2017 State of the City

 Transcript from Mayor Sherman Lea

Good morning! It is my privilege to welcome you to the 2017 State of the City Address. Before we begin, I want to recognize some special people who are here today: City Council members, Elected officials, Superintendent Rita Bishop, City Manager Bob Cowell, and Special Guests.

An important component of Roanoke’s vitality and livability is the outstanding education system which prepares our children for success. Roanoke City Public Schools is a leader and a partner with the city on many ground-breaking initiatives, including our award-winning Star City Reads Program for which we won the All-America City Award in 2012 and again this year in June. We are so fortunate to have Dr. Rita Bishop, Superintendent for Roanoke City Public Schools, as the person who leads the charge for quality education in our community. At this time, I ask Dr. Bishop to come and bring us an update on the successes achieved by our schools in 2016-2017. (Dr. Bishop’s Address)

Thank you Dr. Bishop for sharing the success stories of our city schools during this past year. It is so encouraging to hear all the positive things that have been accomplished.

As your Mayor, I am so proud of Roanoke and its title of All-America City. Even more, I am proud that we are a seven-time All-America City. No other community in America has earned this award seven times, and this speaks to the unparalleled spirit of our citizens and our community partners, and their desire to make the place where they live and work the best it can be.

In June, a delegation from Roanoke attended the National Civic League Annual Conference in Denver, Colorado. At that conference, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the National Civic League honored the City of Roanoke with the prestigious 2017 All-America City Award for measurable success through Star City Reads. Star City Reads is a collaboration of 25 partners including city government, city schools, and community organizations to help young children from low-income families achieve grade-level reading proficiency and early school success.

We are so pleased with the progress resulting from this program, and of the promise for today’s youth and future generations which will benefit from establishing this critical milestone for reading proficiency.

Building on this recognition, today I want to pose the following question: 

How do you describe people who live in an All-America City?

I believe we can learn the answers to this question by considering wisdom from some well-known Americans.

People who live in an All-America City work side by side in collaborative partnerships. 

Henry Ford, inventor and founder of the Ford Motor Company, once said: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” The Roanoke community understands this sentiment, and has pulled together to make great things happen for our city. It’s about the Valley, not just the city or one area. We’re reaching out and have regional partnerships that are helping us. We can do more together than we can separately.

Thanks to our partnership with the City of Salem, Roanoke County and Botetourt County, broadband is up and running in the Roanoke Valley, and localities are confident in its potential to make our business communities attractive to new companies, as well as allow local businesses to increase their competitiveness.

This year, the City of Roanoke and the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority were recognized with the Governor’s Technology Award for Cross-Boundary Collaboration.

The Western Virginia Regional Industrial Facility Authority was formed in 2013 to bring local governments together to jointly acquire tracts suitable for development. The Authority, enabled by the Virginia Regional Industrial Facilities Act, allows for members to share in tax revenue produced by the eventual user.Because of this partnership, in September 2016 the City of Roanoke, Roanoke County, and the City of Salem jointly acquired their first property – approximately 106 acres along Interstate 81, near Exit 143, that will help fill the need for larger sites for development. The property is on Wood Haven Road in Roanoke County.

Roanoke is leveraging partnerships with community organizations such as Carilion Clinic, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Fleet Feet Sports, Virginia Department of Health, Roanoke City Public Schools, and numerous other organizations and businesses to provide health education and awareness to its citizens. Working collaboratively with Healthy Roanoke Valley to address local health issues, Roanoke Parks and Recreation and the Roanoke Public Libraries promoted health and wellness programs to the community for free or at a nominal cost. Health and wellness was also addressed through the Feed and Read, a partnership with the YMCA, which provided more than 6,100 USDA-approved meals to children at eight locations over the 10-week summer vacation in 2016.

People who live in an All-America City step up to find solutions to problems.

American writer and political activist Eldridge Cleaver believed, “You either have to be part of the solution, or you're going to be part of the problem.” Roanokers get this. They understand. And many of them are trying hard to be part of the solution.

An important issue which has been in our news this year is poverty. I want to reaffirm that Roanoke is committed to addressing poverty. We are taking action, not just talking about it. And the actions we’re taking speak much louder than words. The city has made significant investments in programs that focus on moving citizens out of poverty and continues to set a strong example.

We are stabilizing families in need by facilitating the Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare. This program supports the efforts of households receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to achieve independence through employment. Our Homeless Assistance Team is working with area agencies to house the homeless. The 2017 Point in Time count shows progress in this area with a total count of 267, a decrease of 19.3 percent over last year. We are a partner in RYSE (Rehousing Youth for Success in Education) to assist families with students in our public schools to find homes. We work with YMCA of Roanoke Valley, United Way of Roanoke Valley, Total Action for Progress, and others to aid those in low-income households and provide them opportunities to overcome their challenges.

