President O’Hara releases findings on Quality of Life in Roanoke area

SALEM, Va. - Findings from a study conducted for the Business Council have identified both highs and lows in the attractiveness of the Roanoke region.

The area, for example, ranks at the top for quality education and environment, in the middle for health care and at the bottom for such amenities as "urban feel" and the percentage of people who have moved to the region from out-of-state.

"Economic development is complex," says the study's organizer and lead author, Dr. Sabine U. O'Hara, president of Roanoke College. "Giving incentives to business is no longer enough. We need more than one tool to achieve long-term, healthy and sustainable growth here in the Roanoke region. Improving our region's assets and quality of life is a great way to achieve growth, and it helps attract and retain a high-quality workforce." Yet, O'Hara cautions, "Developing a region's assets and improving its quality of life doesn't happen overnight; it happens over time."

The study examined Roanoke's competitiveness in five key quality of life categories: (1) social and cultural amenities, (2) education, (3) environment and recreation, (4) health and wellness and (5) technology and transportation. Roanoke's strongest asset is its natural beauty and the recreational opportunities its environment offers. Yet to turn that into a real competitive advantage, Roanoke must make it more readily accessible to residents and visitors. The region's second strongest asset is education with the exception of Roanoke's city schools.

Roanoke's weak points are its social and cultural amenities. Of the 10 comparison communities, Roanoke scored less than half of the top scorer in the category. That is despite some considerable strengths within the social and cultural amenities category given Roanoke's theatres, symphony and museums. Those stronger assets, however, are outweighed by some considerable weaknesses. Roanoke ranks last in restaurant diversity and bars/music venues and 10th of 11 in restaurant density and urban feel and high-end retail. This weak showing also raises concerns about possible "leakages" of disposable income from the Roanoke area to other regions that offer more desirable options to consumers seeking retail and entertainment.

To improve its overall quality of life, Roanoke must build on its assets and address its deficits, O'Hara says. That will require deliberate development strategies that are significantly different from those successful in the past. Strategies in the new economy must focus on identifying indicators that are suited to assess a region's strength and weaknesses and to measure progress toward clearly stated Quality of Life goals.

"In today's economy, people are mobile, and many can choose where to live rather than living right next to their job site," O'Hara says. "People like the social and cultural amenities an urban center has to offer, and they want the livability of residential neighborhoods with good schools, and they want the environmental and recreational assets a region's outer ring has to offer. Good schools alone are not enough; a healthy and recreation-oriented environment is great, but it's not enough. This means we should act like a region and use all the different strengths we have to offer in complementary ways. That's what makes us attractive; that's what makes us strong."

The study defines the Roanoke region as the cities of Roanoke and Salem and the counties of Roanoke, Botetourt, Craig and Franklin. The 10 comparison communities (Ann Arbor, Mich.; Asheville, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Chattanooga, Tenn., Colorado Springs, Colo.; Fargo, N.D.; Madison, Wis.; Portland, Maine; Rochester, Minn., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) are similar in size to Roanoke but have population growth rates of 1.0 to 1.5 percent per year - considerably higher than Roanoke's 0.26 percent annual growth rate.

The report can be viewed online at http://web.roanoke.edu/x1101.xml.

O'Hara, whose academic specialty is regional economics and sustainable economic development, was joined in the study by Dr. Jose Vazquez-Cognet, a former Ph.D. student of O'Hara's who is now an economics lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Roanoke College, the country's second oldest Lutheran-related college, is an independent, co-educational, four-year liberal arts college. Roanoke is one of just 276 colleges nationwide with a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest and most prestigious honor society. The Princeton Review names Roanoke as one of the "best in the Southeast." Roanoke's 1,900 students represent 41 states across the U.S. and 25 foreign countries.

For additional information, call the Roanoke College Public Relations Office at (540) 375-2282.