Oct 3, 2023

Experiencing Roanoke's Creative Momentum | Artspace Preliminary Feasibility Study

Artspace Preliminary Feasibility Study in Roanoke, Virginia



Artspace Consulting’s Wendy Holmes and Kelli Miles are fresh off the road exploring the feasibility of a mixed-use development project for Roanoke’s multifaceted arts community. We were invited to the community by local real estate developer and longtime friend and supporter, Ed Walker. Tucked within the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountain of southwest Virginia, Roanoke is home to a rich array of painters, muralists, musicians, dancers, opera singers, fashion designers, welders, and arts educators—the list certainly goes on! The community’s headwind of creative energy can be seen in its storytelling public art and numerous community-driven, artist-led projects. Led by the multi-talented Douglas Jackson, the Roanoke Arts Commission’s Artist-in-Residence program particularly demonstrates the role Roanoke artists play in designing and implementing projects that spur positive social impact throughout the city. Strong collaboration between the city and its local artists is a key factor we hope to experience during the feasibility phase of our work in Roanoke.    


Prior to arriving in Roanoke, we held a focus group with artists and arts organizations to understand where they would like to live and work within the city, the current challenges facing the local creative sector, and the bright spots for future growth. Artists described the arts and cultural sector in Roanoke as diverse, on the cusp, supportive, and vibrant. They spoke of challenges around access to resources like food, childcare, and internet; but optimistically voiced the opportunities that drive positive momentum such as the increasing visibility of the arts in the city’s identity and branding.



Civic/Finance Leaders focus group

Civic & Finance Focus Group at The Collective co-working space.



While in town, the team facilitated two additional focus groups. The first was a convening of BIPOC arts and cultural leaders for an Equity in Space Conversation at the Melrose Branch Library to discuss space needs, access issues, and unique initiatives they would like to seed. The second was a Civic & Finance Focus Group to connect with members of the city government, including Vice Mayor Joe Cob, and leaders within the areas of economic development and planning. This meeting also brought representatives from local and regional foundations, banks, community development financial institutions, as well as prominent institutions such as Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital and Virginia Tech, to the table. These robust conversations brought forth excitement and support for an Artspace-style affordable arts development in Roanoke and generated an extensive list of funding and financing opportunities to explore in subsequent phases of a project.   


It would not be a proper Artspace Feasibility Study without a tour of several creative spaces around the city including Art on 1st—A gallery and small workshop space, Common Clay Collective—A shared maker space for ceramic artists, and Ametalsoul—A private studio space of the self-taught metal artist, Dave Wertz.



Batman Building

“The Batman Building” - one of several buildings on the Riverdale Southeast site.



The team also explored four potential development sites throughout the city, most notably in the northwest and southeast neighborhoods, which have experienced a history of racial divisions and disinvestments. Among these sites, Riverdale Southeast stands out as the most promising location for an Artspace project. The revitalization of this site is led by Ed Walker and his dedicated team. Ed's vision is rooted in a profound respect for both people and places, aiming to "cultivate an environment where the human spirit can thrive." It's a vision of a city within a city that champions health, fitness, recreation, education, enterprise, arts, culture, manufacturing, fabrication, housing, and dining.


We strongly believe in the synergy between Artspace's mission and Ed's belief in the importance of providing affordable spaces for the creative sector. Imagine a diverse array of mixed-use spaces, featuring both market-rate and affordable housing, as well as a vibrant range of commercial options. From our perspective, this site represents an opportunity to ensure affordability for both the existing community and those who may have faced displacement due to recent real estate pressures. Together, we can create a thriving and inclusive cultural hub that benefits everyone in the neighborhood.



Getting set up for the public meeting at the Riverdale Southeas

Getting set up for the public meeting at the Riverdale Southeast, the evening featured an array of performances and visual art.



The capstone of the visit was a lively public meeting at Riverdale that was attended by over 100 community members. The gathering featured an aerialist, violinist, rapper, youth dance collective, and visual art by the city’s several artists-in-residence.      


Artspace heard a clear need for affordable live/work housing, a strong desire for private studio space and shared maker space, and the local willpower to see a project through to fruition. We believe that a mixed-use project would not only address these space needs, but also align with the community’s broader expressed goals of preserving affordability, addressing disparities, and sustaining creative businesses and nonprofits. Artspace is currently in conversation to move forward with an Arts Market Study—the second phase towards a potential development project.