Remember, there are many layers to the existence of poverty, and impacting those layers is a lengthy process, lasting decades. Success is realized not only in statistics, but in a mindset to take advantage of opportunities to change one’s circumstances, like the family shown here helped by the United Way. When problems develop, our community pulls together and rises to the occasion. A good illustration is the community coalition that formed to address the increasing challenges presented by the former "Ms. Choc's" property on Melrose Avenue.

Feeding America Southwest Virginia announced earlier this year that it purchased the property with the assistance of Community Development Block Grant funds from the city. The property will be used as a Community Solutions Center, and will include a food distribution program and a job training program. This is so important because our partners are helping to turn what used to be a place impacted by violence into a place that offers hope for the future.

Let me also say, I am excited about the Salvation Army’s initiative known as the New Day Center, which is scheduled to open in October as a street outreach, 24-hour hotline, and drop-in center targeting youth aging out of foster care and those at risk of homelessness. This is the kind of collaboration that makes our city so successful in solving problems.

People who live in an All-America City unite to support initiatives that make the community safe.

President Woodrow Wilson once said, “We cannot be separated in interest or divided in purpose. We stand together until the end.” Roanoke has united in ways that are making a difference for its residents and making us a stronger, safer community.

During this fiscal year, Roanoke Police successfully launched the Roanoke Valley HOPE, a new initiative that tackles drug addiction in a way that's never been done in Roanoke. The program allows substance abusers to get rid of their drugs without fear of being arrested and to enter a program to help them become drug-free. This initiative is the first of its kind in Virginia, bringing together multiple community resources working toward one common goal: Saving lives.

Our community partners include the Bradley Free Clinic, Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, the Rescue Mission, Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, Choices Recovery Center, American Addiction Centers, the City of Roanoke’s Fire-EMS and Social Services departments, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. To date, the program has helped more than 100 people, some from as far away as Henry County and Campbell County, find detox and treatment for substance use disorder.

The Lea Youth Outdoor Basketball League is making a positive difference by strengthening relationships between our public safety officers and our community. Facilitated by the Roanoke Police Department, the League gives youth ages 11 to 18 a quality summertime activity as well as an opportunity to interact with our police officers, firefighters, and sheriff’s deputies. This summer we held basketball games in Melrose Park on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and at Fallon Park on Wednesday nights. Since the league started in 2015, more than 350 youth have participated.

Crime is down in our city. While across the United States the national trend for large urban areas is an increase of 10 percent, the 2016/2017 year-to-date data indicates Roanoke has seen a reduction of 4.9 percent. One reason for this is our efforts to engage citizens and to see first-hand the challenges faced by neighborhoods. By conducting Community Walks we are literally walking into residential areas to see for ourselves what needs to be addressed.

In June, City Council members, police officers, and city staff participated in a Southeast Community Walk in the Belmont neighborhood, as well as walks in Northwest. The walk brought city officials and neighborhood leaders together to identify and address concerns. The walks are effective in identifying and addressing quality-of-life issues such as crime and code enforcement. But the biggest success is the connections made between the citizens, Council members, and the individual city departments involved.

A community initiative that has developed this year is that of the Peacemakers. This is a group that works independently in areas of the city that have experienced acts of violence in order to support the Police Department’s efforts to maintain a positive quality of life.The membership of the Peacemakers take on a mentorship role to help prevent acts of retaliation through dialog focused on de-escalating tensions between parties or individuals in conflict with each other.

Roanoke Fire-EMS and Virginia Tech–Carilion Clinic Emergency Medicine Program are now working together to provide board-certified Emergency Room physicians with training in Emergency Medical Services. Trained Emergency Room physicians have the opportunity to work with our EMS teams to respond to critical medical emergencies and gain first-hand experience through exposure to medical care in the field setting.

People who live in an All-America City coordinate efforts to attract visitors to their community.

John Muir (Mew-er), a naturalist and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States, is well-known for saying: “The mountains are calling and I must go.” That’s how we want people to feel when they think of Roanoke. Our natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities are a powerful draw to visitors who love the mountains and their majesty.

Over the past year, Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge hosted 50 travel journalists, generating 125 travel articles publicizing the City of Roanoke. As a result, the region experienced a record-breaking year with national publicity valued over $4.3 million. Of this, the City of Roanoke received $4.1 million in estimated ad equivalency with a circulation of 250 million. Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge collaborated with Virginia Western Community College to develop curriculum designed specifically for the hospitality and tourism industry workforce in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. VWCC conducted multiple hospitality training workshops aimed at enhancing customer service excellence, the key to a positive visitor experience.

People who live in an All-America City collaborate to encourage business development.

According to Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple, Inc., “Great things in business are never done by one person. They're done by a team of people.” Our city is working as a team to encourage business development and growth.

