2020 State of the City


Date: August 26, 2020, at 8:00 a.m.

Transcript from Mayor Sherman P. Lea, Sr.:

Good morning! It is my privilege to welcome you to the 2020 State of the City Address. This year has been more challenging than ever before, and I want to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues on City Council for their hard work to engage with the community and make the tough decisions necessary to sustain and guide this City.

Of course, I also must thank our City employees who have, through these difficult times continued to provide essential services each and every day, without interruption. And, of course, to each of our businesses who have had to seemingly invent new ways of conducting their business every day as this pandemic continues.

In times such as these, it is essential we have a good understanding of what exactly we are trying to accomplish and why as well as clearly defining how we plan on getting there.

The City of Roanoke has a Community Vision: Roanoke is a safe, caring and economically vibrant community in which to live, learn, work, play and prosper. Our City is a vibrant urban center with strong neighborhoods set among the spectacular beauty of Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

Roanoke’s vision focuses on seven areas of strategic importance:

• Education

• Community Safety

• Human Services

• Infrastructure

• Good Government

• Livability

• Economy

We strive for:

• Equity

• Community Engagement & Inclusion

• Healthy Outcomes, and

• Creativity

These are components of our Strategic Plan, and we use them to evaluate every opportunity or challenge that presents itself against this Vision and its associated strategies, to best determine how to allocate time, money and other resources.

Today I want to share with you how this plan has benefited the City of Roanoke in what may seem like a lifetime ago, the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

It is important to remember where we were this time last year:

• Roanoke was the first city in the Country named an All-America City Hall of Fame winner.

• The Roanoke Innovation Corridor had been established.

• We were seeing fruits of downtown redevelopment with new projects like the transformation of the Heironimus Building into a residential and commercial property.

• Job growth and development continued at a strong pace.

• We were experiencing record growth for hotel room demand and hotel room revenue, and our tourism was booming with Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge “Be A Trailsetter” campaign, the largest marketing campaign ever launched for the City and the region.

• Roanoke was achieving outstanding progress improving early education outcomes through Star City Reads.

• PlanRoanoke was gaining momentum with surveys and public meetings to provide community input on our 2020/2040 Comprehensive Plan.

• City projects like the Melrose Branch Library and Franklin Road Bridge were complete, offering expanded and enhanced services to our neighborhoods.

Building on this success, Fiscal Year 20 began with great momentum:

• Roanoke City Schools announced a partnership with Delta Dental, Carilion Clinic and Freedom First to put a clinic in Fallon Park Elementary, to make access to healthcare easier for residents in Southeast Roanoke.

• City projects like the River's Edge Redevelopment and Colonial Avenue street improvements were underway.

• Fire Station 7 construction was under way, offering safe modern facilities for our first responders.

• The City renewed its commitment to decrease gun violence with the Roanoke Remembers event and regular meetings of the Task Force to Reduce Gun Violence to identify solutions.

• Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge made the exciting announcement that Carilion Clinic IRONMAN 70.3 Virginia's Blue Ridge Triathlon was coming to Roanoke in June 2020.

• Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport marked 2019 as its busiest year since 2000.

Then, in early 2020, an unprecedented Crisis affected our City, our Nation, and our World: COVID 19 - Coronavirus.

In March 2020, the Governor announced a State of Emergency for Virginia and issued a Stay at Home Order. Following this, Roanoke and its neighboring localities declared state of emergencies.

Local businesses closed. Churches closed. Schools closed. The City cancelled all non-essential events and closed its facilities to the public.

For the next few months, time seemed to stand still.

But Roanoke’s leadership was not standing still. While continuing to provide most City services, during this time we were busy engaging our citizens and making plans for our response to the crisis.

Those plans became known as Roanoke Star City Strong: Response, Recovery and Resiliency – a framework for our reopening, support of community recovery, and building resiliency.

City leaders remained in constant contact with regional partners and State agencies. Regular meetings took place with the leaders of neighboring localities to share information.

The City established citizen and staff working groups and an Economic Advisory Panel to meet and assist in recovery efforts.

