Rendering of a shopping center

This artist rendering shows what a neighborhood hub might look like, complete with a grocery store, health care and more.

10.01.2021
By Roanoke College News

Student research leads to ‘transformative’ project in Roanoke

A neighborhood in northwest Roanoke has a chance of seeing some key improvements as a result of research done at Roanoke College.

Dr. Liz Ackley, the Brian H. Thornhill Associate Professor of Health & Human Performance at Roanoke College, is the director of the Center for Community Health Innovation at Roanoke College. The center serves as a real-world learning lab for students to discover ways to create change in a community — specifically the city of Roanoke and surrounding areas.

One of the center’s focuses is food security, specifically in northwest Roanoke. The area has not had a full grocery store in decades. That might change, though, after Roanoke City Council voted to direct $10 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to bring a shopping center to the neighborhood. The federal government allocated more than $64 million in ARPA funding to the city, and a city panel of volunteers ranked the idea of bringing a shopping center to northwest Roanoke as the top priority for this funding.

None of that funding will go to the College, Ackley said, but decision-makers will consult research that Roanoke students have done since 2015. Ackley swells with pride as she talks about the importance of the project.

“I think the uniqueness of all of this work is that we have a small liberal arts college guiding what could potentially be one of the most transformative projects ever in the history of Roanoke,” Ackley said. “When I think about what that could mean for the 40,000 people who could benefit from this project, I get emotional. To position students in this process and to leverage residents to guide the entire project, this is how transformative community development should be.”

The fact that the city believes in this research so much shows that Roanoke College is on the cutting edge of community health research, Ackley said. This study is focused on equity, not just nutrition, Ackley said. The vision for the shopping center is to include a grocery store along with services such as a laundromat, a family-owned restaurant, a credit union or even health care.

Ackley presented the research at the National Institutes of Health in September and earned a conference research award. 

“I think the uniqueness of all of this work is that we have a small liberal arts college guiding what could potentially be one of the most transformative projects ever in the history of Roanoke.”

Dr. Liz Ackley, the Brian H. Thornhill Associate Professor of Health & Human Performance

The next step is for the city to find a developer to pursue this project. Ackley and the Center for Community Health Innovation will still be tangentially involved, though.

“That also sets us up, once we get that going, to start recruiting partner organizations in the city,” Ackley said. “So, who else needs to live in this hub? We know we need a health care partner; we need a financial institution; we need minority entrepreneurs to establish businesses here. The fun part for me is, we get to start bringing together partners to bring this hub to life.”

The multi-faceted approach of this research is indicative of the range of experiences health and exercise science students can have before and after graduation.

“The thing that keeps me so engaged with Health and Exercise Science is everything we do affects health,” Ackley said. “Infrastructure, economic development, government policy, all of these things affect health. It’s so fun to be able to bring that to life for our students.”