Made in Roanoke Business Profile: Mountain Laurel Designs

Mountain Laurel DesignsThe world of ultralight backpacking is one of the fastest growing activities in outdoor recreation. As more an more people venture into the backcountry, they demand gear that is lighter, stronger, and more functional than ever before. One of the companies on the cutting edge of cutting ounces is based right here in the Roanoke Region: Mountain Laurel Designs.

Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) hand makes backpacking equipment from their facility in Roanoke, and is known throughout the world as a leading innovator in ultralight gear. The facility crafts everything from backpacks and shelters, to sleep pads and bivy sacks all with one common theme: simplicity and light weight.

When company founder Ron Bell moved to the Roanoke Region from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he sought to explore the mountains. Always an outdoorsman, Bell had previously worked as a search and rescue climber in Yosemite National Park and wanted to apply the lightweight, less is more philosophy of big wall climbing gear to backpacking.

The only problem? No one was manufacturing gear that satisfied his need.

So he started creating his own.

“I wanted to backpack a lot more in the Blue Ridge area but I didn’t want to carry a lot of the heavier gear that was available at the time, decades ago,” he says. “So I started making my own gear to go backpacking.”

What began as a hobby born out of necessity led to Bell selling his ultralight designs to fellow campers on Ebay, then to creating his own small business website, then eventually to quitting his day job and committing to MLD full time. Bell now employs six people at his Roanoke facility and has a major international following – 25 percent of sales are outside the United States, mostly in the United Kingdom and Australia.

MLD is known for using the highest quality, lowest weight materials available on the market. Most products are made from either silnylon which is about half the weight of tradition tent material, or the more advanced cuben fiber, which weighs only about 20 percent of traditional tent materials. MLD was one of the first to use cuben and has been building products with the material longer than any other company in the world.

Bell says the size of his company is one of the advantages he has over larger manufacturers.

“Cuben is extremely strong and very thin, but takes a high degree of craftsmanship to work with, because you end up bonding the material,” he said. “You can’t just cut it and sew it and run it through the same type of high speed sewing assembly lines that say, a factory in China can.”

The mountains surrounding Roanoke also make the perfect testing grounds for new products and prototypes.

“Living in an area where there are a lot of people doing a lot of outdoor things gives you a lot of inspiration and drive to try to improve your gear all the time,” he said.

As ultralight backpacking’s popularity continues to grow, so will MLD’s business, you will surely see more locally produced gear on the trail.

Mountain Laurel Design products are available through their website,

The Bridges Development Signs First Corporate Tenant

JDSUThe $100 million Bridges re-development project in Downtown Roanoke has signed its first corporate tenant. Technology company JDSU will occupy the Trolley Barn building at 323 Walnut Ave. says real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer.

The space is scheduled for a full overhaul that will include an open floor plan, large laboratory space and will feature modern glass enclosures. The company is set to move into the new space when it is completed in December 2014.

 Below is the full press release:

A global technology company with a significant local presence will be the first corporate tenant at The Bridges, a $100 million project that is transforming a long-vacant stretch along South Jefferson Street into new apartments, offices and retail.

The product development site for JDSU, which develops network and service enablement solutions for network equipment manufacturers, communications service providers and enterprises, has signed an agreement to move into the Trolley Barn. The historic building, located at 323 Walnut Ave., within the new National Roanoke River & Railroad Historic District, will be renovated and preserved to meet JDSU’s requirements.

JDSU’s site is currently located at Valleypark Drive in Roanoke County near the airport. Once the Trolley Barn is ready next year, approximately 75 employees will be located there. JDSU will move into a 24,643-square-foot building featuring an open, creative floor plan in a building that once housed streetcar trolleys.

“When we broke ground on The Bridges just over a year ago, we envisioned a vibrant community where people can live, work and play in a revitalized part of downtown while preserving Roanoke’s rich history,” said Jason Vickers-Smith, owner of WVS Companies Inc., the project’s developer. “In addition to the apartments moving toward completion we now have a world-class tenant in JDSU that sees the potential of the project – both for their own future in Roanoke and for their employees, who will have access to greenways, the river and upcoming options such as a restaurant and coffee shop.”

“We are excited to be part of the Trolley Barn historic renovation and the Bridges downtown revitalization project,” said Bob Dierk, JDSU’s site manager. “We have a history of more than 20 years in the Roanoke Valley, including Salem, so it’s quite appropriate to be adding to our heritage in a historic district.”

