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Bypassed by interstate, Roanoke’s Williamson Road set for revival through grant

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Williamson Road, a once vibrant corridor between Roanoke city and county, is set for revival following grant money that's helping to connect new business owners to expertise. (Photo: Adiah Gholston/VPM News)

Williamson Road once served as the main gateway connecting Roanoke County to the city of Roanoke, where influxes of drivers would stop to eat at restaurants or for other services before entering and exiting downtown. 

The area attracted great cultural diversity with several immigrants settling and building businesses there. That diversity of businesses,  plus it’s convenient location, made Williamson “the street.” However, the construction of Interstate 581 created an easier, faster alternative way to the city of Roanoke and turned a once vibrant area into stifled territory. 

Gov. Ralph Northam set aside more than $4.4 million in grants to help rebuild economies in Virginia, including one to help revive businesses and continue to cultivate the diversity around Williamson Road. 

Reviving the area would include physical renovations such as repairing roads, installing public art and building sidewalks to make the area more accessible and safe for families as well as people who are elderly or disabled. However, at the center of the revitalization would be the exchanging of business knowledge and skills.

“I saw a need in the area, '' said Valerie A. Brown, executive director for The Greater Williamson Road Area Business Association. “There’s a lot of businesses, upcoming businesses, a lot of individuals  that might have that dream to own their own business but have no clue or no space to anything like that. In looking around the greater Roanoke area, there are a couple of co-labs but none in this greater area. Since this area covers a lot of people from out of state, out of the country, we want to be able to answer their needs as well.”

What’s visualized is a physical co-lab or work incubation center where Williamson Road business owners can access hands-on interaction and support from one another and experts.

“I think there needs to be a place that all small business owners could come chat with a specialist and people know that they’re going to get the proper advice,” Neely said.

Many new and struggling  business owners lack vital knowledge, such as about taxes, which can land them in hot water. Chuck Neely of nearby Neely’s Accounting Service and board member of Williamson Road Area Business Association says one common struggle he sees is record-keeping.

Two people post for photo
Valerie A. Brown (left) and Chuck Neely (right) with the Williamson Road Area Business Association. (Photo: Adiah Gholston/VPM News)

“A lot don’t keep records. I come in and say how many miles did you drive this year and they’ll look at me like I'm crazy,” Neely said.

The co-lab would act as a brewing ground for the next generation of business owners by offering start-up businesses training and networking. The association hopes to establish 25 networking relationships with new owners and aims to train 20 new or struggling business owners.  

Brown plans to offer mini-grants to businesses for their individual needs or education. They aim to connect 50 entrepreneurs with WRABA business support services with at least 35 of them being from historically disadvantaged populations. They want to continue to build their association and add 15 new members.

“We’re hoping with the co-lab and work incubation center that those businesses and individuals who are trying to make their dreams come true, that once they leave the center, will open a business on the Williamson Road area to help cultivate it and grow it back up,” Brown said.  “We want to be the place where you stop along the way rather than just flying through it.”

The pandemic has heavily affected the progress of this program as a lot of the construction and in-person plans were halted. This meant the group shifted their attention to the community involvement aspects of their revival plan.

Brown saw that people just wanted normalcy. Then came the idea to take the four acres behind the association’s office and hold drive-in movie nights. For four weekends, nine different movies were shown and food trucks from local restaurants were  included for people to interact with. Over 2,000 people came throughout those four weekends. 

“Everyone enjoyed it. I want to take that little piece and spread it up and down the road as best we can,” Brown said. 

Inspired by the street’s diversity, a world restaurant week was held where people could pick up a passport-like pamphlet and get it stamped at participating restaurants. After getting your passport stamp, you were put into a raffle for a 500 dollar flight voucher. 

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Storefronts along Williamson Road house a dog-groomer and a hair salon. (Photo: Adiah Gholston/VPM News)

Future community events include golf tournaments and a 5k run and picnic to build business awareness and community relationship.

Brown continues this relationship building within Williamson’s business community.

The WRAPS monthly luncheons provide time for networking and community gathering for members. Brown says she wants to take the community feel of these meetings and grow it. Over time, the number of people showing up to these meetings, and members, have increased.

“I don’t want the small two-person business to feel any less than the 110-person business,” Brown said. “To me they’re all the same and have the same type of voice in my world. I just want to be there for all of them.”

Correction: We misattributed a quote by Neely to Brown. We have corrected the mistake.