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Roanoke, New River valley economic voices conclude difficult 2021 with relief, optimism

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Many people of a certain age who grew up hereabouts will recall the upheavals of riding the old Shooting Star roller coaster at Lakeside Amusement Park. If so, that sensation serves as a qualifier to define our region’s economic ups-and-downs during 2021.

“Turbulent” aptly describes the year. “Unprecedented” works, too. The ongoing COVID pandemic — wily, persistent, lethal — continues to distort the working lives and consumption habits of Western Virginians.

The year 2021 opened in lockdown with the promise of vaccines that would staunch the coronavirus and restore normalcy. That never quite transpired. A brief reawakening around Independence Day was foiled by another COVID variant and by personal resistance to the vaccine, despite its widespread availability and demonstrated effectiveness.

Now, as new year begins amid another COVID surge, there’s weariness, yet optimism among a chorus of regional and influential economic voices. They responded to The Roanoke Times’ request to share their thoughts, reflections and projections about 2021 and 2022.

Overall, they’re realistic, yet hopeful, as Western Virginia’s resilient economy hits the restart button after a queasy year’s ride.

Jaime ClarkVice president marketing and communicationsDowntown Roanoke Inc.

Jaime Clark

Clark

“Downtown Roanoke is home to a large number of locally owned, small businesses. This year has certainly presented many of them with challenges, from decreased visitor traffic to trouble hiring and keeping employees, and more.

But, we’ve seen many people return downtown and it seems many are making an effort to shop and dine at local, small businesses. We’ve heard great feedback from a number of downtown businesses sharing record sales days and other positive indicators.

We’re hopeful that this trend will continue into 2022 and that people will remember the important impact of supporting local businesses.”

John Hull

Executive director

Roanoke Regional Partnership

“The economic recovery has continued in the Roanoke Region. Employment in the Roanoke MSA is 159,500 as of November 2021 which is 1,400 jobs more than November in 2020 and 13,800 jobs more than May 2020 when employment was at its lowest following the start of the pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In November 2019, Roanoke metro region employment was at 163,800, for reference. Moody’s expects employment to fully recover next year in the Roanoke metro market, and to grow beyond the pre-pandemic peak.

John-hull.jpg

Hull

Meanwhile, population growth has accelerated with growth at a much higher rate in the most recent year for which data is available according to data released this past year by the Weldon Cooper Center of Public Service.

Anecdotally, we noticed lots of professionals making the decision to take their jobs with them and settle in this region to take advantage of the livability, the mountain-metro mix, and the wonderful outdoor recreational opportunities here.

I expect this trend to continue moving forward. It is encouraging to see signs of accelerating population growth. Strong population growth will help ensure workforce growth now and into the years ahead.

The Roanoke Region is in a strong position as we look forward to growing beyond the recovery phase. With a growing life science innovation corridor, an incredibly diverse economy, strong livability, and a growing population, the Roanoke Region is poised for opportunity in the year ahead.”

Kevin Byrd

Executive director

New River Valley Regional Commission

“Based on some recent economic indicators, it appears the region is trending in the right direction emerging from impacts associated with the pandemic. The unemployment figures are back to pre-pandemic rates. The latest data is from October, 2021 with an unemployment rate of 2.6% compared to peak unemployment in April 2020 was a staggering 11.5%.

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Byrd

The next challenge is not unique to the New River Valley and that is labor participation, meaning how many working age people are actively working or seeking jobs. The top two sectors in the region looking for employees are the health care field with 729 active job openings and food service and retail with 711 openings.

Looking ahead, there will be continued employment opportunities in health care while construction jobs are anticipated to increase as well. Based on projections, 2022 will likely be a stabilizing year for the regional economy with minimal decreased unemployment anticipated.”

Ashley Wainwright Donahue

Donahue_Ashley_123018

Donahue

2022 President

Roanoke Valley Association of Realtors

“2021 saw record-breaking months for real estate sales in the Roanoke Valley and surrounding areas, including unprecedented increases in home value. Homeowners should expect for 2022 to continue to see strong home sales even if modest interest rate increases occur.”

Landon Howard

President

Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

“Tourism recovery is underway, especially during the last half of 2021:

Landon Howard

Howard

Sports tourism/tournaments have been strong and have led the recovery.

Outdoor/recreational tourism is breaking records with bike purchases, hiking gear, cabin rentals, etc.

Leisure-related tourism continues to show positive recovery with numbers approaching 2019 levels.

Conferences & meetings appear to be heading for a strong recovery into Spring 2022, with complete recovery by 2023.

Corporate and Business travel have yet to see recovery.

Workforce issues have been and will continue to be the primary impediment to economic recovery.”

