Getting Familiar with the New River Valley

By Kyle Johnson and Charles Slife, Location Consultants with Austin Consulting

Location consultants often participate in community familiarization (FAM) tours to be able to learn about local communities, their economies and the opportunities that they offer to prospective businesses. On May 23, 2018, we were invited to visit the New River Valley by Onward New River Valley and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

The geographic area of the New River Valley contains four counties and one independent city located in southwest Virginia, between Roanoke and Wytheville, that is bisected by Interstate 81. During the visit, we learned about available sites and buildings throughout the New River Valley, including the 1,000-acre New River Valley Commerce Park. This information helps Austin understand assets that communities offer and assist clients with unique needs.

We began our day at the Volvo Trucks Customer Experience Center in Dublin, Virginia. Located on the campus of the Volvo Trucks North America manufacturing facility, the Customer Experience Center provides a space where new products are launched and where customers can interact with Volvo equipment, ensuring that unique specifications are met. Behind the Customer Experience Center are two test tracks - a 1.1-mile paved roadway and an off-road gravel/dirt track. During the visit to Volvo, we met with company executives and test drove semi-trucks and dump trucks on the test tracks, which gave us insight into Volvo’s unique business model. We also learned who has the best driving skills – we’ll just say one of us stalled the dump truck.

Volvo is a significant asset to the New River Valley and demonstrates the community’s ability to provide companies with a modern, skilled manufacturing workforce – Volvo emphasized the quality of the local workforce repeatedly. Workforce is often a critical factor for location decisions for companies and having discussions with local employers helps Austin understand the local labor market in a region.

In the afternoon, we toured TORC Robotics, a firm in Blacksburg, Virginia, that specializes in technology for autonomous vehicles. To see TORC’s technology in action, we rode in a self-driving car (automated vehicle) with a “safety driver” and experienced how vehicles can adapt to complex and changing traffic conditions. We also learned more about the connection of this company to the New River Valley and how the region continually meets the company’s workforce needs through talent at Virginia Tech and Radford University. Visits like this keep Austin consultants informed on the newest technology and trends, and add to our knowledge in the advanced manufacturing sector.

To see how Virginia has positioned itself as a leader in self-driving vehicle research, we toured the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and its network of test tracks, which allow unmanned autonomous vehicles to be tested under a variety of conditions. The Institute includes the multi-mile Virginia Smart Road, a secure facility that is being expanded to allow for the testing of vehicles under urban and rural scenarios.

The Institute has interesting workforce needs because it hires a plethora of backgrounds, from computer software engineers to psychologists, to serve the organization’s mission. This is an important asset for the automobile industry and learning about this operation positions Austin to better inform automotive companies on other considerations to include in their location decisions.

We ended our day at Virginia Tech, home of the Hokies. We toured the university’s football facilities and Lane Stadium, where the field has a unique vacuum system that pulls moisture away from the playing surface. This prevents water from damaging the field’s Bermuda grass and disrupting play.

Because of this visit, we are now more informed on the strategic assets available to companies in the New River Valley, including its transportation connectivity, proximity to major universities, and skilled workforce. This allows us and our team to better advise clients who are considering locating in this region.