Roanoke’s Sidewinders hopes to drive more downtown development with major expansion

Second floor addition adds room for 450 more people and adds 20 new jobs

ROANOKE, Va. – Scott Howard said about a decade ago when he was just getting started, a local seasoned industry person told him his idea for downtown Roanoke would never work.

But now, after seven years in business, that idea is getting ready to become one of the largest late-night spots in Roanoke, as Sidewinders puts the finishing touches on its second-floor expansion. And Howard has even more growth in mind.

Sidewinders has become a magnet for country music fans, riding the downtown-Roanoke growth wave, and Howard hopes its expansion will encourage even more growth of its own. On the day before New Year’s Eve, a few workers tinkered with punch list items on the second floor of the building. One hung lights in the ceiling, another tweaked the soundboard. Howard and his team are eying the finish line, but aren’t in a rush to finish their months-long project.

“We were trying to get open by New Year’s Eve, but we decided to just take a little bit longer because we’ve been taking our time with it and wanting to make sure everything is right," Howard said.

The little details have become Howard’s life over the last year. From the overpowered air handling units, to the illuminated Sidewinders logo shining down from a light in front of the restroom door, the 7,500 square foot space is full of polish.

The new space spans nearly the entire area of the building, adding to the 4,500 square feet on the first floor below. Adding capacity for an additional 450 people, the new space puts Sidewinders in the running for the largest restaurant and bar space in Roanoke. While he wouldn’t disclose how much of an investment it was, it was clear the price tag is worth it to him.

“We’ve got people that come from West Virginia, Tennessee, all over just because there isn’t a facility quite like this that has the music we have,” Howard said.

Howard requires patrons to swipe their ID’s at the door primarily for security, but a byproduct of that is customer metrics. He confidently says about half of his business for big shows are people who aren’t local at all, but are traveling to Roanoke specifically to see the performance. Even recalling a story just a few weeks ago about a pairing from Charlotte who brought six of their friends with them to Roanoke after making a prior trip earlier in the year. They stayed in a downtown hotel and spent money at other businesses too. The Sidewinders team feels they’re having an economic impact on other businesses.

The goal is to make it feel like a Nashville bar and so far Howard has found success. The restaurant has attracted acts that might not otherwise see a place like Roanoke as a good place to stop. He credits a lot of that to his partnership with the local, family-owned country radio station and the fact that Roanoke is a good weeknight pit stop for acts traveling along Interstate 81 to bigger weekend shows.

“We get a lot of the upcoming Nashville acts, it’s really neat to meet them before they get big and now some of them have gotten big and they still come here," Howard said.

The project was a dream, and Howard wasn’t sure if it ever would be a reality. But as pieces started coming together, that tune slowly changed. Some of the first upgrades were outside with a new coat of paint and fresh windows. From there a small team of workers chiseled away and did what it takes to transform former office space previously connected to the bank next door, to what it is now. Nearly finished, the room is decked out with a circular lighting truss above the dance floor, a large performance stage and other features.

The floor needed support for a bigger weight load from larger crowds and Howard attempted to save as many historic features of the building as he could. The second-floor space is split with a bar running nearly the entire length of the building from front to back taking up one-third of the space and a windowed wall separating it from a stage, dance floor and dining area in the remaining two thirds. Above the bar space is the original tin stamped ceiling, while above the dance floor space are the exposed beams painstakingly sanded down and re-finished to preserve their look.

Contractor Thomas Thompson said going the extra mile was worth it to preserve the craftsmanship of laborers who built it originally.

“It’s well worth saving it, and it’s part of Roanoke history," Thompson said. "This building is I think it was 1918 so it’s about 101 years old so it’s good to keep this stuff around.”

While Howard is proud of the tourist dollars he brings in, he said the regulars matter just as much. He’s excited about the proposed development across Campbell Avenue with the public bus station slated to move and a new mixed-use development proposed to go in its place. Since Sidewinders opened in 2012, Howard said he’s seen the growth around him and has enjoyed being a part of it. He believes in what’s going on downtown, so much so he even did extra construction to be more prepared for possible uses of the building’s third floor and roof.

“If this works, our next step is going to be doing the rooftop. We’ve got beautiful views from the rooftop for miles, it’s amazing, you can see all the way to Tinker Mountain from the roof here,” Howard said.

Sidewinders said it expects to launch the new space by the second or third week of January and that it will add about 20 employees to the roster.

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