2022 State of the City

Date: August 25, 2022, at 8:00 a.m.

Transcript from Mayor Sherman P. Lea, Sr.:

Good morning! It is my privilege to welcome you.   Thank you all for being here and those who are watching on social media. I would like to take a moment to recognize some remarkable people who are here this morning, my colleagues on City Council. I appreciate your collaboration and continued efforts in pursuit of the best for all our residents, businesses and visitors. I would also like to welcome special guests, Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, Salem City Council, and Vinton City Council. 

I must also take the opportunity to thank our city and school division employees, who continue day in and day out to provide the services essential to our community’s health, safety and quality of life.   Thanks also to our City Manager, Bob Cowell and Superintendent Verletta White, who, along with their leadership teams direct the actions of this great group of dedicated public servants.

Thank you to the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, its Board, members and Director, Joyce Waugh for hosting this wonderful event and to all those here at Hotel Roanoke that labor so hard to make certain our morning is special – can we offer all of these folks our gratitude?

Finally, I would like to take a moment to remember my late wife, Clara. This is the first time she has missed this event since I have been giving this address. I would like to thank my son, Sherman L. Jr. for attending this year.

A global pandemic, rates of inflation not seen in more than 40 years, the Great Resignation, increases in those experiencing homelessness, political turmoil, increased violence and the continued impact of climate change – and that’s just the past couple of years for our nation, our State and our City. Throughout these unprecedented times, our community continues to show up – with compassion, determination and innovation.

Over the next several minutes, I will highlight how the City and region have faced these challenges while continuing to seize upon some fabulous opportunities along the way – ensuring the state of our city remains strong.

The challenges just mentioned, are countered by a number of fabulous opportunities - the Carilion Clinic Iron Man 70.3 in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the arrival of the Twenty24 Cycling Team, the USA Cycling Amateur Road National Championship, continuation of Carilion Clinic’s more than $500 million expansion, the opening of the third downtown hotel, investment of $16 million by the Commonwealth in the Innovation Corridor, the largest investment in our parks in decades and the beginning of investing an unprecedented $64.5 million in federal COVID relief.

Though COVID remains ever-present, having claimed the lives of more than 1,100 of our friends, relatives and neighbors since its arrival, we can perhaps begin to say we are turning a corner, from pandemic to endemic.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to local health care workers and those in public health, without their tireless dedication, what we have experienced would have been far worse. They have earned and deserve our deep appreciation and thanks.  

Our local economy has begun to rebound from the economic impacts of COVID as we are seeing new business open, and visitors return.   Through funding provided by the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act, the City, in partnership with the Roanoke Economic Development Authority and others has invested over a million dollars in grants to local businesses along with making investments in Downtown Roanoke Inc. the Greater Williamson Road Area Business Association and others.

As a consequence of the disruptions brought on by COVID, the Nation has seen a dramatic increase in violence, especially gun violence.  Sadly, the State of Virginia and our city are not immune from this scourge.  We too, have seen increases in gun related violence and homicides.  As with COVID though, we have not sat idly by and endured, rather we have acted and are addressing the issue of gun violence through a comprehensive framework - one focused on law enforcement and justice, intervention and prevention.  

Our efforts include our continued and long-standing support of law enforcement – a series of bonuses, the largest pay increase in years and most importantly our never wavering support, are but a few ways we have demonstrated our continued commitment.  

We maintain a strong partnership with the Offices of the U.S. Attorney and the U.S. Marshal – this partnership is resulting in arrests, seizure of guns and convictions with long and meaningful sentences.   We also know that law enforcement alone will not solve this issue – gun violence is a community challenge.  

We must also interrupt the pattern of violence and prevent it from ever starting – especially among our youth.  The city is a strong supporter of the efforts of the Roanoke City School Division and its 25-point plan to ensure our children remain safe – this includes significantly increasing the number of law enforcement officers from our police department and the Sheriff’s Office, assigned to our schools.  

The Council-appointed Roanoke Gun Violence Prevention Commission, led by Council Member Cobb has provided leadership and a number of grants to community-based organizations that have led to gun buy-backs, youth mentoring, distribution of more than 8,000 free gun locks and many more initiatives. 

Within our organization, the Star City Safe initiative, an employee-led initiative has provided extended hours at library branches, recreation centers, youth apprenticeship employment program and many more ways to engage with and support our youth – both their physical and psychological needs.

