Month: March 2009

Come Out to Hear the Roanoke CCLP’s ‘Big Ideas’

We’ve all had days like this. Ones that are at once energizing and exhausting. Filled with mental challenges that leave your brain a bit numb from it all once you reach the finish line.

That describes the first day of the two-day Roanoke Creative Communities Leadership Program seminar.

I and Roanoke’s other “creative connectors” gathered at Kirk Avenue Music Hall in downtown Roanoke for a crash course in Richard Florida’s 4T’s — Technology, Talent, Tolerance, and Territorial Assets — and generated literally hundreds of ideas to reinvigorate the Roanoke region.

We learned about Roanoke “by the numbers” in comparison with 10 benchmark communities identified by the Creative Group: Charleston, S.C.; Greenville, N.C.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Madison, Wisc.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Portland, Me; Asheville, N.C.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Charlottesville, Va.; and Athens, Ga.

Brace yourselves — some of the numbers* aren’t pretty. Roanoke’s Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), defined as the counties of Roanoke, Franklin, Boutetourt and Craig, ranks near the bottom in many key categories. Creative Class workers: 9th. College graduates or higher: 10th. Five-year job growth: 9th. Total patents: 8th. Median age: 11th (oldest).

But enough about the negatives, many of which we could have guessed. Let’s focus on some of the positives.

Roanoke ranks first in home ownership. First in average commute time (shortest). First in arts and recreation. Second in two-year per capita income growth. Fourth in Creative Class workers per 100,000 residents. And, surprisingly, 6th in the “Brain Drain Index,” which indicates that we’re not losing as many of our best and brightest as one might believe.

We spent most of the day poring over these numbers, exploring and analyzing them from many angles and perspectives. And along the way, each of us wrote down ideas on large sticky notes. Between sessions, we’d gather around four large boards — one for each of the 4 T’s — and place our stickies in the most appropriate category.

The brain power in the room was staggering. I can honestly say that I didn’t hear one bad idea (though I’m sure other connectors might disagree).

There’s much more I can say, but I’m going to stop here so I can work on our homework assignment. I need to choose one of my ideas and put together a sale pitch to give in the morning, because tomorrow we’re going through a “passion voting” exercise to narrow all our ideas down to four initiatives, one for each of the 4 T’s.

Then, at 4 o’clock, the community is invited to join us at 22 Kirk Ave. to hear presentations about our initiatives.

Please come join us — we want to pack the place!

* Sources: U.S. Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics 2003-07, American Community Survey 2005-2007, and Creative Class Group 2009.

What’s Your Vision for Roanoke’s Future?

If you’re reading this, odds are you’re passionate about the Roanoke region’s future.

Now it’s time to express your passion in words.

Roanoke’s Creative Communities Leadership Program (CCLP) begins in earnest Monday with an intensive two-day workshop for its 30 “creative connectors,” of which I am one. At the end of the day Tuesday, we will close the workshop at Kirk Avenue Music Hall by presenting several concepts for sustainable projects — based on the “4T’s” — that will spur greater regional prosperity.

But the 30 connectors definitely are not the region’s only visionaries. That’s where you come in.

With the 4T’s of creative communities in mind — Talent, Tolerance, Technology and Territorial Assets — what projects would YOU propose?

Share your ideas via comments below. I’d like the benefit of your input before the workshop begins.

Together, we can build a stronger Roanoke.

The Creative Class Speaks to the Roanoke CCLP

As promised, here’s my summary of last week’s lunch discussion with fellow Roanokers, in preparation for my participation as a “creative connector” in Roanoke’s Creative Communities Leadership Program (CCLP). I’m submitting the report as part of my “field research” before a two-day CCLP workshop March 30-31.

Several Roanokers joined me March 18 for a lunch discussion. All are members of the creative class:

  • Greg Brock. Roanoke native whose wife, from Detroit, fell for both Greg and Roanoke. Digital media sales manager at WDBJ. Member of Raleigh Court Civic League.
  • Jennifer Bryant. Lynchburg native. Job as senior project manager at PARK Roanoke moved her here in 2006. Lives, works and plays downtown.
  • John Cornthwait. Roanoke native/lifelong resident. Web designer. Lives in city.
  • Brian Counihan. Moved to Roanoke 4 years ago, drawn by atmosphere for raising his children (lived previously in New York and Chicago). Artist and teacher.
  • Marty Martin. Roanoke native and lifelong resident. Works in web marketing.
  • Jenna Nelson. Roanoke native/lifelong resident. Works at Shenandoah Life.
  • Roni Sutton. Bedford County resident who owns property in Roanoke (SE and SW), operates a small construction company, and works at Community High.

Some common threads weaved themselves through our 90-minute conversation, but most common was this: Roanoke does not effectively market itself. People – including those who live in the region – “don’t know what we have to offer,” Ms. Bryant said. And in large part, that stems from an inability to define the region and where it wants to go. Several groups are working to improve and promote the region – Valley Forward, the Arts Council, NCTC, etc. – but the general feeling is that a lack of communication and coordination among them is stifling real progress.

Also stifling progress, all believe, is the general resistance to change among city leaders and residents. One interesting observation: Resistance is not regional, but rather confined largely within the city’s borders; unfortunately, those non-city residents cannot vote in city elections.

