2019 State of the City

Date: August 29, 2019 at 8:00 a.m.

Transcript from Mayor Sherman P. Lea, Sr.:

Good morning! It is my privilege to welcome you to the 2019 State of the City Address.

First, I want to recognize some special people who are here today.

• My colleagues on City Council

• Special Guests

Thank you all for being here.

In June, Roanoke was selected as the first-ever city named to the All-America City Hall of Fame. The National Civic League bestowed this special honor on our City to recognize our long-standing success in addressing local issues through civic engagement, collaboration, inclusiveness, and innovation.

I am so proud of our Seven-Time All-America City, and the leadership we are showing to cities across the Country. Let me assure you – we did not achieve this status overnight. We worked long and hard to get there.

I think it’s safe to say, most people want to be seen as hardworking – to be known as someone who is diligent and puts effort into doing and completing tasks. But very few people work hard for no reason at all.

Roanoke works hard for a purpose: to create value and quality of life. But most of all, we work hard because we care about our community.

I believe Roanoke’s success and status as an All-America City Hall of Fame winner is the result of all the hard work we are doing to sustain, develop, and enhance our vibrant City.

And, our efforts have produced many positive results. This morning I would like to share with you some of those results over the past year.

Roanoke has “rolled up its sleeves” to achieve steady economic growth. One catalyst for this growth has been the unique partnership Roanoke has developed with the business, medical, and educational communities to support the Roanoke Innovation Corridor.

The Corridor is a vibrant network of interdisciplinary training and research facilities, an award-winning healthcare system, and tech entrepreneurs. This network creates an atmosphere where researchers, students, care providers, and businesses can excel through collaboration.

It is our hope that the Corridor will attract top neuroscience and biomedical researchers, tech entrepreneurs, physicians, and medical students from across the world.

The Corridor’s anchor institutions include Carilion Clinic, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Radford University Carilion, the Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program (RAMP), and the City of Roanoke.

In addition, there are several supporting partners including Virginia Western Community College, the Roanoke Regional Partnership, and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council.

The synergy from this partnership supports Carilion Clinic’s recent announcement of a $300 million expansion of Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Once complete, Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital will have 2.4 million square feet, making it one of the largest hospitals in Virginia. The expansion will include a behavioral health hospital flanking Jefferson Street.

Most recently, Radford University announced its merger with Carilion's Jefferson College of Health Sciences. Using the new name “Radford University Carilion,” this connection will certainly strengthen the Corridor’s draw.

*The newly renamed Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC is another byproduct of this unique partnership. Thanks to the Fralin family’s generous donation to Virginia Tech for expansion of the research center, we will be able to attract top-ranked scientists and hasten the pace of our region’s economic growth.

The new STEM building at Virginia Western Community College opened last fall, offering instruction in Engineering, Mechatronics, Physics, Chemistry, Biotechnology, and Mathematics. This $30-million project includes the latest science, engineering, and manufacturing equipment for students who want to pursue these special areas of study—adding to the attention the Corridor will attract.

The tireless energy dedicated to redeveloping our downtown has paid off this past year with a long-awaited announcement: The Heironimus Building, which sat empty for many years, sold to the Richmond-based Monument Companies, LLC.

It is exciting to note the company will invest $18 million to transform it into a residential and commercial property. Mast General Store, based out of Valle Crucis, NC, has already contracted for 25,000 square feet in the commercial space, and we are confident other announcements will follow.

Because of our perseverance, national retail chains like BJ’s Wholesale Club continue to set up shop in Roanoke. The company opened its store on Hershberger Road in November 2018, bringing 55 full-time jobs to our area and a $15.5 million investment.

Roanoke has been hard at work identifying ways to stimulate economic development. Over the last three fiscal years, the City has given more than $500,000 in Enterprise Zone incentives to property owners and small businesses who have, through their own investments, contributed to our development and job growth.

This year Roanoke City Council approved an ordinance establishing a Tourism Zone, which encourages the development of businesses in the hospitality industry. And, Roanoke has Opportunity Zones recognized by the Federal government that incentivize investors to invest in distressed areas of the City.

I am a firm believer economic development is attracted and enhanced by the amenities available in a community. A good example for Roanoke is its Arts and Culture emphasis.

The City’s Public Art Program, along with the Roanoke Arts Commission, has done an outstanding job placing public art throughout our City through the use of funds from the Percent for Art program.

