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A Roanoke history lesson

April 1, 2009

Here’s a story that reveals the fallacy of the “big corporations are bad” mentality that so many people seem to be falling prey to these days. The story may be true, or may be apocryphal.  But it does seem a plausible tale.

Starting in the 1880’s, Norfolk & Western transformed the little town of Big Lick into a transportation hub large enough to be on the USSR’s target list. The Hotel Roanoke, what’s now the higher education center, and many other buildings in downtown Roanoke owe their construction to the Railroad.

In 1982, N&W was growing again, thanks to a merger with the Southern Railway. The resulting Norfolk Southern needed to choose a location for their new headquarters.  Roanoke, as the current HQ of the larger partner, was a prime candidate. Roanoke’s leadership got together, and decided “no, we don’t want to be known as a blue-collar town.”

So image-conscious Roanoke pushed the railroad out of town. NS decided to HQ in Norfolk. Roanoke got a smaller office, but lost out on hundreds, if not thousands, of executive jobs.  Wary of looking too blue-collar, Roanoke has instead become a mecca for call centers. What’s a better job? Part-time minimum wage work taking catalog orders? Or building and running railroads?  The NS executives also give thousands of dollars to charity in their hometowns. Unfortunately for MY town, Norfolks is the happy beneficiary of those funds.

Every day, governments make decisions that run counter to their long-term interests. Big business is excoriated for being greedy. Cities, states, and nations raise taxes to levels that drive companies away. Executives are derided as thieves. But businesses are really the lifeblood of a community. Michigan knows – the auto companies fueled Michigan’s economy, and now Michigan withers along with the Big 3.  Ask Arkansas. Bentonville Arkansas is thriving because of Walmart. The Evil Giant, Microsoft? Where would Washington be without those revenues? Dell helped jumpstart Austin’s growth. US Steel is still the namesake of a championship football team. In all of these cases, and more, big business fueled entire communities. 

Think about that the next time you complain about a “greedy business”.  Remember that businesses pay thousands of people just like you, thanks to those “fat cats” at the top making decisions that cause companies to grow. Remember that a dead business, or a business that leaves town, pays no taxes.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 3, 2009 3:10 pm

    If Salem had been chosen, as they thought they were going to be instead of Roanoke, you can be darn sure 100 years later NFS headquarters would have remained in the valley. Hmmm, maybe we’d even have a passenger station.

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