A city torn between new prosperity and entrenched poverty (Scalawag)

Roanoke has successfully reinvented itself from a gritty blue-collar railroad hub into a burgeoning, craft-beer soaked, millennial-friendly outdoor mountain town with a cool, freshly restored downtown.

In doing so it has become a model for small cities in Appalachia and the South looking to transcend outdated community narratives. But Roanoke still faces significant challenges in spreading that new prosperity to neighborhoods that have been hit by generations of segregation, deepening economic inequality, a powerful business class with outsized influence on city politics, & a legacy of disruption via urban renewal.

Roanoke’s challenges are those of many other New South towns that also struggle with historic economic immobility. I wrote for Scalawag about the Star City’s struggles, largely through the past and present of its public schools.

End of an era for Roanoke’s historic LGBTQ bars (Munchies/Vice)

For more than three decades the Park + Backstreet Cafe were cornerstones of Roanoke’s gay bar scene. Hell, it wasn’t just LGBT folks, either: When I moved to Roanoke in 2003, punk bands would drink at the Backstreet, go down & play a show at then-boozeless Factory 324 (former Iroquois), and then half the crowd would go to dance afterward at the Park.

The Park continues to operate as a dance club, but the ownership changes there in 2015 + this year’s change from the Backstreet Cafe into the Front Row mark the end of a particular era for Roanoke’s gay bars, and the beginning of something new.

I wrote about the history & changes for Vice’s Munchies.

Appalachian communities hoping to build a new outdoor economy see threat from Trump (100 Days in Appalachia)

After years of building their regional economy around extractive industries, many Appalachian communities now are tapping into their bountiful outdoor assets to draw tourists—-and perhaps manufacturers and other job creators.

Places like Roanoke, Virginia, have created a new model for economic development, pairing traditional lures like workforce and infrastructure with an emphasis on livability and access to outdoor recreation.

Substantial challenges remain, however—-including President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which would gut a number of programs crucial to economic diversification efforts.

Read the story at 100 Days in Appalachia.

100 days in, here’s what Donald Trump has meant for Appalachia (Vice)

Donald Trump dominated Appalachia on Election Day, 2016, and he wasted no time in loosening regulations on the region’s coal industry. In the big picture, however, the regulatory shifts mean an extension of the status quo.

His proposed budget, however, which would gut the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, the USDA’s infrastructure budget and other programs crucial to economic development efforts, may well wipe out any job gains from the coal industry.

For Vice, I tried to sort out the impact of federal actions on Appalachia under Trump. Read it here.

How a nickel worth $3 million hid in Roanoke for 40 years (The Roanoker)

Here’s a story for The Roanoker about the best story I ever wrote for The Roanoke Times. It led to the discovery, 41 years after it was lost, of a rare nickel that later sold at auction for $3+ million.

Ostensibly, the story is about the Walton Specimen, one of five 1913 Liberty Head Nickels. It’s really about George Walton, though, and his unforgettable contribution to Star City lore.

Read the story at the Roanoker.

NRV & Bristol seek passenger rail extension from Roanoke (Roanoke Business)

Amtrak is running on schedule for its arrival in Roanoke next fall. Even as the Star City prepares to celebrate the return of passenger rail for the first time in more than 34 years, its neighbors to the southwest already are pushing to extend the service.

The service arrives as part of Amtrak’s extensions of its Northeast Regional service into Virginia. The commonwealth invests in state-funded train extensions that run to Lynchburg, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News. The Lynchburg extension, which began regular daily service in 2009, outperformed expectations and sparked momentum that lead to the push westward to Roanoke.

Amtrak estimates it generates a national economic impact of $7.9 billion annually, supporting more than 110,000 jobs through its daily operations plus tourism and supplier impacts.

Local governments also desire the economic boost that goes with passenger rail, which tends to create a 3-to-5 percent growth in the number of annual visitors. While short-term construction and engineering jobs come with the line’s upgrades and related construction, that growth in visitors creates potential for a larger, more durable ripple, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industries.

Now, rail fans in the New River Valley and Bristol metropolitan areas hope to bring those benefits to their localities, too.

Read my story about their efforts at Roanoke Business.

How advanced manufacturing brought western Virginia out of the recession (Roanoke Business)

Southwest Virginians know too well the downsides of globalization when it comes to manufacturing jobs.

