by Mason Adams
photos by Logan Wallace, Terry Aldhizer, Steven MacKay, David Hungate, Jim Stroup, Creative Dog Media
From 1913 until 1971, the Virginia Tech football team traveled to Roanoke on Thanksgiving Day to play its annual game against Virginia Military Institute, usually on the banks of the Roanoke River at Maher Field. For decades, the annual Military Classic of the South was Virginia Tech’s only real presence in Roanoke.
Today, Maher Field still hosts sporting events, but the rest of the flood plain around it has changed dramatically. Rising up across the street is the Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) School of Medicine and Research Institute, which replaced an aging industrial district with a burgeoning academic health center that in just 10 years has transformed Roanoke and the larger region.
Roanoke stands as a model of reinvention for struggling mid-size cities around the country, driven in large part by Virginia Tech’s engagement since the early ’80s. The university’s partnership with the city to restore and expand the Hotel Roanoke stimulated growth through the ’90s while providing a blueprint for private developers to reinvent the downtown housing market in the ’00s. That in turn has attracted economic advances, inspiring a wave of young residents who have injected new energy into the Star City. In the five years from 2010—the year the VTC complex opened—to 2015, Roanoke gained more young adults than it lost during the previous two decades.
“The research that is happening in Roanoke is important, not just because it elevates the university and our partnership with Carilion Clinic, but because it has the potential to change people’s lives,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “Our VTC Health Sciences and Technology Campus in the Roanoke Innovation Corridor is attracting talent, resources, and partners from around the world to Roanoke.”
RAILROAD ROOTS: For nearly a century, the railroad industry influenced economic growth and development in the Roanoke Valley. Today, health sciences and technology are shaping its future.
Over the past 25 years, Roanoke transitioned from its roots as a railroad hub into a tech-savvy, millennial-pleasing, craft beer-soaked outdoor mecca. It’s difficult to overstate the effect of Virginia Tech’s involvement on this transformation. The university’s partnership with Carilion Clinic accelerated Roanoke’s reinvention, turning it, in the words of former city manager Chris Morrill, from a train city into a brain city.
The center of that brain activity is VTC, where a growing community of students, instructors, researchers, physicians, and other professionals work out of three—soon to be four—multistory buildings that teem with activity. The medical school’s preparation of the next generation of physicians and the research institute’s cutting-edge explorations have proven to be a powerful regional talent magnet, attracting both individuals and businesses. This summer, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine will become even more tightly bound to the university as it is formally integrated as Virginia Tech’s ninth college.
These three structures are only the beginning: More buildings are planned, and businesses that have emerged from VTC’s research already are taking root in the Jefferson Street corridor that connects the Riverside complex with downtown Roanoke. Across the street, apartment complexes and commercial businesses have sprouted, reshaping the skyline of South Roanoke and inspiring a surge of creative energy.
Heywood Fralin, Chairman Of Medical Facilities Of America
“Virginia Tech is a very strong university, and Carilion is a strong health-care provider in the region, but neither will be as great as they can be without developing the academic health center that is a partnership between the two of them.”
“If I had the ability to come back 30 years down the road, I probably would not recognize the skyline,” said Heywood Fralin, a longtime supporter of Virginia Tech, chairman of Medical Facilities of America, and an outspoken advocate for greater regional cooperation. “It won’t be just the buildings that are built, or the operations of the clinic, or the school of medicine, or research institute. It will also be the companion businesses and clusters of activity that are created as result of the academic health center. And the most exciting part of it is the growth in the realm of high-paying jobs, which will raise the income levels of everyone in the region.”
That growth is gaining momentum and attracting people.
“You can feel the change,” said Carilion President and CEO Nancy Howell Agee. “This is a place that people want to come to.”
Virginia Tech and Carilion are spurring the creation of new, high-paying career opportunities beyond the biomedical sector. The increasing numbers of individuals relocating to the region to fill these positions have prompted the growth of related services and amenities.
“In the next 10 to 15 years, Virginia Tech Carilion could be one of the major medical research facilities on the East Coast,” said Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea. “I’m not just thinking about Roanoke or the New River Valley, but receiving national attention. That’s an opportunity that can really make a difference in our community.”
The partnership has broad ramifications beyond Riverside: Virginia Tech and Carilion’s efforts are bringing the Roanoke and New River valleys together in a way that benefits both and opens the door for collaboration that will make western Virginia more competitive in the global economy.
The Roanoke and New River valleys have long functioned as geographically adjacent but divided metro areas. They belong to different watersheds, with one draining into the Atlantic Ocean and the other into the Gulf of Mexico. Although a steady stream of commuters travel between the two, until recently each region emphasized its independent identity. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, however, working together makes a lot of strategic sense.
VTCRI: The Health Sciences and Technology Campus houses the School of Medicine and the Research Institute.
“Virginia Tech is a very strong university, and Carilion is a strong health-care provider in the region, but neither will be as great as they can be without developing the academic health center that is a partnership between the two of them,” Fralin said.