“This is a great example of how a visionary project like the Bridges can preserve and grow jobs in the Roanoke Valley,” added Roanoke Mayor David Bowers. “We’re delighted to welcome JDSU to our expanded downtown and thank them for sharing the vision we have – that The Bridges will be crucial to connecting downtown to the Roanoke River as part of the city’s largest development project.”

The deal was brokered by Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer, exclusive leasing representative for The Bridges. “Companies today are looking for space that is both functional and unique,” said John Nielsen, first vice president and managing broker of the commercial real estate firm’s Roanoke office. “This is the largest new office lease signed in the downtown Roanoke area since March 2008. It shows the improving health of the commercial real estate market as well as driving the continued growth of The Bridges into a vibrant project and demonstrating the growing opportunity for new development in Roanoke.”

JDSU’s local employees work primarily in software and hardware engineering and product management. JDSU is headquartered in Milpitas, Calif., and serves customers around the world.

In addition to a 157-unit apartment complex, South16, along South Jefferson Street, the first phase of The Bridges also includes a restaurant/coffee house, office space, public promenade along the river, kayak launch, sidewalks and streetscapes. For more information, please visit

Nano-Brewery Big Lick Brewing Co. Opening in Roanoke

Big Lick Brewing LocationA new craft brewery is getting set to open in downtown Roanoke, adding to the rapidly growing local beer options in the Roanoke Region. 

The new Big Lick Brewing Company may be Brian Summerson’s first foray into commercial brewing, but he knows something about the art of creating craft beer. Summerson is the former president of the Star City Brewers Guild, a group of region homebrewers and the only club officially recognized by the American Homebrewers Association. He is not only the president, he is also a member, winning the guild’s brewer of the year award four times. 

With such success, he decided it was time to start selling his award winning beer, instead of giving it away. Summerson began renovations on a storefront at 135 Salem Ave., and is in the process of putting together the finishing touches. Along with interior renovations that include the creation of a custom bar, a loading dock on the back of the location was demolished to make way for patio seating. Summerson is also using materials found during the demolition, such as railroad and trolley tracks, as parts of the renovated interior, giving the space a rustic look.

The tasting room will seat about 50 people, who will be able to fill a growler or have a pint on premises. As of now, Summerson says he has no plans to mass-produce, bottle, or distribute his beers, so the tasting room will be the only place to sample the four beers currently being brewed. 

While there is no definite opening date – Summerson is awaiting license approval from state and local entities – Big Lick will most likely be open later in the summer, possibly as soon as July. In the meantime, Big Lick has a website, and a Facebook page with regular updates on the progress of the brewery.  

When it opens, Big Lick will become the eighth brewery operating in the immediate Roanoke Region, joining Roanoke Railhouse Brewery, Parkway Brewing Company, Sunken City Brewing Company, Chaos Mountain Brewing, Flying Mouse Brewery, Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers, and Callaway Brewing Company. Six additional craft breweries operate within an hour’s drive: Bull & Bones, River Company Brewery, Jefferson Street Brewery, Apocalypse Ale Works, Devils Backbone Outpost, and Blue Lab Brewery. 
Stay tuned for more updates on Big Lick Brewing Co.

Goodwill Launches Ultimate Upcycling Contest

Goodwill IndustriesGoodwill Industries of the Valley is all about making something from nothing. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure after all. They are putting their money where their mouth is with their Ultimate Upcycling Contest.

Reusing, repurposing, and recycling old items into new and useful goods is a great way to prevent them from ending up in a landfill while also saving money. Goodwill Industries of the Valley wants to help you make a little money back in the process. They are offering a $250 VISA gift card to the winner of their contest. Submit your creative upcycling entry by July 27th for your chance to become a finalist. Three finalist will be chosen from the field and voted on by the public. 

Goodwill will even help inspire you to create that winning project. They are hosting How-To Workshops in their stores throughout the valley. The schedule is listed below: 

Date: June 7th
Time: 10am and 11am
Location: Waynesboro Goodwill Store – 132 Lucy Lane

Date: June 14th
Time: 10am and 11am
Location: Roanoke Goodwill Store at Hunting Hills – 4335 Pheasant Ridge Road

Date: June 21st
Time: 10am and 11am
Location: Christiansburg Goodwill Store – 255 Peppers Ferry Road

Date: June 28th
Time: 10am and 11am
Location: Wytheville Goodwill Store – 195 East Commonwealth Drive

Date: July 12th
Time: 10am and 11am
Location: Forest Goodwill Store – 18366 Forest Road

Find more information on how to enter the Ultimate Upcycling Contest >>>