This year, they continued the “Art in Roanoke” temporary exhibit on the Art Walk in Elmwood Park, with eight new sculptures addressing the theme “Roanoke Rising.” They also concluded the celebration of “10 Years of Public Art” with installation of “Global Harmony” in Entranceway Park on Wells Avenue.

Natural beauty is a big part of Roanoke’s draw. And we have kept our shoulder to the wheel to ensure visitors and residents appreciate our connection with the outdoors.

One effective way we have done this is through tourism. Tourism tells people who we are, where we are, and why they would want to be in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. It offers the first impression for visitors and potential new businesses, and enhances the quality of life for residents.

This year, Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge launched the “Be A Trailsetter” campaign, the largest marketing campaign ever launched for the City and the region. This campaign emphasizes and promotes the fun and thrill of being outdoors, and riding all the great trails in the Roanoke area.

Tourism also generates a significant economic impact for our region. I am happy to say, the impact of our hard work to support and encourage tourism is showing great results.

The year 2018 marked the ninth consecutive year of record growth for hotel room demand and hotel room revenue. And the investment made by the City of Roanoke to Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge is directly tied to the economic vitality of the area, fostering new businesses of all kinds including new hotels generating additional visitors, jobs and local tax revenues.

Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge also works to attract events that promote the region. A good example is this summer’s announcement that Roanoke will serve as a multi-year host venue for the Carilion Clinic IRONMAN® 70.3® Virginia’s Blue Ridge Triathlon, relocating the event from its previous host city of Williamsburg. Becoming part of IRONMAN’s elite global race series further establishes our region as a premier sports destination on a national and international level.

Currently, one of Roanoke’s most successful outdoor opportunities has become the annual GO Outside Festival. Held in October at River’s Edge Sports Complex, last fall the festival hosted 38,000 attendees from across the country. The three-day event is presented through a partnership between the City’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Roanoke Outside Foundation, with free concerts, outdoor activities, and races.

We are proud of the hard work our staff, along with partners like the Roanoke Outside Foundation, have done and welcome their contributions to the many outdoor activities that make visiting and living in our City an enjoyable experience.

Being an All-America City Hall of Fame winner means we are willing to put in the time, effort, and dedication to do what is required to complete the task. I believe there is no more important assignment than our work to prepare young residents to carry the mantel long after we are gone, but it is not an easy task.

Learning is demanding work. But it can also be a labor of love. Roanoke’s teachers and students put their hearts into learning, and they have earned “extra credit” in my book, because of their commitment.

I am proud to tell you that Roanoke City Public Schools’ on-time graduation rate is at 90%. In addition, all of our schools are fully accredited.

A record number, 3,000 students, participated in our summer enrichment program RCPS+.

Forest Park Academy has exceeded 1,300 graduates since the school opened. This specialized school helps high school students overcome challenges and graduate.

This is the 10th year Roanoke has participated in the Community College Access Program. Graduating seniors who qualify attend Virginia Western Community College tuition-free up to three years. A total of 690 Roanoke City students have participated in the CCAP program in the first 10 years; another 65 are enrolled for this fall.

Roanoke City Schools are also looking at a new initiative: Transportation for students who have apprenticeships. They are considering a variety of transportation options for the future, including Valley Metro, to transport students to apprenticeship jobs.

Roanoke City Public Schools understand that a child’s physical and mental health can impact their performance in school and their quality of life. To address this concern City Schools, Carilion Clinic, Delta Dental of Virginia, and Freedom First Credit Union recently announced “LIFT” – which stands for Local Impact for Tomorrow. LIFT is a health and wellness initiative that will include, as its centerpiece, a new pediatric health clinic and community center at the new Fallon Park Elementary School to serve students and their families. This collaborative effort will provide multiple services to students and local families. The clinic is expected to open in August 2020.

In 2018, the City’s schools generated regional and national attention for Roanoke as the result of a lot of hard work. For example:

• Virginia Heights Elementary Educator Caroline Eschenbach received the prestigious Milken Educator Award.

• Patrick Henry High School Educator Nicole Doherty received the national Outstanding Teacher of American History award.

You could also say the teams from our schools did their fair share of “burning the midnight oil” in preparation to compete. They gave it their all, and we are proud of what these young men and women accomplished:

• Patrick Henry High School won state titles this year in Swimming, Forensics, and Debate; and

• William Fleming High School Relay Team won a national title in Boys Track and a regional title in Girls Basketball.

And let’s not forget that this year the NAMM Foundation named Roanoke City Schools one of the Best Communities for Music Education for the seventh consecutive year – evidence that City schools are successfully emphasizing the value of music arts to our children.

