In 1882, shortly after the Southwest Virginia town of Big Lick changed its name to Roanoke, Norfolk and Western Railroad President Frederick J. Kimball built a hotel as a rest stop for travelers. As Kimball had intended, the Hotel Roanoke became the centerpiece of the town. For decades the railroad added to and modernized the hotel, which became known locally as “The Grand Old Lady.”
Things weren’t so grand by 1989 when the Norfolk Southern Corp., the descendant of Norfolk and Western, decided to close the hotel rather than invest in more substantial and expensive renovations. Ironically, this prospect initiated one of the most successful of Virginia Tech’s community outreach and economic development partnerships.
“The civic and business leadership in Roanoke viewed the potential loss of this regional icon as terribly negative,” said Ray Smoot, chief operating officer of the Virginia Tech Foundation. “The City of Roanoke and Virginia Tech discussed the need for a quality hotel and conference center that would serve both the community and the conferencing needs of the university. After extended negotiations, Norfolk Southern agreed to give the hotel to the Virginia Tech Foundation.”
Under the agreement with Norfolk Southern, funding for hotel renovations had to be raised within four years. The university rounded up close to $28 million in three years, including $7 million from the Virginia Tech Foundation and loans from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, a bank consortium, Carilion Clinic, and Doubletree Hotels (part of Hilton Hotels Corp.). The City of Roanoke allocated $14 million to finance the conference center.
With one year left to raise another $6 million, Virginia Tech joined with the Roanoke city government, the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Roanoke Inc., and a number of civic organizations for a “Renew Roanoke” effort. The collaboration was so successful — and the community’s desire to save the Hotel Roanoke was so strong — that businesses and individuals, including the city’s school children, contributed the $6 million in just six weeks.
“The odds were against them, but they were certainly driven individuals,” said Debbie Moses, director of the Hotel Roanoke Conference Center Commission, which was established in 1991 by the Virginia General Assembly to act as the owner and operator of the conference center. “It is truly one of the strongest stories I have ever heard of a community and a set of leaders digging in to make something happen and not giving up.”
With 332 refurbished guest rooms and 63,000 square feet of conference space, the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center opened on April 3, 1995, under the management of Doubletree Hotels. The Virginia Tech Foundation owns the hotel and the commission owns the conference center. The university and City of Roanoke share equally in the expenses and revenues of the conference center.
“The relationship has worked exceedingly well for the university,” Smoot said. “The university’s role in this project has given great visibility and credibility to Virginia Tech as a valuable civic partner willing to make a substantial investment in the betterment of our region. Further, the hotel returns cash to the foundation each year, which the foundation allocates to various university needs.”
From the perspective of the commission and the city, Moses said, “the [hotel] has far exceeded everyone’s expectations. It is truly an economic engine for the city and the region. All performance measures for the facility have been exceeded, including direct tax revenues flowing to the State of Virginia and the City of Roanoke.”
Tax revenues generated by the hotel and conference center since the1995 opening total $18.4 million, reports Gary Walton, general manager of the hotel. The number of full and part-time employees has remained consistently close to 300 people.
The Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center also has benefited other area businesses. “It started a chain of redevelopment events for several blocks of the historic Gainsboro district in Roanoke, and the transformation has been amazing,” Moses said. “It continues to provide the downtown and other areas of the city with a steady supply of visitors and guests.”
In April 2008, the hotel completed Phase II of a $6.5 million guest room renovation, Walton said, and the ownership and management team have also begun a study to see if a future expansion of hotel and conference facilities is feasible.
“The Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center sets it standards high and is reflective of so much that is appealing and good about the Roanoke region, including the outreach capabilities of Virginia Tech,” Moses said.
Gary Walton, general manager of the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, shared these 2008 statistics.
In addition to the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, Virginia Tech’s Outreach and International Affairs network of educational and research facilities includes
Virginia Tech is one of a select group of institutions cited as Carnegie-Classified Community Engaged Universities for supporting “dynamic and noteworthy community engagement.”
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