From radio waves to hotel stays
Virginia Tech wasn’t always so engaged in the Roanoke Valley. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, its active participation was limited to the annual Thanksgiving football game.
That changed in the early ’80s, when Virginia Western Community College sought to find a buyer for WVWR-FM, its National Public Radio station. The Virginia Tech Foundation stepped up, purchasing the station in 1982 and changing its call letters to WVTF. The station itself remained in Roanoke, creating the first formal, ongoing connection between Virginia Tech and the valley. That connection was reinforced many times daily in the station identification messages.
“The station identification message created a daily public recognition of Virginia Tech being involved in Roanoke for those who listened to the station,” said Ray Smoot, former chief executive officer of the Virginia Tech Foundation, who was instrumental in securing the deal. “The radio audience heard every day, many times if they were listening for any length of time, that this was a public service of Virginia Tech, but coming from Roanoke.”
WVTF has experienced significant growth since Virginia Tech took over, much of it under the purview of long-time general manager Glenn Gleixner, who was named interim manager in 2000 and took over permanently the following year. Gleixner announced his retirement earlier this year and is being succeeded by Roger Duvall, general manager and director of Kentucky’s WEKU since 2007.
The university’s acquisition of WVTF marked the first substantive step in a relationship that expanded during the late ’80s, when Norfolk Southern Railway began to dispose of its real-estate holdings in downtown Roanoke. The deteriorating Hotel Roanoke had not kept pace with modern developments and was losing money, so the railroad decided to leave the hospitality business. The decision sparked fear about the future of the hotel, which had served as a symbol of the city’s prosperity since its opening in 1882.
“The city was quite concerned about what was going to happen to Hotel Roanoke and had visions of it lurking up on the hill with chain link fences around it, dark and deteriorating,” Smoot said.
The city approached Virginia Tech; the university had purchased WVTF, so why not the hotel? Many Hokies were incredulous at first, but foundation officials recognized the potential of the project.
“Virginia Tech’s response to Roanoke was that if you, Roanoke, will build a large, state-of-the-art conference center, then we, Virginia Tech, will take over the hotel,” Smoot said.
THE PATH TO PARTNERSHIP: The restoration of the Hotel Roanoke and construction of the adjoining conference center paved the way for future collaborations that would span the Roanoke and New River valleys.
In 1989, Norfolk Southern transferred the hotel to Virginia Tech (see related story), which, in partnership with the city, embarked upon an ambitious fundraising initiative. The success of the campaign fueled the restoration of the Hotel Roanoke and construction of the adjoining conference center.
The Hotel Roanoke reopened in 1995. Over the next 20 years, its economic impact was estimated to be $616 million.
“By all metrics, it has been a very successful venture,” said Virginia Tech Foundation CEO John Dooley. “Indeed, it set the pathway for this cross-understanding between the Roanoke and New River valleys. I like the way that Tim Sands has articulated this relationship. When we talk about the main campus of Virginia Tech, we aren’t talking about it being divided between the New River and Roanoke valleys. It encompasses both Roanoke and Blacksburg.”
The collaboration also paved the way for restoration of another building owned by Norfolk Southern, which became the Roanoke Higher Education Center. The building was donated in 1997, and the center opened three years later. Today, Virginia Tech is one of 11 institutions offering workforce training and graduate programs at the centrally located facility.
The significance of the partnership between Virginia Tech and the city extended beyond cementing Tech’s role in Roanoke or preserving an iconic downtown building at a time during which an increasing number of structures were being vacated. The relationship pioneered the use of state and federal historic tax credits for building restoration. A decade later, those tax credits would prove crucial as private developers sought to transform a series of downtown industrial and professional buildings into apartments, resulting in an entirely new neighborhood that has grown to more than 2,000 residents in just 12 years.
The collaboration on the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center turned out to be a game-changer for the city, but it was just a small step compared to what lay ahead.
A vision for innovation
In the late ’90s, then-Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger’s goal to develop the university’s position as a leading research institution led to the early conversations with then-Carilion CEO Ed Murphy that ultimately resulted in the university and health center collaboration.
“If you look at the top 30 research universities, all but two have medical schools and related medical research,” said Smoot, who is also a member of the Carilion board. “Having at least an affiliation with the medical system seemed very helpful and necessary to building this larger research presence.”
The vision and proven track record of the two partners proved to be a powerful persuader. In Richmond during the mid-’00s, then-Gov. Tim Kaine and Lacey Putney—the legendary, 52-year delegate and chairman of the budget-writing Virginia House Appropriations Committee—forged a deal to pass a $1.5 billion plan to finance college and state building projects, including the Virginia Tech Carilion venture. Putney, who died in 2017, called its passage “probably the most significant piece of legislation that I’ve been associated with.”
A decade later, VTC’s initial success has exceeded expectations in terms of its transformative power, not just for Roanoke but for Carilion and Virginia Tech.