Roanoke’s hard work is paying off with the Star City Reads initiative. The program was launched in 2012 with the goal of advancing kindergarten readiness, summer learning, school attendance, and health, especially for children with limited resources

Today I am proud to say we have made a great deal of progress improving early education outcomes. First of all, we are now working with more than 30 community partners in this initiative. Also, since 2013, grade-level reading rates have improved from 65.1% to 74.2% for all Roanoke City Public Schools third graders.

And this year, for the fifth consecutive year, the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has awarded the City of Roanoke Pacesetter Honors for progress made through the Star City Reads campaign.

One successful outgrowth of Star City Reads is the Feed and Read program. When Library staff started the program in 2014 at the Gainsboro Branch Library, it provided nutritious meals and reading activities for children in the neighborhood during the summer months.

Seeing its success and realizing the potential impact the program could make, Library staff established a partnership with Feeding America and the YMCA, to enhance Feed and Read.

The result: This program is now providing meals six days a week at all library branches for children up to age 18, along with literacy activities. Because of Feed and Read, more than 60,000 meals were served to children over the last three years. And the success of this program earned Roanoke status as the first-ever All-America City Hall of Fame award winner.

One of the reasons we work hard is because we care. We care about our children, and especially those who find themselves in difficult family situations. Roanoke’s Foster Care program has shown how much we care through its industrious work to find forever homes for children.

The program was #1 in Virginia with 75 completed adoptions in the state’s fiscal year 2018; and it is currently #1 for the state’s fiscal year 2019 with 54 completed adoptions as of March 31.

We also care about finding ways to help our citizens—young and old—who struggle financially to develop skills and practices that will move them into financial independence. That’s important because the stability of low and moderate-income households is key to moving citizens out of poverty.

With this in mind, the City participates in “Bank On Roanoke Valley,” a partnership with the United Way of the Roanoke Valley, local government leaders, and financial institutions to offer checking and savings accounts to citizens at a nominal fee or no fee. The program also offers free financial literacy courses to the public.

This effort has revealed an additional need in the work to attain economic equity among citizens. As a result, the City is working with the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund to offer “Financial Empowerment Centers,” which will provide individualized counseling, tailored to each resident’s or family’s financial situation.

The Centers will offer one-on-one financial counseling at no cost, and will be available to anyone who wants this type of assistance. Some of the Financial Empowerment Centers will align with Valley Metro bus routes to accommodate citizens' transportation needs.

Most important, Financial Empowerment Centers will align perfectly with the City’s commitment to work diligently with local agencies to aid those in low and moderate-income households, and provide them with a variety of opportunities to overcome their challenges.

Another demonstration of our commitment to help those in our community who need a hand is the work Roanoke has done day-in, day-out to address homelessness.

The Housing First model and matching individuals to resources efficiently through standardized processes are components of an ongoing effort by the Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Continuum of Care to improve service provision and effectiveness.

Working with our partners to conduct the 2019 Point in Time Count, the results showed 304 homeless individuals in shelter and 15 unsheltered, which is a 19% reduction in homelessness since 2015.

Serving our community means not only helping citizens become independent, but also ensuring that the streets, buildings, bridges, and green spaces in the place they live are in good shape.

Roanoke keeps a steady hand when it comes to the work needed to update City buildings and infrastructure so they can best serve the community.

A good example is the new Melrose Branch Library located on Melrose Avenue. A $4 million project, this library opened on July 22 and is the beginning of a new chapter for the neighborhood. This is the largest neighborhood branch library in the City!

Not only does it include more computers than any other branch and more than 40,000 books, it also offers a STEAM lab, job training, small business center, and teen space.

On March 22, much to everyone’s delight, the new Franklin Road Bridge opened to the public. The cost was slightly more than $14 million to construct, and used a variety of sources of funding, including State and local funds. Public art is also part of the new bridge, with works displayed on the columns of the bridge to communicate the rich history of the Old Southwest neighborhood.

This year the City continued to add greenway trails. In January, the new Garden City Greenway, located near the intersection of Garden City Boulevard and Riverland Road, opened. And in February we cut the ribbon on a new section of the Roanoke River Greenway at Aerial Way Drive.

The Colonial Avenue Improvement Project is progressing nicely with two roundabouts in place at Overland Drive and McNeil Drive. Work on a third roundabout at Winding Way Road has begun. The improvements are helping to create a campus-like atmosphere for Virginia Western Community College.