During the Stay-At-Home Order, members of City Council held virtual Community Conversations to hear from stakeholders in healthcare agencies, businesses, faith-based organizations, hospitality, and nonprofits.

These conversations helped us understand what our community saw as obstacles, and what they needed to recover from the impact of COVID 19.

Roanoke worked with nonprofits like United Way of Roanoke Valley to meet community needs. Money from their Community Response Fund complemented the work of public health and government efforts by providing funds for needs such as Personal Protective Equipment and Supplies, and Rapid Testing Kits.

Roanoke established a Recovery Fund to provide financial resources to support the community’s recovery from COVID-19 and strengthen its long-term resiliency. The fund drew upon General Fund revenue, CDBG-CV/ESG funds, and CARES Act funds, ultimately totaling more than $18 million for recovery.

Further, Council appointed the Star City Strong Recovery Fund Task Force to identify and recommend the best ways to spend these funds, inviting the community to lead our efforts in supporting our recovery.

To share up-to-date information with the media and the public about the City’s response to the pandemic, the City also held weekly virtual press conferences featuring Vice Mayor Cobb, City Manager Bob Cowell, and myself.

I am proud to say, by using the tenants of our Strategic Plan, the City is meeting the challenges presented by COVID-19 with many successful outcomes while continuing to advance on each of our strategic priorities.

This year, Roanoke’s Community Safety achievements included:

• Welcoming our new Police Chief, Sam Roman, to the City.

• A 7-year low in significant fires within our community, as well as a 7-year low dollar loss associated with fires.

• The training of 12 Fire-EMS staff in advanced medical skills and use of advanced medications for the most critical patients, as part of the Implemented an Advanced Care Paramedic program.

• A new group of middle school students graduating from Cops Camp, an annual day camp sponsored by Roanoke Police, helping them learn more about personal safety. Forty-four students have graduated since the program began.

• The creation of a Rapid Engagement of Support in the Event of Trauma Coordinator position, to organize and recruit volunteers for the RESET program, which addresses the needs of the community after traumatic or violent incidents occur.

• The E911 Center’s success in fulfilling all requirements to retain its Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) Accreditation.

We also made strides with our Human Services:

• A total of 8,512 citizens who were previously uninsured were enrolled between Jan. 1, 2019, and June 1, 2020, into Medicaid expansion aid categories covering adults ages 19-64.

• Sixty-seven children were adopted from Foster Care into their forever families during this fiscal year, which again leads the state in the most adoptions completed.

• A total of 30 families were approved to become foster parents during this fiscal year, the largest number of new foster families the department has had in its recorded history.

• Roanoke Public Libraries served 37,491 meals in partnership with Feeding Southwest Virginia, through the Feed and Read program in FY 2019—a five-year increase of 800 percent.

Our success is addressing Infrastructure was accomplished through:

• Roanoke’s 25% energy reduction as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Building Challenge. The City committed 30 buildings or 1.16 million square feet to a 20% energy reduction by 2022. The team exceeded its goal with a 23% energy reduction, three years before the target year, saving the City more than $400,000 last year in energy costs.

• The River's Edge $3 million redevelopment, adding two lighted premier athletic fields, a practice athletic field, maintenance facility, paved parking areas, and support amenities for large-scale events.

• The Colonial Avenue street improvements, including three new roundabouts.

• The completion of 39 Stormwater CIP projects, valued in the aggregate of almost $18 million.

• The City moved forward with its commitment to Regional Wayfinding, dedicating $150,000 for pedestrian signs in downtown.

The City’s Good Government priority was reinforced by:

• The City’s actions to lower the FY21 budget by $1.366 million from the FY20 budget, to address anticipated revenue shortfalls for the coming fiscal year caused by the COVID 19 pandemic.

• The City’s support of 24 displaced workers from Norfolk-Southern and Freight Car America after those companies relocated.