Other observations presented by the group:

  • Given the breadth of technology companies in the region, Mr. Cornthwait believes we need to present ourselves as a “techie” region. There’s a deep, hidden job market that people don’t know about because local companies use ineffective recruiting tactics.
  • Economic development efforts have drawn low-wage telemarketing/distribution/warehouse businesses, rather than enterprises that will attract the creative class.
  • With corporate offices leaving Roanoke, we’re spending an inordinate amount of energy working to keep companies here, instead of attracting new ones.
  • Roanokers are very good at forming opposition committees. What the CCLP needs to do is identify likely adversaries and engage them early.
  • Mr. Counihan has an intense interest in developing cultural offerings. He believes we need to define what we mean by “the Arts” in Roanoke. In particular, he is disappointed that “Art by Night” recycles the same artists rather than showcase new artists each month.
  • Visitors are impressed once they spend time here. The hard part is getting them here.
  • The entire region needs to embrace green policies and solutions, not just the city. Roanoke County, for example, does not even collect recyclables. Blacksburg was identified as a place that is doing it right when it comes to green policies.
  • “Southeast…By Design” was a good idea, but too difficult for developers to understand and too restrictive to be effective. The six-year-old program needs to be reinvented.
  • Charlottesville, Seattle and Portland were mentioned as cities to emulate for myriad reasons. Mr. Martin likes how Seattle has several distinct neighborhoods that are easy to navigate. The Charlottesville Community Design Center was cited as a great example of tapping local residents for solutions, rather than outside consultants.
  • Roanokers are “tolerant but segregated” is how one person put it. Our population is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, but Roanoke is still a city where if one asks, “Where is the black neighborhood?” the answer comes very quickly and without hesitation. “There are preconceived notions about every part of town – you’re born into it,” one person said. “And that holds us back from progress.” (On a personal note, I believe “acceptance” is a better goal than “tolerance,” but alas, that doesn’t mesh with the “4T’s” marketing catch phrase.)
  • One general question that I hope will be addressed during our two-day workshop: Who will be responsible for implementing the plans developed by the CCLP? The lunch group observed that past efforts for community and economic development have suffered from the absence of a visionary leader (or leaders) who can rally and motivate people.

I’d like to close the report on a positive note. Heads nodded in unison when Mr. Brock observed that “progression is happening” in Roanoke, but that the region finds itself at a critical crossroads. The energy required to continue the progression is in place, but leaders must decide to stay on that road and if so, be very thoughtful in how it proceeds in order to manage growth.

Roanoke CCLP Begins With a Social

I knew I was fortunate to be chosen as one of 30 “creative connectors” to participate in the City of Roanoke’s Creative Communities Leadership Program (CCLP). But before attending a social last night at Kirk Avenue Music Hall to kick off the year-long project, I didn’t truly realize my good fortune.

What an amazing group. Guided by Stuart Mease, the city selected an ecclectic, energetic, and extremely engaging group of people. And I only had a chance to talk one-on-one with a handful!

I knew about many of the “creative connectors” chosen, but as a relative newcomer to Roanoke, I had not met any of them before last night. Several shared inspiring stories about how they came to live in Roanoke — be it by birth or by choice — and why they’ve chosen to make this their home.

Getting to know them all surely will end up being the greatest personal benefit to being a “connector.”

How I Became a Roanoker

I told my story of moving from Orlando to Blacksburg in 2005 to become director of web communications at Virginia Tech — and to return to my wife’s roots in Roanoke. In July 2008, I left Virginia Tech, we moved to our small farm in Montvale, and I become director of interactive media at Carilion Clinic.

Though I don’t live in Roanoke proper, I consider myself a Roanoker. And I told the group last night that I believe the CCLP is precisely the grass-roots effort the city needs to give it a much-needed creative jolt.

For myriad reasons, city officials don’t seem capable of leading the change Roanoke needs. They’ve proven this over and over again — from Victory Stadium to the amphitheater debate to the paralyzing indecision over the City Market Building. Perhaps with the CCLP, the city is turning a corner, relying on its creative class to lead the change.

I sure hope that’s the case, and that this is a genuine effort. I intend to establish roots here, so I have a vested interest in Roanoke becoming one of America’s most vibrant and innovative cities.

It’s time to remove the word “hidden” from that tired description of Roanoke as a “hidden gem.”

Lunch ‘n’ Listen

Earlier yesterday, a group of fellow Roanokers joined me for a long lunch at Table 50 to talk about the city’s present and future (and a little about its past). We had a free-flowing discussion about why they live here, how they perceive the city, how outsiders perceive us, what kind of job we’re doing attracting the creative class, how Roanoke rates as a “tolerant” city, and much more.

I’ll be writing up a report on our discussion and posting it to this blog soon. For now, I’ll share an inspiring insight from Brian Counihan, an artist and faculty member at Community High. Brian lived previously in New York and Chicago, large cities that can consume people. So one thing he said he loves about Roanoke is the fact that “one person can make a difference.”

Right on Brian. But the real power is when one person becomes hundreds. Or thousands.

That’s what I hope the CCLP inspires in Roanoke.

Time to Get to Work

The next step for the CCLP is a workshop March 30-31, also to be held at Kirk Avenue. Our goal during those two days is to generate four sustainable project ideas to help stimulate economic growth in the greater Roanoke area, which we have defined to include the New River Valley. We’ll spend the rest of the year fleshing out the projects.

This is going to be a lot of fun. And through this blog, I’ll be doing my best to open a window to the process and help ensure the transparency of the project.