Editor’s note: This editorial is part two of a two-part series. The first part took place on Sunday.
Robert Sandel, president of Virginia Western Community College, has a vision for Roanoke’s future. He shares this vision with many others in business, higher education and government in the Roanoke and New River Valleys, but this vision is rarely expressed so succinctly.
He described an “innovation corridor” stretching along Jefferson Street Southwest, from Riverside Circle, where Virginia Tech’s Carilion School of Medicine and VTC’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute reside, north past the Carilion campus of the ‘Radford University in Jefferson and Elm, past the RAMP Regional Accelerator across from Elmwood Park for technology business incubation and downtown.
“There’s been a lot of locations on either side of this street that have been taken over by potential developers waiting for these tech consulting companies to come here,” Sandel said.
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Another imminent addition to this corridor is a shared life sciences laboratory to which the state will contribute $15.7 million and Star City will contribute $1.96 million. The plan is to renovate a Carilion-owned building midway between Riverside Circle and RAMP to create lab space for use by the kinds of start-up companies that might be spawned by the kinds of research being pursued at the Institute. Fraline.
It should be noted that RAMP, opened in 2017 and recognized as an important ingredient in shaping that dream (the acronym stands for Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program), began as a collaboration between Virginia Western, the City of Roanoke, and the Roanoke -Blacksburg Technology Council.
The region needed a business incubator where fledgling businesses could grow their wings without flying to other states. The city received a state grant of $600,000 to renovate the old Gill Memorial Hospital building.
As Sandel recalled, in the room full of business leaders where then-Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill discussed the project, Morrill asked who would be willing to be the accelerator operator and so allow the city to deploy the subsidy. When Sandel raised his hand, Morrill joked, “Sold, to Bobby Sandel!”
The college has since withdrawn from this role. RAMP is now managed by the Verge organization based in Blacksburg. In a sense, Virginia Western incubated the incubator.
Navigate new worlds
The Roanoke Valley is working to change its economic climate, aiming to make the most of Virginia Tech’s biomedical research to encourage entrepreneurship and work with more startups, “trying to enter the new world,” a Sandel said. He noted, however, that this cannot be the only axis of economic development in the region. “The new world doesn’t mean manufacturing is going away. Manufacturing is always the base.
Before Italian automotive electronics company Eldor Corp. decided in 2016 to build a factory in Botetourt County’s Greenfield Industrial Park, executives toured Virginia Western’s mechatronics lab because they wanted to see potential employees could be trained for the kind of high-tech work made to their plants.
After Virginia Western’s new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) building opened in 2019, Eldor executive Luca Forte took another tour and expressed his admiration for the how the college incorporated Eldor’s suggestions as to topics and types of machinery to include in the curriculum and how quickly it had done so.
Sandel pointed out that the school’s workforce initiatives work with companies to prepare students for jobs, whether that job is making sophisticated electronic parts or becoming an X-ray technologist or a commercial truck driver. .
As announced by statewide economic development and education initiatives such as Growth4VA, making access to higher education easy and affordable is just as vital as adapting educational opportunities. education to available jobs. “Money shouldn’t be a problem for so many of these college-going kids,” Sandel said.
School and government officials in the Roanoke Valley recognized this and worked to launch the Community College Access Program, the first of its kind in the Virginia Community College system, which allows high school students in Roanoke, Salem and Botetourt, Craig, Franklin counties that meet the grade point average required to attend Virginia Western with up to three years of tuition covered. CCAP receives public funds from local governments, matched by private funds raised by the WVCC Foundation.
Sandel noted with pride that the CCAP program is fully funded, with every student who applied to partner localities receiving a tuition scholarship last year.
In a 2019 commentary published in these pages, because of RAMP, CCAP, STEM building and more, Roanoke business leader and philanthropist Heywood Fralin hailed the “remarkable” Virginia Western as “the one of the most important players in this movement towards knowledge”. based on economy.
In an increasingly polarized society, the Roanoke Valley has continued to maintain a tradition of recognizing and working towards the common good.
“I’ve been involved in Roanoke Valley politics for the past 20 years,” Sandel said. “I think we have politicians who want to do the right thing. They are trying to help their constituents. Most everyone I’ve worked with, Republican or Democrat, has been very supportive of Virginia Western and what we do.
“They see the community college as an economic driver and they see we can make a real difference. »
Sandel’s hand at the helm of Virginia Western has made all the difference, and right now he has no plans to retire, so the Roanoke Valley will continue to benefit from his determination and his wisdom.