Railroad legacy fades (Virginia Business)

When news came in March that Norfolk Southern would close its Roanoke administrative offices, moving 426 jobs to Norfolk and Atlanta, many city residents feared for the city’s economic future.
After all, Norfolk and Western Railway’s decision to build in Roanoke in the 1880s kick-started the “Magic City’s” growth and long served as its leading industry. Yet, the railroad has waned in influence and employment for decades, shrinking a local workforce of more than 5,000 people at its height to 1,200 today. The closure of the administrative offices continues a process that began in 1982 when Norfolk Southern, formed in the merger of Norfolk and Western and Southern railways, moved its headquarters from Roanoke to Norfolk.

Other closures are testing the economic resilience of the Roanoke and New River valleys. Retailer HSN Inc. will close its Roanoke County fulfillment center next year, eliminating 350 jobs. Banking company BB&T Corp. closed its Roanoke call center, and wireless phone service nTelos shuttered its Botetourt County customer support center for a combined loss of nearly 200 jobs. A staff reduction at Allstate Insurance Co.’s Roanoke County customer support center cost another 185 jobs.

Despite the spate of job losses, however, optimism remains. The region no longer relies on one, two or even three industries. Indeed, Moody’s has ranked Roanoke and Richmond as the cities with the most diverse economies in Virginia — an attribute that helps cushion the blow.

Read more in my Roanoke/New River Valley community profile for Virginia Business magazine.