High Tech Roundtable in Blacksburg

This afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend the first of Blacksburg’s Economic Development Roundtables, which was focused on making sure the Town of Blacksburg focuses on keeping and attracting entrepreneurship.  Actually, you have the opportunity to attend, as well – there are three left.

I’ll admit, this wasn’t the session I was most looking forward to.  In fact, it was probably the one I was least looking forward to; but I am so glad I attended.  With representatives from the Town, Town Council, as well as many business owners from the Corporate Research Center, this was a wealth of knowledge about small business and entrepreneurship, all assembled in one room.  And while I was thinking that this was going to be all about what businesses wanted in order to keep growing – more broadband, cheaper rents, etc. – I quickly learned that that’s not what they wanted at all.  Well, not what they wanted first.  As we went around the room, several people mentioned that they came to – or stayed in – Blacksburg because of things like the quality of life, the intellectual diversity, or the affordability (I understand that’s a relative term) of housing, it was quickly clear that they wanted quality places for their employees to live, work and play.

It’s the motto of Downtown Blacksburg, right?

As people talked, it wasn’t just that they wanted nice places to work – they have that at the Corporate Research Center, and at TechPad, and other locations.  What they wanted was good quality homes for their people to live in, and high-quality restaurants to eat at, you can find a delicious Juicy Lucy at many locations, and fun activities to participate in year-round.  These business owners want to get involved in their community.  They want to give back.  And the conversation quickly shifted to how we were squandering that by ignoring the downtown core of Blacksburg, leaving it to the sub shops, and the tattoo parlors, and the bars.

I don’t disagree – in a lot of ways, I think we’ve just given up making downtown a destination for residents throughout the region.  Every day I walk by the old National Bank of Blacksburg building – a building I sold years ago, and that has sat vacant ever since – and thought that it would be such a great spot for a restaurant, or housing.  The two storefronts next door, both empty, could sell baked goods, or items found at the Farmer’s Market (which is currently only open two days a week).  Sharkey’s has sat vacant for I don’t know how long, with housing upstairs that – in my opinion – should be condemned.  Ton 80, which I think closed before I moved here in 2001, has sat empty and unused for easily a decade.  Shoot – Nest Realty just opened our office at 400 N. Main; we wanted to be downtown, but we were limited in how much we could do to our small space in part because of how far it had declined as it sat vacant over the years.  (Come visit us anyway – if the lights are on, we’re there!)  And housing is just as bad, if not worse.  Many houses, owned by absentee owners, aren’t watched over and taken care of, simply because it’s easier to collect a rent check and do nothing when you don’t have to look at the property on a daily basis.  Prices climbed, and while they’ve also settled down a bit, the median sales price YTD of a single-family home in Blacksburg is still $248500.  That kind of money, downtown, will get you a house built in the 1970’s (or older), with a kitchen, some baths, standing towel racks, and more that look as if they haven’t been touched – and in many cases, they haven’t.  Anecdotally, I can tell you that it’s easier for me to sell a home priced at $250000 in downtown than it is at $250000 in The Village at Tom’s Creek.  I don’t know why that is, but I suspect it has to do with a societal shift towards downtown cores – people want to live closer to where they work, and vice versa.

So what’s to be done?

I don’t know.  And I don’t think any of those in the room this afternoon know, either.  But the fact that we’re having the discussion, and that everyone acknowledged that at the root of it all is housing, is encouraging.  Change is inevitable.  But so is complacency.  My hope is that those in the room – and others throughout the community – number more for the side of change than those who stand for complacency.

How about you?  Join us at the remaining roundtables?  I’ll be tweeting from the sessions, as well – you can follow along at the #BBEconDev hashtag.

5 thoughts on “High Tech Roundtable in Blacksburg

  1. Steven

    Oh, I’d say it’s a partnership, but it’s probably challenging to get a symbiotic strategic collaboration going. (Those are my $5 words.)

  2. Steven

    I like that you’re blogging about this Jeremy. Sorry I missed the exceptional tweet-fest this morning. Looks like it was a good one.

    Interesting how little the University has to say about Blacksburg in it’s long-term planning…

    It reminds me of a scene in Sunday’s Mad Men episode where a junior copy writer provokes an elevator argument with agency founder and creative director Don Draper, then says “I feel sorry for you.” Draper replies “Funny, I don’t think of you at all,” then exits the elevator.


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