For decades, they have watched long-running textile and furniture manufacturers shutter factories as their owners moved their operations to new locations with lower labor costs.

The 21st century, however, has seen a resurgence of manufacturing in western Virginia. New facilities and expansions of existing factories drive the region’s recovery from the Great Recession. In a twist, it’s largely foreign-owned companies driving this new wave of manufacturing as they look to establish footholds in the U.S. and tap into domestic markets.

From 2009 through 2015, the Roanoke region saw a 7.7 percent growth in employment within the manufacturing sector, more than twice the total non-farm employment change of 3.1 percent.

Read more about how manufacturing brought western Virginia out of the recession in Roanoke Business.

How announcements of 2 new breweries validate Roanoke’s changing image (Virginia Business)

There’s been lots of talk about transitioning the economies of Appalachian communities from their historic base into the 21st Century. But what does that actually look like?

I’d suggest the Roanoke Valley as a possible example of economic transition. The railroad—which jumpstarted Roanoke as the city in 1880s—no longer is a big economic driver, but we’re seeing a cascading series of companies coming in to fill the void: Large production breweries, advanced manufacturing & more. Better partnerships between regional entities—think Carilion & Virginia Tech for one example—are generating new activity as well.

Clearly not all that success has translated equally to residents across town, but it does look like progress from the big-picture perspective. Certainly people seem more stoked to live in Roanoke now than they did a decade ago.

For more about what this transition looks like in 2016 Roanoke, read my regional profile in Virginia Business.

How the rebel flag plays into the 2016 election (Politico Magazine)

Growing up 20 minutes from Lexington, Va., and its numerous links to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, I’ve always had a fascination for the mutable meaning of the Confederate battle flag and its convergence of ancestry, race, history, politics & more.

That meaning has shifted again in the year since Charleston, those right on the edge of the flag debate have escalated the conflict, heightening contradictions and putting the flag back in the news on numerous occasions around the South & the rest of the country.

In this story for Politico Magazine, I tried to take a meaningful look at how the past year has changed the fight over the rebel flag, as well as how that all slots into an already crazy election year.

Read the story here.

A survivor’s tale (Washington Post)

As a first year reporter at the Roanoke Times in 2003, I divided my time between weekend night shifts and clerical duties. In December, I was assigned to cover a “progressive Christmas party” in which each course took place at a different house.

Near Round Hill, I met the Valley View Mall Santa Claus and a man named Joel Tucker, who owned the house where that particular course took place. That night, I got a call from copy editors, who had ID’d Joel as a victim in the homophobic Backstreet Cafe shooting three years earlier. I called him to confirm, and he did but asked that we not print that information in the story, since 1) that experience had devastated him, as he’d been closeted prior to the shooting but was essentially outed against his will when his name was listed among the victims in news reports, and 2) the info was completely irrelevant to the light’n’bright story I’d reported. I agreed with him, and successfully fought a battle that went up the chain to not include that factoid in the story.

Twelve years later, I spent portions of the summer and fall of 2015 trying to convince Tucker to finally tell his story for a feature I was writing for the Washington Post. At the last possible moment, he agreed, and I was blown away as I heard him describe the night of the shooting and his 15-year journey that followed.

When I heard about the Orlando shootings on Sunday morning, my mind immediately went to the Backstreet Cafe and to Joel. I re-read that 2015 story and posted some thoughts on Twitter. Later that afternoon, I received a request from the Washington Post to try and interview some of those linked with Backstreet about what had happened in Orlando. I reached out to Joel, and he responded almost immediately. He retired in April, and after nearly 16 years dealing with what happened that night in 2000, he felt ready to use his voice.

I feel honored to have met Joel and helped to document parts of his journey, albeit in a limited way. I can’t express how it makes me feel to have had the chance to speak to him and provide a platform for his words, especially those aimed at the survivors of the Orlando tragedy.
“I learned from my experience, of being shot on a Friday and being so paranoid I ended up at work on Monday morning with a bullet in my back, I learned you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to keep moving and not let this destroy your life. This could have destroyed me, and it did not. It made me stronger. It can destroy you, but you’ve got to be strong and know that God left you here for a reason.”

Read the full story at the Washington Post.