Twenty-five years ago, downtown Roanoke was locked in a struggle against stagnation.
The city had poured millions of dollars into its Design ’79 initiatives a decade earlier, yet businesses and the tenants of blocks of office buildings were streaming out into the suburbs and strip malls.
Today, downtown looks dramatically different than it did in 1990. Key structures, including the iconic Roanoke City Market and Center in the Square, are coming off fresh renovations. Those former office buildings are now filled with apartments, in turn filled by empty nesters and millennials who walk to work and eat in downtown’s numerous restaurants.
The transformation came about through a combination of government incentives, visionary individuals and a fair amount of luck. The biggest single contributor, however, may well be federal and state historic tax credits that made it more profitable to renovate old buildings than tear them down.
“If you imagine Roanoke without the tax credit program, it’s a really stark portrait,” says developer Ed Walker, who has restored the Hancock Building, the Cotton Mill and the Patrick Henry Hotel among others. “It would be a completely different place. The Patrick Henry would be a parking lot … I think if you took the tax credits out, I think we’d probably be in the bleakest times in Roanoke’s history.”
Read more in my cover story for the May 2015 issue of Roanoke Business, now available in regional grocery stores and online.