Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Another Appalachian Urban Rebound

Roanoke, Virginia has good bones. The setting for the city is as dramatic as you'll find anywhere in the United States. These assets set the table for the next Chattanooga or Greenville:

“People think this is too good to be true,” said Chris Morrill, the city manager. “You have this developer who knows the finances, knows the law, knows how to do these historic renovations and is really committed to the community. It’s real.”

Mr. Morrill added: “When folks from other communities come in here and I show them some of the stuff that’s Ed’s doing, they’re like, ‘How can we clone this guy and bring him back to our community?’ ”

[Mr. Walker’s conference] is intended to share his blueprint for urban redevelopment, a field known as placemaking; he will study it at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design this year, with a prestigious Loeb fellowship. But many towns already have their own version of Ed Walker, said Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution and founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, which focuses on cities. “This is happening across the country,” Mr. Katz said.

The tagline for the conference is "Radical Trust in the New Frontier". The theme should be familiar to readers here. Recycled cities offer unique opportunities you can't find in the latest boomtown.

Since moving to Northern Virginia, I've been to Roanoke a few times. I love the area and the city. I can see the attraction. But the place is off most people's mental maps. If you are looking for an undiscovered urban gem, check out Roanoke.

As Bruce Katz remarks, there is a bigger story in play. Here is the Burgh Diaspora angle:

The keynote speaker for Thursday's session is Bob Lambert, a Roanoke native and graduate of Patrick Henry High School and Virginia Tech who has spent the past three decades in California, most of it as a senior executive with The Walt Disney Co.

When he left Disney last year and became a venture capitalist, Lambert was senior vice president for worldwide technology strategy and development for the company. His job was to be looking for new technological breakthroughs, and he was a key figure in the Pixar collaboration with Disney.

Lambert has been a frequent visitor to his hometown and maintained old friendships here.

"Four or five years ago, I noticed the city was changing in an interesting way. Developers were revitalizing downtown. There was the Taubman. I started watching the city a lot more closely and started coming back even more often," he said.

Not long ago, he said, a Roanoke friend called him in Los Angeles. "You ought to come in this weekend," she said, "and see how much is going on." There was a concert at CityWorks' Kirk Avenue Music Hall, a show at Jefferson Center, a wine tasting, a run on the greenway and other events.

"The thing I love about this city is the human scale of it," Lambert said.

As for (X)po, "There's more to it than just the rising appeal of small cities," which he predicts will be able to attract young people who want to live in places where they find a good quality of life and can work through their computers and smartphones.

"It's about how small businesses will evolve and exist."

He cites Ogden, Utah; Albany, N.Y.; and Asheville, N.C., as some of the places that are attracting the best and brightest. "They are mini Silicon Valleys."

Emphasis added. Once again, I see evidence of diffusion instead of agglomeration for the Innovation Economy. Roanoke's revitalization is interesting because there is no large university at the core to anchor the economy. In the above article, Ed Walker makes that precise point. What can we do to help such cities? Walker and Roanoke are trying to figure that out.

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