• The City’s success in sustaining very favorable credit relationships and ratings with all major credit rating agencies. Each fiscal year the City, with the help of its financial advisors, reviews the impact of debt decisions to ensure continued compliance with our debt policy limits. In addition, the City also reviews opportunities to refund eligible debt each fiscal year and, upon the advice of our financial advisors, does so to reduce costs responsibly.

Roanoke continued to promote the Livability of our community, with:

• A successful GO Fest event in October 2019, with 35,000 attendees.

• Volunteer hours donated to the City for support of routine maintenance and program facilitation for greenway and trails topping out at 5,000 hours.

• The number of inspections of buildings and sites reaching 35,000, ensuring that the environmental protection, design, and public safety goals of the City were met.

• More than 35 homes constructed, rehabilitated or repaired for families in the Melrose-Orange neighborhood.

Regarding Economic Development, Roanoke advanced by:

• Obtaining $175,000 in grant money to open a Financial Empowerment Center, providing financial counseling for individuals based on their individual needs with no cost to the consumer. Funds also were used to hire a Financial Specialist to coordinate the program.

• Making loans and grants available through the Covid-19 Relief Fund to assist City-based small businesses facing challenges as the result of COVID-19. Loans are available to offset costs associated with employees, rent, leases, and utilities.

• In partnership with the Economic Development Authority, welcoming Apex Systems, LLC creating 74 full-time positions in its current downtown office with anticipated average salaries of $103,894.

Roanoke continues to be recognized for its outstanding work. Examples this year include:

• The Top Digital City Award from the Center for Digital Government;

• The Governor's Technology Award for the "NextGen 911 PSAP" Project;

• The GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award;

• APWA Mid-Atlantic Project of the Year award for "Structures Less than $5 Million" for the Melrose Branch Library project;

• The Public Works Service Center being named the 2019 Exemplary Environmental Enterprise;

• Gold recognition in Program Management and Silver recognition in Innovation from the National Municipal Stormwater and Green Infrastructure Awards;

• The Gold Leaf Award from the International Society of Arboriculture for Parks and Recreation’s Arbor Day Celebration; and

• Roanoke’s selection as a Finalist for the 2020 All-America City Award.

I would do our community a disservice if I did not acknowledge the challenges we face as a result of the centuries of racism present in our Country and right here in Roanoke.

Our City’s history includes lynchings, redlining, urban renewal, and monuments to hatred. For a number of years, my fellow Council Members and I have worked to address these.

Difficult conversations with the survivors of urban renewal have taken place, monuments to hope have been installed, and vigils have been conducted. Still, we recognized much more is needed – action is required.

To that end, our new Comprehensive Plan – our guide to how our neighborhoods and business districts will change over time – has, at its core, a call for equity.

This means that every transportation decision, land use decision, housing decision made as we go forward as a city will consider how it helps or hurts those in our community – before we act – ensuring everyone in our City has the opportunity to live in a safe and vibrant environment and have access to success, regardless of their skin color or zip code.

Further, earlier this summer we created an Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board which will appoint residents who will assist us in identifying existing policies and practices that either result in inequity or inhibit empowerment and recommend how to rid or overcome these policies.

Also, on August 17, we voted to remove the Lee Monument from its place of prominence – no longer will the monument honor a history we know to be unworthy of such honor.

I acknowledge these represent just the beginning of what is necessary to address racism and promote equity, but they are genuine and meaningful actions – not rhetoric.

Together, the people in this community will continue to advance on these goals and ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate in the success our great city is experiencing.

As Mayor, I am proud of all that has been accomplished over these last several years and of our local government and its “can do” attitude during this most recent period of crisis.

The things I’ve shared with you demonstrate that Roanoke is not limited by its circumstances, but is always looking to rise above the situation and do our best for the people who live in our community.

Even with all these accomplishments, there is much more to come. As we begin Fiscal Year 21, we will be looking for ways to further our success and address ongoing challenges.

I invite you to work with Roanoke City Council and City leaders to build on the work that has done and create a strong future.

Our community is key to sustaining our momentum as a progressive, successful community—one in which everyone plays a role in making our incredible potential a reality.