Held in May, the Mayor’s Business Summit offered training to citizens interested in starting their own business. The summit welcomed new and prospective business owners, and introduced them to the best practices for streamlining the opening and operation of a business in the City of Roanoke. The event provided information about financing options, grants, business license acquisition, and proper permitting. It also featured a Panel Discussion of Minority Business Owners who successfully operate businesses in Roanoke. We plan to hold another session next year on January 9, 2018.

Another way the city encourages business development is by providing opportunities for startup companies. This year, renovation on the Gill Memorial Building on Jefferson Street, downtown was completed as a home for RAMP (Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program). RAMP is a partnership of Virginia Western Community College, the City of Roanoke and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council. Its mission is to propel high-potential startups to expand and create jobs in the STEM-H (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Health) fields. Currently six companies are participating in RAMP.

The Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport has seen a steady growth of passenger traffic during 2017, and continues to seek opportunities to bring additional flights and new air-carriers into our region. Thanks to our state and federal partners, Amtrak service to the Northeast Corridor of the United States begins from downtown Roanoke at the end of October.

People who live in an All-America City band together to protect the environment.

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said it best when he stated, “We all need to learn to live more lightly on the land.” That sentiment has never been truer than it is today. Roanoke appreciates the virtues of its natural habitat, and is working with others to ensure a healthy environment for the future.

The second highest recycling collection ever occurred in May 2017. Solid Waste Management crews collected a total of 524.79 tons of recycling. The highest recycling collection occurred in December 2015 when SWM collected 535.01 tons of recycling.

Under the Weatherize Roanoke program, 101 homes were provided with walk-through weatherization assessments, with an estimated 46 tons of CO2 avoided. The Stormwater Division created the Roanoke Riverkeepers Citizen Stream Monitoring program to address water quality. Volunteers are trained and provided monitoring equipment, to evaluate water samples at strategic and accessible sites selected around the city. Roanoke’s Fleet Management Division earned the Governor's Green Fleet Award for Diesel Emission Reduction, and received Virginia Clean Cities’ Green Fleet Award. “Envision Roanoke” engaged the community by reviewing the city’s progress on the Clean & Green initiative, highlighting the most successful programs to date, and opening a discussion on how the city can become a cleaner, greener, and healthier place to live.

People who live in an All-America City actively participate in their local government.

I’m reminded of something Michael Jordan, star athlete for the Chicago Bulls, once said: “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” In my opinion, Roanokers fall into the category of those who “make it happen.” One way they do this is by getting involved, learning about their local government, and taking part in its initiatives.

This year, the first Roanoke Planning Academy was held with 30 citizens attending a series of five evening sessions on city planning. The Office of Neighborhood Services conducted its 22nd Leadership College program with 24 participants meeting department directors and managers to increase their understanding of city government functions.

The Youth Services Citizen Board held its Third Annual Youth Summit, featuring workshops for middle and high school students on topics including health and nutrition, internet safety, and peer conflict resolution. This year’s Youth Summit will be held September 9 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at William Fleming High School.

This year, our Planning, Building, and Development Department reached out to citizens for feedback and ideas on Downtown Plan 2017. Staff hosted Open House meetings to display the major themes and key ideas being proposed within the new Downtown Plan.

Utilizing surveys, public input, and information from stakeholders, the City has drafted the Downtown Plan and hopes to establish policies and goals that help add new life and maintain the vibrancy of Downtown Roanoke.

Roanoke introduced an Office of Citizen Engagement as a way to emphasize and grow social media interaction with citizens. In July, the city hit 200,000 followers on its 60-plus social media pages combined. The city's main Facebook page is one of the most popular local government pages in the country with more than 84,000 followers. Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, San Diego, and Phoenix combined don't have numbers like that. Roanoke's Office of Citizen Engagement recently launched iROANOKE on Twitter, which allows residents to submit service requests with a single tweet. We've also launched City Council meetings live on Facebook, generating thousands of views. Nearly 1,000 people have already downloaded Roanoke's new Recycle Coach app, which allows residents to set reminders for trash and recycling collection.

There is so much more I could say about our All-America City and the people who live and work here. Roanoke’s assets certainly outweigh its liabilities. We have so much to be proud of, but we still have things we need to work on. As you leave today, I challenge you to commit yourself to focusing on Roanoke’s positives, and to being part of the solution for the areas where we need to improve.

Remember this: People who live in an All-America City have a mindset, a “can do” attitude that causes them to act in certain ways. They focus on building a better community and a better future. I ask everyone to take a part. Let’s come together and do what we can do to make things better. Get involved. Support our initiatives. Help Roanoke grow and thrive in the 21st Century.

And I want to thank Roanoke for being such an engaged city. With or without the award, you will always be an All-America City to me.

We are stronger together.

Thank you!