Roanoke College President Researches Quality of Life in Roanoke

SALEM, Va. —Roanoke College President, Dr. Sabine O’Hara, is volunteering her time to research the quality of life of the Roanoke Valley. O’Hara, whose academic specialty is regional economics and sustainable economic development, and Dr. Jose Vazquez-Cognet, an economics lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are researching what makes people want to live and spend money in Roanoke. By comparing Roanoke’s quality of life to that of other cities, they hope to identify areas where Roanoke needs improvement and where it ranks higher than other cities. O’Hara set up the quality of life study at the request of the Roanoke Business Council and she is working closely with the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"When I was asked to consider doing a study of the economic development potential of the Roanoke Valley, I knew I couldn’t possibly do it alone. I’m too busy but it is also very gratifying to be working on a project that benefits the Roanoke Valley and allows me to use my expertise," O’Hara said. O’Hara selected Vazquez-Cognet, a former Ph.D. student of hers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., as her research partner. Vazquez-Cognet and his graduate students are doing all the data collection for the study. O’Hara, who has done similar work before, will then help Vazquez-Cognet and his students analyze and interpret the data.

For the last 50 years, a region’s approach to economic development has been shaped by base theory, which says that the most important thing for a region’s economy is to build up a base sector—one key export-oriented industry. O’Hara says this is problematic for a variety of reasons. For example, if the base sector has a few bad years, a region’s entire economy will be adversely affected. In a global economy businesses are also no longer as closely tied to a region as they once were. Stimulating a region’s economy requires a focus on regional demand not just exports outside of the region and as regions compete for base industries, they have often bid each other down with offers of subsidies and lax regulations. O’Hara sees the quality of life in a region as a better predictor of its economic development success. "People drive development. When people move to a region they find attractive, it stimulates the region’s economy. A better quality of life is also good for business. It helps attract and retain a qualified work force," O’Hara said.

Yet while this approach may seem straightforward, it is not. O’Hara structured her study to focus on five indicator categories that describe a region’s quality of life: social and cultural amenities, education, health and wellness, environmental amenities and recreation, and technology infrastructure and transportation. Some 105 measures within these five categories were then selected to examine Roanoke’s quality of life. O’Hara based this approach on her previous research. "One of the things I’ve found is that people’s responses revolved around five types of categories" O’Hara said. She even examined some of them herself when deciding whether to move to Salem when offered the Roanoke College presidency in 2004.

So what does Roanoke’s quality of life look like compared to other cities? That is precisely the question the study seeks to answer. By comparing Roanoke to 10 other communities with one to two percent annual growth O’Hara and Vazquez-Cognet hope to find what makes these 10 communities attractive and what makes Roanoke’s growth "so flat" at 0.25 percent annual growth.

O’Hara and Vazquez-Cognet hope to have the study completed in March 2006. They will present their findings to the Roanoke Business Council. "We’re providing Roanoke with a snapshot of what things are like right now," O’Hara said. After that, it is up to others to make policy choices based on the data, she said.

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