starting the Blue Ridge Marathon in 2010. Another event, October’s Go Outside Festival, gives attendees a chance to test hiking, paddling, and biking equipment. “A lot of our time and effort is spent on educating our residents on what’s right here in their backyard,” he says.
The momentum is infectious. Since 2009, the Roanoke River Greenway, a multiuse trail, has grown by 6 miles. A new river outfitter has opened, and Carvins Cove Natural Reserve has expanded its network of unpaved trails.
Other communities are taking note. “We are trying to do the same thing with bicycling and walking in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County,” says Rich Harris of Virginia’s James Madison University. Harris says that Roanoke is using the outdoors as “an economic driver, moving beyond just tourism.”
Eshelman’s biggest success so far was luring the online retailer Backcountry.com to nearby Christiansburg. Other jobs have arrived in handfuls, at bike shops and outdoor guide companies. Each opportunity helps mitigate the continuing loss of railroad jobs.
Roanoke isn’t the first or the only locale to shift its economic focus. More than a century ago, the White Mountains of New Hampshire relied on logging and railroads; now the economy is predominantly tourism. And today, in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness, AMC is working with local communities on a similar transformation. Still, Eshelman is a rarity as an outdoor branding director employed by a public-private economic development organization.
What’s next? “Right now our focus is on fine-tuning what we’re already doing and building a solid foundation from which to grow,” Eshelman says. That includes identifying what’s working, like the Blue Ridge Marathon. “It’s had a $2.6 million impact since it started,” Eshelman says.
Sounds green in more ways than one.