Jeremy Holmes

Executive director

Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission

“While the Roanoke Valley is certainly not emerging from the pandemic unscathed, we seem to be blessed with having weathered its impacts better and entering a phase of recovery faster than many other communities.

Jeremy Holmes

Holmes

In part, I believe we can credit this to the work our public and private leaders have done over the last decade or more to build a diverse, resilient economy. I think it’s also a testament to the wisdom in the region’s commitment to investing in and promoting its outdoor recreational amenities, which became potentially literal lifesavers during a period where it was often safer to be out of doors.

While I believe we are definitely in a phase of sustained recovery, I think it’s important to recognize that recovery extends beyond economic. For example, the Commission recently created two positions to help address, on a regional basis, issues surrounding substance abuse and mental health that predate, but were certainly inflamed by, the pandemic.

I think the pandemic laid bare some core vulnerabilities that many folks in our community were subject to, but have also given us the awareness and resources to address them more comprehensively.

In short, despite the very real challenges, pain, and losses the region has suffered through, I am confident that we are in the right place to continue the great progress that was already being made pre-COVID, and perhaps even accelerate us to some of those goals.”

Steve Baffuto

President

Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce

“Businesses in the New River Valley are experiencing the same issues seen throughout the nation. Inventory and labor shortages are impacting our restaurants, hospitality, and retail establishments, however, our community is resilient and we continue to assist our local businesses during this time of recovery.

111421-roa-nr-chamberbaffuto-p01

Baffuto

We believe there has been an economic improvement from this time last year that will continue into 2022. Our Chamber continues to work with local and state officials as well as stakeholders throughout this region to develop and implement ideas for economic success for the New River Valley.

As we enter the New Year, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce is prepared for the challenges ahead, and we are here to serve our local businesses with all of their needs.”

Joyce Waugh

President and CEO

Roanoke Regional Chamber

“While many businesses, especially small businesses, have fared significantly better in the second year of the pandemic, there’s still a tenuousness about it. The upswings of the economy improving and a semblance of closer to normal gave credence to the hope that we were out of the woods only to have those hopes nearly yanked from our grasps.

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Waugh

On the whole, Chamber members with whom we’ve spoken and many small businesses seem to again be hopeful after a far better 2021 than 2020, thanks in part to PPP loans and other more localized revenue sources. Some, in fact, have had an excellent Q4s. One person said that people had money to spend and they wanted to spend it.

No one has a crystal ball yet we’re mostly optimistic that 2022 will be a better year. There are hopeful signs. Travel and tourism, along with some other industry sectors may well take a while longer, especially until the workforce returns and companies can find the people they need.

The other encouraging remark I’d add is that businesses and all organizations have been highly entrepreneurial — creative, innovative and resilient in the light of the challenges each has encountered. I feel certain that future case studies will written about these times and what restaurants, retailers, manufacturers and other sectors did to hang on, get through and, where possible, take care of their employees. Especially with small business, their employees are like extended family.

Workforce was the key before the pandemic and will continue to be key well into the next several years. Growing our own, skilled workers, as through Build Smart Institute, and through specialized career and corporation training through the resources of Virginia Western Community College, Roanoke Higher Education Center and others, and taking advantage at every turn of opportunities that Virginia Career Works — Blue Ridge, TAP, Goodwill and others offer is essential to future success.

Virginia’s Blue Ridge is rich with technical and educational training programs and classes and many private, public and non-profit organizations offer various training opportunities, from K-12 to post grad. We’re fortunate to have these and other work based learning opportunities.”

Daniel Pinard

Cultural and economic director

Town of Rocky Mount

“2021 was definitely a mixed bag. We were able to host some events that had not taken place in two years, and witnessed the opening and expansion of small businesses.

Daniel Pinard

Pinard

Our Farmers’ Market was involved in a number of programs that promoted access to locally grown fresh food for low to moderate income residents. The Harvester Performance Center implemented a new seating arrangement that encourages visitors to explore the community.

We’ve opened the doors of our Train Depot Welcome Center to artists and musicians in order to showcase our local talent. We were also able to promote getting active by putting a new trail in Celeste Park.

While there has been plenty to celebrate, 2021 was not without challenges. Here at the end of the year as case numbers rise, it is evident that the pandemic is far from behind us. This will continue to hurt local businesses just as it has throughout the pandemic.

We are still actively encouraging folks to think of their community and to shop local, whether they are shopping or eating out. Most especially we want to encourage people to support local business while focusing on safety.

2022 will bring a focus on local business, coupled with safety. We are excited for more opportunities to show off the overflowing talent in Rocky Mount.”

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