The Little City That Could: Roanoke

Once known as “Big Lick,” then as a railway hub, Roanoke is a small city bursting with big ideas.

I learned two things on a visit to Roanoke this summer. First, Roanokers like their coffee prepared in a French press; every bar, restaurant and café I stepped inside offered this option. Second, Roanoke is a small city filled with big ideas and, more importantly, people uniquely capable of putting their plans into practice.

The city of around 96,000, surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains to the west and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east, seems to embrace the best aspects of larger metropolitan areas—arts, culture, technology and other economic drivers—while maintaining the love of the great outdoors and the lack of cynicism synonymous with smaller towns. It can’t all be attributed to the carefully-pressed caffeine, so what is it that makes Roanoke such a can-do kind of place?

J.P. Powell, a bearded and quietly confident 42-year-old, is on the front lines of two of Roanoke’s most exciting small-city trends: food and music. Powell co-owns Lucky Restaurant, located on Kirk Avenue in downtown Roanoke, with friend Hunter Johnson. The pair also form half of the four-piece Roanoke-based band My Radio, along with Brett Winter Lemon (who photographed this story) and Jeff Hoffman.

“When I moved back here from Boston in 2006, I thought my life in music was over,” says Powell. But then Powell met Johnson and, in typical Star City fashion, the pair decided that living in Roanoke could actually be their launching pad. According to Powell, the pair said to themselves, “Let’s not try and get a record deal, because record labels are tanking. Let’s just make the best music we can, and let’s find a placement company that likes our music.”

Through a Santa Monica, California, placement company called Ocean Park Music, the upbeat pop-rock of My Radio’s track “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” was first “placed” on the soundtrack of 2010 film “The Joneses,” and more recently on Showtime’s TV series “Homeland,” which won the 2012 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. “It’s kind of weird,” says Powell. “We’ve circumvented the normal way people do music.” Income from those placements helped finance production of the band’s new album, “Starts in the East/Falls in the West,” which will be released November 27. “If we were doing the same thing and living in New York, we would be working much harder,” says Powell. “If we were owning a restaurant? Forget about music, totally.”

The menu at Lucky, devised by Chef Jeff Farmer, features dishes like buttermilk fried chicken with gravy, braised kale with house bacon, and mash, which seems emblematic of Roanoke’s best qualities—a forward-thinking update on a Southern comfort classic. Similarly, Lucky’s bar invites conversation because of one simple innovation: “The smartest and easiest thing you can do when you create a restaurant or bar is to not put a damn TV in it!” says Powell.

Lucky is part of the increasingly busy 67 downtown blocks of Roanoke, which are teeming with businesses run by people who saw possibilities and made them reality. Karen Eliades, 37, grew up in Elizabeth, West Virginia, population less than 1,000. She and her husband, Alex, moved to Roanoke in 2006 to open an artisan bakery after seeing “there was a need for us here.” Today, Bread Craft bakes fresh sourdough bread every morning, which is then either sold wholesale to restaurants as far away as Blacksburg, sold in local retail outlets like the Roanoke Natural Food Co-Op or used to make huge, tasty sandwiches in the Bread Craft café, which you wash down with a big French press full of coffee, of course.

Nearby, Rupert Saunders, better known as Rudy, runs a stall at the open-air City Market, where he sells canes, walking sticks and other objects. Where other people see fallen tree limbs, Saunders sees a custom-made cane just waiting to be whittled. “These come from Mother Nature,” he says. “I just clean them up and do some custom work.” Saunders is being modest. His goods feature intricate shapes, with snakes, eyes and other details crafted into the wood.

The man most often credited with the recent revitalization of Roanoke’s downtown is Ed Walker, the 44-year-old developer and entrepreneur with a bouncy boyish fringe and seemingly endless enthusiasm. Walker will tell anyone who asks—and maybe even some who don’t—about the idea of “extraordinary achievements in unexpected places, which is fundamentally to do with human capital and the connectivity between people.”

Walker’s gift appears to be seeing possibility where others see problems. Just as Saunders turns fallen tree limbs into works of art, Walker turns run-down buildings into vibrant spaces. In 2007, the once-grand Patrick Henry Hotel was empty, condemned for not being up to fire code, and, in 2009, the building was foreclosed on for failure to pay back-taxes. Walker took ownership of the building and converted it into downtown apartments, which opened in June 2011, providing an attractive downtown living option on the south end of Jefferson Street, Roanoke’s main drag.

Walker’s downtown revitalization work has attracted attention outside of Roanoke: In July, he was the subject of a story in the The New York Times, and he is currently a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. But he’s very keen that the spotlight shines elsewhere. “There’s more attention on me than there should be,” says Walker. “It’s a very broad endeavor that involves the work of scores and scores of people … It just takes a small percentage of people with personal velocity.”

Brent Cochran, 32, is one of the people Walker would point to. I met with Cochran at CUPS Coffee & Tea in Grandin Village, where you don’t ask for a 12, 16 or 20 ounce cup, but—with tongue firmly in cheek—an A Cup, B Cup or C Cup instead. Cochran is a Roanoker who left town, saw how things were done elsewhere—Hawaii, Wyoming, the Pacific Northwest—and came back in 2007 ready to make a difference.