Underground utility work has been completed and sidewalks are being installed with paving beginning. The newly revamped Colonial Avenue will provide a beautifully landscaped and safe route for students at Virginia Western as well as Fishburn Park Elementary and James Madison Middle Schools.

In mid-July, construction began on the new Fire Station 7. The new station will serve the City of Roanoke for the next 75-plus years. It will provide all the modern amenities needed to accommodate a gender-diverse workforce, safer and healthier work environment, and enhanced reaction times. Also, its design will give us the option to expand services in the future if needed.

The character of the old station will be brought forward into the new through architectural design, and salvaging and repurposing of materials from the old station to be incorporated. Additionally, the station will reflect the Raleigh Court architecture and blend with the community.

A firm foundation is important, not only in constructing buildings, but also in cultivating our relationship with the community. That is the reason our City is working nonstop to identify ways to engage with residents.

I am so appreciative of our Police and Fire-EMS departments. Besides their relentless work to ensure residents and businesses feel safe and know how to address risks, they have “gone all out” to connect with our younger citizens.

A good example is the Roanoke Police Department’s collaborative partnerships with educational initiatives like Star City Reads, which includes RPD Reads. Officers read to children at locations including all local “Head Start” centers run by TAP. Bigs and Blue, a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters, allows officers to volunteer to be "bigs" and become a part of kids’ "littles" lives. And Star City Cop Camp is another program that brings young people in contact with our officers in a positive way.

Another way public safety officers interact with residents is through the Lea Youth Outdoor Basketball League.

During the summer, kids and teenagers between the ages of 11 and 18 are invited to play basketball two nights a week at Melrose Park. At the games, people from all walks of life come forward to share how they have overcome obstacles to attain success as part of a “quality moment.” While basketball attracts the kids to the league, it's what they learn from the "quality moment" presentations that we hope they'll remember.

Through these programs, our youth have a chance to get to know police officers and develop positive relationships with them. They also learn about the hard work required to create a safe community, and discover the things they can do to stay safe.

Roanoke Police are reaching out to the community to invite them to be part of the public safety team. This year the department stepped up their recruitment efforts with stronger promotion of testing events. For example, earlier this month the department held a Special Recruiting Event to encourage candidates to apply and test for positions with the department.

Roanoke Fire-EMS is also working hard to communicate the value of its services to the public, and to step up its efforts to recruit young men and women from our community to work in the department.

The department conducted the second Roanoke Fire-EMS EMT program this year – a joint venture between Roanoke City Public Schools and Roanoke Fire-EMS that provides students with the opportunity to learn about a career as an Emergency Medical Technician.

And I am pleased to tell you that recently Roanoke Fire-EMS received the Virginia Health and Medical Sciences Education Association Award of Merit for this program.

This year Fire-EMS also launched a recruitment campaign – "We Are Roanoke Fire-EMS" – to introduce the public to members of its family. Using social media, the campaign highlighted firefighters, along with the different tasks that they do at the Fire-EMS Department. The public response was very positive.

Community Safety is one of City Council’s top priorities. And continued hard work is necessary for ongoing initiatives to make the community safe and reduce the crime rate.

In response to concerns about an increase in gun violence—locally, regionally, and throughout our country—this year I called for the creation of a Task Force to Reduce Gun Violence. Led by Vice-Mayor Joe Cobb, this group will study the problem and identify possible solutions to impact gun violence in Roanoke.

One of the first actions from this group was to sponsor a special event to honor those who lost their lives as the result of gun violence. Friends and families gathered at “Roanoke Remembers,” a public event held in July at William Fleming High School. The event included a memorial wall with photos of those who lost their lives, and a program with music, poetry, dance, and testimonials honoring victims of gun violence.

Also in response to concerns about gun violence, Council Member Trish White-Boyd organized a prayer vigil at Melrose Park on July 26, with the goal of getting the community to come together, to inspire them to be courageous enough to report acts of gun violence when they happen and to pray for an end to gun violence in the City.

Gun violence is a national issue that has touched our City, but another national issue impacts us as well. Roanoke is not immune from the opioid crisis that has spread across the Country. And, we are keenly aware that something must be done, both nationwide and locally, to address addiction.

Roanoke Police continue to be a key player in the Roanoke Valley HOPE initiative, which offers a lifeline to those addicted to drugs. This program is a collaborative effort between law enforcement, healthcare systems, treatment, recovery agencies, and safety net organizations throughout the community. Together, these agencies assist individuals suffering from substance use disorders to seek treatment and recovery resources.

