Roanoke growth as outdoor destination slower than anticipated, study shows

In the six years since the previous study ranking remains unchanged in 11 areas


ROANOKE, Va. – As the Roanoke Valley aspires to be a prime outdoor destination, a new study shows growth vs. competitive markets has been stagnant in the past six years.

The study, published Tuesday, analyzes 18 different outdoor-related categories including outdoor amenities, miles of greenway, wilderness areas, running events and more.

Compared to when the study was done in 2012, Roanoke's ranking is unchanged in 11 areas, while it saw gains in sporting goods retail, and bike shops, but lost ground in running events.

The study compares Roanoke to Asheville, North Carolina; Greeneville, South Carolina; Boulder, Colorado, Chattanooga, Tennessee and Portland, Maine.

According to Pete Eshelman, director of outdoor branding for the Roanoke Regional Partnership, the region has seen growth, but other communities have begun marketing themselves more aggressively, effectively evening the playing field.

 "We were among the early leaders in leveraging our outdoor assets to attract talent and invesment, but other communities are recognizing their own opportunities," Eshelman said.  "This is no time for us to stop investing in our outdoor assets.  We have a lot of momentum.  If we're not careful, we're going to lose our competitive edge."

Looking at the overall outdoor index, Roanoke's position remains unchanged from the 2012 study, trailing both Boulder and Asheville.

Eshelman points out that Roanoke has seen a 21-percent increase since 2012, compared to 8-percent in Portland, 6-percent in Boulder and a slight decline in Asheville.

In the past six years, Roanoke has lacked the growth seen by the cities it's being compared to:

  • Boulder almost tripled its number of cycling events, grew miles of greenway at a faster rate than the Roanoke region, and took the index lead in the running events from Roanoke.
  • Chattanooga and Portland also grew running events at a faster rate.
  • Greenville experienced significant expansion in outdoor employment and significantly increased outdoor related business establishments.

The report is certainly not all doom and gloom for Roanoke.

Eshelman points out that Roanoke has seen a 21-percent increase since 2012, compared to 8-percent in Portland, 6-percent in Boulder and a slight decline in Asheville.

Looking to the future, the report cites the opportunities that exist in the development of Explore Park, the activation of the Roanoke River, and continued water access projects such as the crowd-funded docks and launches for Carvins Cove, James River, Jackson River, Roanoke River, and Smith Mountain Lake.

With respect to tourism in particular, Visit Virginia's Blue Ridge also launched an agressive ad campaign attempting to leverage the recent designation as a Silver Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association.  If successful, the campain could attract thousands of tourists who want to ride the region's trails while experiencing the arts and cultural attractions that create what's been called Roanoke's "metro mountain mix."

Roanoke County authorities announced this month that a high ropes adventure course is slated to open July 1 at Explore Park.  In addition, outdoor retailer The Mast General Store will be opening in downtown Roanoke in the old Heironimus building in 2020.

"The study confirms our diversity is the selling point of the region.  It shows us where we need to invest," Eshelman said.     "As much as anything, the new report shows where we still have significant growth opportunities."

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