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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Norfolk Southern Takes Its Toys Away From Roanoke

Since I became a resident of Roanoke almost twenty years ago I've witnessed her being slapped around quite a few times. I thought the last punch to her gut, Advance Auto leaving to head to Raleigh, couldn't be topped. I mean, Advance was born in Roanoke in 1932, our downtown museum was named after the founder, Art Taubman, and they had recently acquired Carquest. Expanding company = boon to the boondocks, no? Then, in a move that took everyone by surprise, including local government who were clueless anything was afloat, Advance decided to move the corporate office to Carquest's headquarters in Raleigh, rather than fold them into the belly of the valley. Do not the spoils of war go to the victor? There was some hubbub for a while, then the outrage seemed to just mosey on down the road.

Life went on in Roanoke. Sure there were a couple more blows, and not just in the city...the Allstate Roanoke County folly, the recent SalemYokahama 31 lay-off. The list goes on and I will link to it in a moment. Because at the head of the list is something actually worse than Advance's punch to Roanoke's gut. This was a harder punch in the gut, a kick in the ass, and a big ole spit in the face, from Norfolk Southern to Roanoke by deciding to eliminate their headquarters downtown and move 500 white collar positions either to Atlanta or Norfolk. You can read the details here.

In case you are unaware, Roanoke was built on rails. This town sprung forth from the rails. Its whole psyche is railroad-based. Even I, a New Yorker, who had never heard of Roanoke, wound up living here solely due to the lure of the train and my 3 year-old's desire to visit the transportation museum which had a train yard. We embrace the rails. We love the rails. And yet, in the two decades I've lived here we have had no passenger rails. Hard to believe, isn't it? Yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel. 2017 is the date when Amtrak will arrive in downtown Roanoke, and 2015 is the date when Norfolk Southern decided it was the time to abandon Roanoke. It's almost as if NS, who fought passenger service returning to Roanoke, is so annoyed at having to share their rails that they decided to pick up their toys and go home.

The history between Roanoke and Norfolk Southern cannot be covered in a short blog post. Here's a link to a WSLS on the History of NS. There's a video in the piece you can watch.  And here is a link to a Roanoke Time's NS Milestone List. And finally, a link to an editorial from yesterday's Roanoke Times. If you read the comments you'll see I chimed in. If you don't, this is what I posted:

"As long as Roanoke leaves little options for travelers to get in and out of here, easily and cost effectively, I doubt any large corporation will take this valley seriously to set up shop. Bottom line is the airport is too small and does not offer many cheap non-stop flights to major cities. Check the differences between Roanoke and Raleigh for a direct flight to NYC. BTW, I've always heard that it was Norfolk Southern who talked Roanoke out of expanding the airport. Anyone know if that is true? And yes, Amtrak will be a good thing, but no business wants to put their executives on a train to NYC for over 8 hours vs. a flight that should take 1 1/2 hours. As far as better-educated and well-trained workers...Roanoke already has them, but the businesses do not want to pay them what they are worth so folks are forced to look elsewhere. My 22 year old son relocated to Raleigh, best move ever."

Here is that link to this list of Closing and Layoffs. Notice Advance nor Allstate is not on the list, so who knows how many others are missing as well.

When I think back 20 years ago to my naive view of the Roanoke Valley, I laugh at myself. I had such high hopes. I thought I found it all. I ripped the roots out of concrete and planted them in clay dirt. With all the kicking they received, they never became strong roots. It didn't take long to break through the fake facade, but by then it was too late. I had given up everything, so I tried to make the best of a bad situation. I had no choice.

I've forgiven Roanoke many things, many, many, many things, but the one thing I can't forgive is breaking up my family and diminishing my kids' worth. No opportunities, no fair wages, no stay. I can't blame them. I support them. I thought I picked our forever place, but forever's over. If I could leave right this minute, right this second, I would. Well, I do leave, but I always have to come back at some point. I still have a business to run. I'm ready to sell, but my husband isn't. I figure I brought him here, so for now I have to deal with it. Eventually, I know that will change. What really needs to change are the priorities Roanoke's local leaders deem important to make this valley a thriving community.

Oh, Roanoke does a fine job hosting journalists in their effort to bolster the city's exposure. It works well, and at any given time you can go on social media and find a link to a travel blog, newspaper or magazine article. Roanoke is also good for a couple of Top Ten Destination/Best Blah Blah Blah mentions per year. I don't think anyone would argue any award Roanoke receives for quality of life. Mountain vistas, verdant valleys, the rolling river,  greenways, bicycle lanes, a quaint downtown, etc....what's not to like? Too bad lifestyle amenities do not equate to living expenses. And no matter what some people think, no corporation is going to determine Roanoke will be their headquarters based on greenways or bike lanes.

Carilion is the largest, by far, job creator in the valley. The city kisses their ass all the time, and it seems like they have placed all their eggs in Carilion's incubator. This rail town has become a medical municipality. I guess they're thankful they at least have them, but Roanoke really needs to start thinking bigger and better, offer more options, to keep our youth here after they graduate, and attract businesses. As I stated in the above comment, Roanoke has talent and expertise, but no one wants to pay for it. Oh, and boasting of two additional Walmarts and their job creations of $7.35/hourly positions is not the bar to aim for. Sigh...


  1. Great rant. That list of closings leaves out a lot as I noticed several closures in Botetourt that weren't mentioned. Unfortunately the exodus of young people has been going on for a long time - longer, even, than the 20 years you have been here. When I was a high school student in the late 1970s it was just a fact that you'd go to college and leave the area, as there was nothing here, and that hasn't changed. No one has figured out how to make it change, either.

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. As the mother of one of those people Advance is transferring, I have to be happy with the promotion and the opportunities in a new city even as I weep over not having my child minutes away. As the mother of another child who chose not to drive, I have to be happy mass transit in a city helped gain a job even as I hate the 6 hour drive to visit. But the NS removing 500 well paid employees is more painful and I feel betrayed by their decisions to abandon Roanoke as all but a hub for trains in and out. Like Advance, they left workers here, but it is not the same. I understand Roanoke's deficiencies as well as anyone born and raised in the region or transferred to it and I too wonder at the leaders refusal to even acknowledge the truth of them. The Airport being #1 and the inability to offer incentives like Advance got."The North Carolina Economic Investment Committee unanimously voted to award $17.4 million in Job Development Investment Grants to Advance Auto Parts to bring 600 jobs to Wake County." I have to wonder if NS got a bribe too, or if it was just payback for fighting to bring Amtrak another hour up the line. It hurts.

  3. That's sad Anita. When I first researched the area there was no internet, or I wasn't hooked into it, so I just depended upon reading the Sunday Roanoke Times to see what the valley was about. I really thought it would be an up and coming city and I, the urban pioneer, had discovered it! I imagined my kids would be educated here, then find great jobs and stay close to me, and then one day I'd be able to take my grandchildren to all the lovely parks, etc. Boy was I duped.

    Sandy, I feel your pain and like you I'm happy for him with the promotion and opportunities, but I would have preferred it happened where I was living.

    I think a lot of Roanoke's problems comes from the local leaders burying their heads in the sand. I don't know how they don't see the hand right in front of their face. And then trying to spin the loss of jobs is just ridiculous. It's one thing to be optimistic but to be an ostrich is another.