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City, university cooperate on hotel project

(Editor's note: This article is the first in a series that looks at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center project.)

By Clara B. Cox

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 31 - May 4, 1995

In the 1980s the City of Roanoke was thinking about building a major convention and trade center adjacent to the Hotel Roanoke to rejuvenate its downtown and invigorate its economy.

"We know that conventions and tourism can pump millions of dollars into our local economy," said Roanoke City Manager Bob Herbert. "And at the same time, tourists demand very little in the way of government services. We recognized that if we could build a conference or convention center to attract additional groups to Roanoke, the end result would be additional tax dollars that could be used for city schools, police and fire services, and other taxpayer needs."

About the same time, Virginia Tech was looking to expand its outreach and continuing-education programs and to increase its capacity to host academic and professional conferences.

"The dynamics of the economy, not only of the state but also of our rural areas, demanded increased access to new knowledge by the workforce if our society was to remain economically viable. The changing relationships between universities and business and industry were forging new types of partnerships to serve as engines of economic development and were calling for a reduction in the time it takes for the knowledge generated at the university to be applied in the marketplace. Those factors made us realize that we needed to expand our outreach efforts," said Charles Steger, former acting vice president for public service and now vice president for development and university relations at Tech.

In 1989 Norfolk Southern Corporation linked the two entities and their visions--by giving the Virginia Tech Real Estate Foundation the Hotel Roanoke.

The university and the city joined forces to work toward realization of their respective, but mutually complementary, goals. The two sought a developer who would help put together a financing package to renovate the century-old hotel and to build an adjoining conference center. After some setbacks, the partners contracted with Faison Associates of Charlotte, N.C., to serve as developer for the project. Despite unprecedented efforts by Virginia Tech and the City of Roanoke, by late 1992 the financing package for the project fell several million dollars short of the $27.5-million goal.

Renew Roanoke, a private, not-for-profit community organization wanting to help the project succeed, stepped in at the eleventh hour, encouraging corporate and individual support. As the city/university partnership approached a deadline for proceeding or returning the hotel to Norfolk Southern, Renew Roanoke raised the final $7 million needed to continue the project. The donations came from more than 2,400 individuals and businesses, reflecting an outpouring of regional support for the Hotel Roanoke.

"The partnership forged by Roanoke and Virginia Tech has allowed each to accomplish goals that would have eluded them individually. The city built the $12.8-million conference center for university and public use. Now, the university has access to large seminar and conference spaces and guest rooms not available on campus, allowing it to compete nationally for major conferences and professional meetings. And it has the facilities to expand its continuing-education and other public-service programs, helping it carry out its outreach mission," said Virginia Tech President Paul Torgersen.

"With the dynamics of the economy demanding access to new knowledge by the workforce, the expansion of those programs will allow Tech to increase its assistance to business and industry and, consequently, to play a more significant role in the development of Virginia's economy--a major focus area of Tech's outreach initiatives. The university also has a fertile training ground for students in hospitality management," Torgersen added.

Roanoke, the largest city in the East without a public university, will get additional continuing-education programs--more training directed to its industrial workforces, for example--and an influx of people attending national and regional conferences, providing a boost to its economy. "We also now have the enhanced presence of Virginia's largest and most diverse university within our borders. In addition, by bringing the Hotel Roanoke back to life, we have preserved a historic landmark that holds within its walls memories and social significance for generations of Roanokers," Herbert said.

Today, the renovation of the hotel and construction of the 90,000-square-foot (gross) conference center are virtually completed. One of the conference center's two ballrooms, with 14,000 square feet of space, is among the largest ballrooms between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. And the confernce, seminar, and breakout rooms are equipped with the latest developments in conference-center technology.

"No state appropriations or student tuition/fee monies were used in the hotel," said Ray Smoot, Tech's vice president for finance and treasurer. In addition to the $7 million raised by Renew Roanoke, Smoot said, the funding came from debt financing--$6.5 million; HUD Section 108 funds--$6 million; VT Real Estate Foundation, Inc.--$4 million; hotel property land sale--$3 million; Doubletree Hotels, which is managing the hotel and the conference center--$1.3 million; and the conference-center project, funded by a general-obligation bond secured by Roanoke--$12.8 million.

The Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center is a multi-million-dollar project whose impact on the university, the city, the region, and the commonwealth will be significant for years to come.