Let us not just yet sing, “Deschutes, we hardly knew ye.”
On the surface, the impending closure of the Deschutes tasting room on Roanoke’s Market Street might seem like yet another case of great Roanoke Valley expectations come to nought.
Best not to assume, though, that this is the definitive conclusion of the romance between Roanoke and Deschutes. The Oregon-based craft brewery still owns about 50 acres of land at the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology and continues to sponsor events and organizations in Roanoke.
The shutting down of Deschutes’ downtown presence might, just might function more like the ending of a chapter, or maybe the cliffhanger that barbs the denouement of a book in a multivolume series.
We say “might” out of an abundance of caution. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long as “A Song of Ice and Fire” (a.k.a. “Game of Thrones”) fans have for the series to continue.
Marc Nelson, Roanoke’s economic development manager, expresses confidence that the Deschutes page will turn. “They love the region, but they want to ensure their strength as a company before taking big future steps. Hopefully, it proves beneficial to us in the long term.”
Deschutes seemed like all that anyone in Roanoke could talk about in 2016 when the company agreed to build its $95 million East Coast brewery here. As a show of good faith, Deschutes bought the land for the site outright. Yet in 2019, with the national market for craft beer going flat, Deschutes let Roanoke know that construction wasn’t going to start any time soon, if at all.
“I think it is unfortunate that the market conditions changed, but it doesn’t change why they chose Roanoke in the first place, which is something we should be proud of,” says Pete Eshelman, the director of outdoor branding for the Roanoke Regional Partnership.
Oh, yeah, the outdoors. We’ll get to that. But first, brewery or no brewery, here’s a question to ponder — could Roanoke’s success in bringing Deschutes to Roanoke be more important in the long run than whether or not Deschutes completes what it started?
Don’t get us wrong, should that brewery and those 100-some jobs come to fruition, we’ll take ’em, with gratitude. But please hear us out.
Floyd County writer Mason Adams, co-host of “Inside Appalachia” on West Virginia Public Broadcasting and a Roanoke Times alum, was the first that we’re aware of to publicly float this notion that the successful campaign to win Deschutes marked a tipping point in how Roanoke sees itself as a community.
Perhaps more radical is the assertion that this remains true — that Roanoke’s self-esteem hasn’t tipped back the other way — even though the Deschutes deal started to fall short of expectations 3½ years ago.
This all centers around the #deschutes2rke campaign that went viral on social media in fall 2015, that saw the people of the Roanoke Valley actively join in on an economic development campaign and hype the region.
Just a couple years prior, a visit to any online message board would find Roanokers lining up to tell anyone who asked what a drag it was to live in the Star City.
Nelson saw his share of that attitude when he came here 10 years ago. As he recalls it, “While most folks were open and supportive, there definitely was a certain segment of the population that would ask ‘Why would you do that here?’ when an innovative idea bubbled up to the surface.”
To make this tipping point possible, pieces had to be moved into place, forces had to be set in motion, over a period of years.
One piece was the perceived rivalry — on the part of Roanoke, at least — with Asheville, North Carolina. Roanoke had been a finalist as Sierra Nevada looked for a site for an East Coast brewery, but that prize went to Asheville. The same thing happened with California-based Stone Brewing.
What was one of the distinctions between Asheville and Roanoke? Well, Asheville residents were invested in their city, and tended to talk it up rather than trash it.
Eshelman puts it more kindly. “It wasn’t that we had a bad image, it was that we just didn’t have an image, and thus our self esteem wasn’t at the top of our game. For the longest time we treated the beauty of where we live — the lakes, rivers, mountains, valleys — like wallpaper … nice to look at, but that was about all we did.”
As the developer of roanokeoutside.com and the founder of the Blue Ridge Marathon and Go Fest, Eshelman earned the credit for alerting the Roanoke Valley to the invaluable resources right outside the door.
The creation of a new neighborhood, as downtown living caught on, and the Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic expansions and collaborations in South Roanoke also tossed ingredients into the brew.
The Roanoke Regional Partnership had begun courting Deschutes back in 2012, long before any agreements were signed and dated. But word of the courtship leaked to the public — the sort of thing often considered a disaster in economic development circles, where traditionally mum is the word until all parties are firmly on board.
A Roanoke County court clerk named Michael Galliher took it on himself to launch a #Deschutes2Rke social media campaign, and before long his Facebook page had racked up thousands of testimonials from residents gushing about what a great place Roanoke is to live and work.
Galliher’s campaign took off at a time when the shift in how Roanoke saw itself was gaining momentum, with businesses incorporating the valley’s beauty into their marketing strategy. Galliher himself cited the Blue Ridge Mountain views in explaining why he started the campaign.
“Our residents were given the opportunity for their voices to be heard,” Eshelman said. “They were asked to help sell the region, and because of the work being done they had the tools to do so, and they did.”
The fact that the campaign worked, that the community came together and scored a win, has resonated well past the particulars of the Deschutes deal.
The can-do camaraderie continued. In 2018, when Italian automotive electronics company Eldor Corp. opened its $75 million plant within Botetourt Center at Greenfield, that was celebrated as a victory for the whole valley, not just Botetourt County.
Nowadays, Nelson says, people aren’t asking “Why would you do that here?” anymore. Instead they ask, “Why wouldn’t you do that here?”
That’s a notion that’s worth a toast. Cheers!