As of June 2019, 405 people have received treatment options through the HOPE Initiative since its inception in 2016. Out of those 405 people, 83% have attended their initial appointment for treatment.

This year the Roanoke Police Department worked with the Council of Community Services to make possible an application to fund a Comprehensive Harm Reduction Program with the Department of Public Health.

Earlier this month the Commonwealth of Virginia gave its approval for the Council of Community Services to perform harm reduction services in Roanoke, an important step forward in addressing the risk factors of HIV and Hep-C associated with opioid addiction disorder, as well as disease prevention.

Community safety includes the health of our citizens, and Roanoke Fire-EMS is going the extra mile to improve services for citizens who experience acute health crises. Through the EMS 2020 project, the department is looking closely at emergency medical services to determine how they can be of greater value to our community.

EMS 2020 will help the department explore what EMS service should look like in the future, how we can achieve it, and how we can take better care of the men and women who deliver it, by determining the model that works best for our City.

To improve services, Fire-EMS implemented an additional 24 ambulances in the Northwest community to address the growing demand for emergency medical services in the City.

In addition, Medic 13 was placed in service on January 2 at Station 13, located at 4330 Appleton Avenue North West. This action increased the department's capacity to respond to medical calls by 10%.

While much hard work has been done, there’s still plenty of labor ahead to ensure success for Roanoke’s future. For one thing, we must be diligent to ensure safe travel in our City. That means we must continue to invest in our roads and bridges that need repair and replacement.

After multiple rehabilitation projects over years, the Wasena Bridge is near the end of its useful life and planning efforts to replace it have begun.

Built in 1938, the bridge connects three historical City neighborhoods, and provides access to Downtown Roanoke from the outlying communities. Like the Franklin Road Bridge Replacement project, construction of a new Wasena Bridge will require a great deal of work and patience from those who use that route on a daily basis.

Construction is slated to begin in Spring 2022. Once it is completed, the end result of our labors will be a beautiful structure that will provide safe travel for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, and serve our community well.

Safe travel in our City also means our public transportation system must be positioned to offer quality service to residents who depend on it to get where they need to go.

With this in mind, the City has taken on the challenge of constructing a new transit transfer facility in downtown on Salem Avenue. The new facility will better enable buses to move in and out efficiently through our streets, and provide a better experience for bus passengers.

While the final product will make the use of public transportation more appealing, a period of adjustment will be required as we go through the process.

The design/engineering phase for the Station will be done during the current year, and construction is projected to start in 2020/21. A temporary transfer station will be provided on the property while construction is underway.

Ensuring a solid future means continuing to include residents in decision-making. The City is working tirelessly to ensure citizens have the opportunity to engage with their local government, providing input on what is desired for the years to come.

A good example of this work is the design of the new Melrose Branch Library, where the City engaged with residents and community leaders to hear ideas and learn what they wanted for this important resource to the neighborhoods.

This year City staff will put in extra time and effort to complete “Plan Roanoke,” the new Comprehensive Plan. The process included holding more than 40 meetings to invite public feedback on the things that should be included in the plan. Staff also went above and beyond to offer an online survey to the public, as well as numerous opportunities to meet in person and provide feedback on what is desired for Comprehensive Plan 2040.

With an eye toward continuing this work, we have already begun the process of engaging with businesses and neighbors in Wasena with regard to the bridge replacement. In fact, the City is in the midst of a year-long stakeholder involvement effort with business owners and neighborhood groups in the area to share information and hear comments about the construction of a new bridge. The ideas and insights from these meetings will be taken into consideration when developing the plans for the new bridge.

Without a doubt, there will be other opportunities in the year to come for our citizens to weigh in and help guide us as we address new issues and projects.

I am a firm believer that success travels in the company of very hard work. In light of all that has been done over the past year and our plans for the future, it is clear Roanoke’s leaders are not afraid of a little hard work; they understand how important it is. That’s why we are an All-America City Hall of Fame award winner.

The accomplishments we have achieved speak volumes about Roanoke’s determination to give its all, and put into action whatever it takes for growth and stability. They are a meaningful demonstration of the strong work ethic of our local government and our citizens.

But ongoing progress will take continued hard work, focused on a single purpose: To make Roanoke the best it can be for all its citizens and businesses.

I invite you to work with Roanoke City Council and city leaders to build on the groundwork that has been laid for a great future.

Join me in committing to do the work needed to sustain our momentum as a progressive, successful community—one in which everyone plays a role in making our incredible potential a reality.

Thank you.