The key to making moving back a success, says Cochran, was not to complain about what was missing: “Those things aren’t here yet, but it’s a blank slate. If you want to create stuff, it’s a very low barrier to entry, sort of a great laboratory. The nice thing is you can cut and paste a lot of things … you can just say, ‘Ah that’s a cool idea, OK, how do you do that? All right. Let’s try it.’”

Cochran works for Walker’s company City Works—“I don’t really have a job title, but I’m sort of Managing Director or COO”—and embodies Walker’s vision of entrepreneurship that improves communities. He rejects the idea that “either you rape and pillage at all costs for profit, or you’re a charity that begs for money so you can do good. We need to get out of that model …. Good business that does positive things for the environment and the community creates longer-lasting business, and you can make good money doing it.”

Cochran’s personal side project, the Local Environment and Agriculture Program, is a great example. Better known as LEAP, it’s a pair of community markets—one in Grandin Village, opposite CUPS, the other in the West End—selling locally grown food and connecting small family farms in the region with market opportunities. “It’s not rocket science,” says Cochran. “You take some tents and some tables, and you talk to farmers that you like, and you set it up!”

The most impressive thing about LEAP is how Cochran uses his business model to make this locally grown food accessible to low-income Roanokers. Through a sponsorship deal with local law firm Glenn, Feldmann, Darby and Goodlatte, every dollar of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program money (better known as food stamps) is worth two dollars at a LEAP market. How did Cochran broker this deal? “I knocked on doors and sold an advertising opportunity, not a nonprofit opportunity,” he explains.

Not all economic impacts are immediately obvious, even when they literally change the landscape. The 11 miles (and seven more planned) of the Roanoke River Greenway are part of the 146-mile Roanoke Valley Greenways system, which includes 26 miles of surfaced trails, costing $29 million in public and private money. Greenways coordinator Liz Belcher describes the Roanoke River Greenway as “a paved bicycle and pedestrian trail within a linear park along the Roanoke River.” But it’s more than that.

I rented a bike from the Cambria Suites hotel, and enjoyed a leisurely early-morning ride through Smith Park and Wasena Park, alongside and then over the Roanoke River, around Vic Thomas Park and then up onto the road to find the legendary Black Dog Salvage, home of reclaimed and repurposed architectural and antique wonders (two men were unloading what looked like a torpedo). Along the way I passed families, joggers, dogwalkers and fellow bikers enjoying a traffic-free commute to work, and exchanged cheery hellos with them all. It felt like Mayberry on wheels, but the Greenway is doing more than just putting smiles on people’s faces.

Before the first piece of the Roanoke River Greenway was opened in 1999, Belcher says, “Wasena Park was isolated, not a desirable location,” while Smith Park was notorious for prostitution and solicitation. Once the Greenway replaced the roads, the neighborhood became more desirable; Belcher says property prices are rising faster for homes closer to the Greenway, and points to economic developments like the River House, once a run-down industrial site but now being repurposed as 128 luxury studios.

Cycling may be catching on, but Roanoke’s favorite form of transport is still the railway. The Norfolk and Western railroad company essentially built the city, locating its headquarters in town and employing Roanokers to construct magnificent steam engines right up until 1957, when diesel engines ended the era of steam.

The now-restored “iron horses” live on as exhibits at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, where, out in the Rail Yard, the iconic J Class 611 and the A Class 1218 tower over visitors. “They come from all over the world to see those two big steam locomotives,” says Executive Director Beverly T. Fitzpatrick Jr., an engaging man whose office filled with railway paraphernalia tells the story of someone fortunate enough to have his boyhood obsession become his life’s work. “Forty percent of visitors come from over 100 miles away and attendance is up 182 percent in five years, with membership up 800 percent.”

But not all the museums in Roanoke are about trains. The most recent, and most talked about, is the Taubman Museum of Art, opened in 2008; a contemporary, Frank Ghery-esque structure designed by Randall Stout, with swoops of glass and stainless-steel rising from the building to reflect sunlight, contrasting sharply with the surrounding downtown buildings. The museum’s unconventional structure stands as testament to the idea that Roanoke is a small city where unexpectedly big things can happen.

So what’s next for Roanoke? Possibly the biggest idea a small city can have, which is bringing other cities together to collaborate and get things done. The second annual City Works (X)po took place this past October in Roanoke. The brainchild of Ed Walker, with Brent Cochran as co-director, alongside colleagues Beth Deel and Frances West, the (X)po is a TED Talks-type conference with the tagline, “Big Ideas for Small Cities.”

At the inaugural (X)po in 2011, small-city representatives from 22 states and 11 foreign countries, spanning five continents, gathered in Roanoke to share small-city success stories, with what Walker calls “a very strong bias towards applied ideas,” meaning things that can actually happen. In explaining the (X)po’s ethos, Walker finally hits on the reason why people like himself, Powell, Johnson, the Eliadeses, Cochran, Saunders, Fitzpatrick and others have been able to accomplish so much: “I can do things in Roanoke I couldn’t do in Manhattan, I couldn’t do in San Francisco, I probably couldn’t do in Richmond,” he explains. “People are overlooked in a bigger city. But here there’s very little pretense and very low barriers to entry, so the opportunity for impact is huge. If you can play major league baseball in the minor leagues, you’re going to get things done.”

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