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Feb 04

[ARCHIVED] What's in a Number?

The original item was published from February 4, 2019 11:52 AM to February 4, 2019 12:07 PM

One hundred thousand – 100,033 to be exact – is the most recent estimate for the City of Roanoke’s population provided by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. What does that number tell us? That’s what this post is all about.

Forty Years

Essentially, it’s been 40 years since the population of Roanoke has been at or above 100,000.  The 1980 U.S. Census estimated Roanoke’s population at 100,220, the first time in its, then 100-year, history to reach that mark.  A great deal has changed in Roanoke since that time.  In 1980, the City’s economy was struggling to find its footing following the loss of much of its industrial base.  Essentially, no one lived downtown—in fact, fewer and fewer people had reason to patronize downtown.  The Hotel Roanoke was, after 100 years of operating, struggling.  Valley View Mall would not open its doors for another five years, the same year when the City was devastated by catastrophic flooding.  The City was struggling and its population began a decades-long decline.

Forty years later, there is new momentum and a sense of optimism accompanying the population increase.  Downtown is once again bustling with more than 2,000 residents, Hotel Roanoke anchors a successful and growing tourism boom, and partnerships have been forged resulting in a school of medicine, a thriving biomedical research center, and an expanding health care sector.  The City appears poised to continue its momentum and address a number of issues that stubbornly limit success for many communities, including poverty, lack of educational attainment, poor access to health care, etc.

Good News, and Less Good News

A growing population is good news for many reasons.  As noted previously, it serves as a good indicator of success with the strategic investments happening in the City.  It also expands economic activity. More people can mean more shopping, more home purchases, more construction, and so on.  However, if you dig just a bit deeper in the numbers, a cloud exists: as a region, our population is barely increasing.  In fact, if we were relying solely on the number of births occurring versus deaths, then we would, as a region, actually be shrinking.  The Roanoke region is the slowest growing metropolitan area in Virginia— the Bristol area is actually losing population.  This is worrisome because with this comes slower economic expansion, lower tax revenues to deliver necessary services, and decreasing political clout—a critical factor in Virginia, which is so dominated by the state government.

It is for these reasons that efforts to improve livability and quality of life throughout our region and within each of our neighborhoods are so important.  As we recently saw with the Amazon HQ 2 decision, economic development follows talent, and talent can, and does, choose places based on quality of life and opportunity. This is also why efforts to recruit and develop talent in our existing workforce are critical—we need everyone contributing to our local economy.  

It’s good that we are growing, it’s good that we have hit a milestone a long time in the making, and it’s good that we have momentum.  Despite this growth, we need to remain focused and we need to keep charging ahead by doing what we have been doing, and then some. Our future depends upon it!

- Bob Cowell