In fiscal year 2017, nearly 1,700 people worked at the VTC campus. By 2026, that number is expected to rise 85 percent to 3,147, according to a study conducted by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
From 2006 through 2016, Virginia Tech, Carilion Clinic, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the City of Roanoke invested a combined $375 million into the academic health center, with $147 million of that coming from the university. Through 2027, university analysts expect to see another $193 million in capital investment, $300 million in grant expenditures, $187 million in additional medical school expenditures, and another $1.5 billion in economic impact.
Total spending at the Health Sciences and Technology Campus is estimated to climb to $190.3 million in 2026—a 350 percent increase from 2017. The campus’ economic output in the state, which includes money generated through the VTC enterprise and its employees, is projected to reach $465 million in 2026. In 2017, economic output was $214 million.
These figures don’t account for Virginia Tech’s involvement with Hotel Roanoke or WVTF. Nor do they factor in the cumulative effects of the more than 7,500 Tech alumni living in the Roanoke Valley. Taken as a whole, Virginia Tech’s impact on the region is tremendous.
“The Virginia Tech of today is not the Virginia Tech of 20 years ago or even 10 years ago,” Agee said. “The vision that Charlie Steger had of being a top-tier research university was a huge leap into the future, and they’re there. That would not have been possible without the partnership between Virginia Tech and Carilion.”
If not for the partnership, Agee said, “in terms of research, Virginia Tech’s then-aspirational goal would have been unlikely. It would not be getting as much funding from NIH [National Institutes of Health]. For Carilion, we’ve brought in several hundred new physicians and providers, many of whom came because we captured this vision. They wanted to be part of Virginia Tech as well as Carilion.”
Students in the School of Neuroscience view surgery.
In October 2017, Virginia’s governor joined local and regional elected officials and a crowd of nearly 100 to participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking for the center’s fourth building, the 139,000-square-foot Virginia Tech Carilion Biomedical Research Expansion. The facility will provide additional research laboratories organized around interactive research themes and infused with experiential learning environments.
The expansion was funded in part by a $2.2 billion state bond package in 2016, a product of the work of a Republican General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Soon after that agreement had been reached, during the signing of a ceremonial bill, McAuliffe said that VTC would catapult Virginia into national prominence in brain research.
“We are putting our marker down,” McAuliffe said. “Right here at Virginia Tech Carilion, we really can become the brain state with the great work that is being done here.
Expected to open in spring 2020, the $90 million research facility reflects the continued growth of the Roanoke Innovation District. Students, trainees, and faculty members with diverse talents, along with Carilion clinicians, will come together to perform research studies in a real-world context, reaching across boundaries to solve complex health problems.
“The future that I see is a new economy for the Roanoke and New River valleys that is technology-based, with a significant driver being health and life sciences,” Dooley said. “I see the vibrancy of downtown Roanoke expanding. I see the creation of new companies that come out of the research enterprise of Virginia Tech Carilion. I see companies relocating to the region to be close to this exciting venture. I see other companies that have services that might be related to the companies relocating here. I see the creation of new jobs related to amenities that would support the types of retail and service that a new generation requires and desires. And long-term, I see new transportation modes between Roanoke, Blacksburg, and the National Capital Region to help facilitate smooth transitions and the movement of talent to Southwest Virginia.”
VTC’s work will be amplified through another collaboration between the Virginia Tech Foundation and Carilion Clinic. The $15 million VTC Innovation Fund will support late-seed and growth-stage companies to commercialize groundbreaking science and research as well as innovative products and solutions. The initiative accelerates moving research conducted at VTCRI into real-world applications.
Back on the rails
Virginia Tech’s growing role in Roanoke has helped transform the city into a 21st-century destination for talented and ambitious individuals. With many of the initiatives still in their early stages, there remains unbridled potential for the future.
“In my opinion, this can be as great as all of us want it to be,” Fralin said, but it will take continued buy-in from the Hokie Nation. As an example, he pointed to the fundraising effort to support the restoration of the Hotel Roanoke.
“You could go into any restaurant, into any business, and people were talking about and excited about the renovation and reopening of the Hotel Roanoke,” Fralin said. “That’s exactly the type of enthusiasm and type of backing this effort is going to have to have. It’s going to be successful no matter what, but it’s going to be far more successful if you have that kind of support and buy-in. It will require both financial contributions and human capital contributions by everybody, and they have to be greater than they’ve ever thought of before for this to be as successful as everyone wants it to be.”
The university’s engagement has progressed, moving from a decades-old athletic tradition that played out annually on Maher Field to the present, encompassing a vital academic health center and research institute with an eye on the future.
Today, students and instructors provide care at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, and researchers make discoveries that fuel growing numbers of start-ups in the Roanoke Innovation Corridor. Virginia Tech’s intervention helped reverse the negative direction of an iconic hospitality business, establishing in its place the thriving Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, an attraction for tourism and business that also served as a cornerstone for the downtown reinvention that reversed decades of decline.
Although still in its early stages, the Virginia Tech Roanoke partnership is laying the new tracks that will carry the city and the university far into the future.