I have no doubt that these efforts will meet this challenge, both in the short and long-term.

COVID has similarly impacted homelessness throughout our Nation.  Through the hard work of our Homeless Assistance Team and many of our community partners, we continue to see the overall number of individuals experiencing homelessness in our community decrease. Unfortunately, at the same time the portion that are unsheltered has increased dramatically.  A variety of factors including evictions, drug addiction and mental health issues contribute to this challenge.  

As with violence, the city and its many partners are addressing this collaboratively and comprehensively.   Funding for mental health assistance has increased, including the City’s significant financial support of the opening of the new William and Margaret Robertson behavioral health wing at the Bradley Free Clinic.  

The city is providing funding for the region’s response to addiction, enabling the hiring of coordinating staff. At the same time fighting through the courts to ensure the individuals and companies responsible for the opioid epidemic pay their fair share in addressing the ills that have resulted.  

More than $5 million of our federal COVID Rescue funds are dedicated to directly addressing the needs of homeless individuals and families – expanding shelter options and outreach services and provide supportive transitional housing.  The Council also made the difficult but necessary decision to ban camping in our downtown – we simply could not have a vibrant downtown economy without this action, and we must and can do better for our unsheltered neighbors than house them in tents on city sidewalks.

Over the course of the last 10 years with the City’s leadership we have seen homelessness in our community decrease by more than 61%.  This year our outreach team and their partners have helped house 159 individuals who were living outside.

I have no doubt that we will meet this latest challenge and we will do so by helping one person at a time – just as our outreach team did a couple months ago with these two gentlemen who have gone from living outside for years to a place of their own where they can reclaim their dignity and their lives.  

Has anyone in this room had a challenge hiring folks? Well, I am here to assure you that you are not alone.  Once again, a national trend had found its way to Roanoke.  The Great Resignation has been felt throughout our local economy and within the city government workforce.  Alongside many of you we are struggling with making certain we can hire and retain enough police officers, sanitation workers, transit operators, accountants and others to deliver the services needed.  

For our local businesses we have dedicated portions of our federal rescue funds to support small businesses and address workforce issues.   The Star City Works program is one example where the city has partnered with the Greater Roanoke Workforce Development Board to match job openings in key economic sectors with job training for those in our community who are unemployed or underemployed.  

We also continue to support our school’s efforts at expanding their vocational training program through the establishment of a second technical education center at the old Ruffner School facility. 

We also continue through our Financial Empowerment Center, to help residents build wealth and put more of their earnings to productive use.  In just two short years, the Financial Empowerment Center has helped area residents reduce their non-mortgage debt by over a million dollars and increase their personal savings by nearly $250,000.

I have no doubt that this current challenge will be met by these types of actions and that our workforce and local economy will be better for it.

Roanoke is a great place to live, and we want to do all we can to keep it that way.  In the past year, the Council approved more funding for our parks and recreation programs than has been provided in decades.  These funds have already replaced six playgrounds, resurfaced 35 athletic courts, installed the regions first futsal court, paved trailhead parking, and started design on a new recreation center and a new swimming pool.   Much more is to come!

We continue to invest in our transit operations with new buses, new technology and a great new transfer facility in downtown.   

And in March we came together to celebrate the opening of the LIFT Center adjoining Fallon Park Elementary School. The Center is a partnership between Roanoke City Public Schools, Carilion Clinic, Delta Dental, and Freedom First Credit Union.  It provides families in the Fallon Park Community with access to physical, oral, financial, and wellness resources in one convenient location. This year we look forward to additional resources, including mental health support, for students and their families, offering a holistic approach to family strengthening and health.

This year has been declared the Year of the Artist where we celebrate throughout the year, the contribution arts and artists make to our local economy, quality of life and well-being.  This includes a number of artists in residence, a new art exhibit in the Municipal Building, new murals and a number of new sculptures.   

We also acknowledge that the climate is changing and that we need to continue to adapt to slow its impact and to prepare for a different future that likely includes more frequent and destructive weather events.  Introduction of a plastic bag tax to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags in our community is a part of this response.  As is our purchase of electric transit buses, continued electrification of our municipal fleet, continued acquisition of flood-prone properties and various stormwater investments.

We have a responsibility to ensure Roanoke remains a great place to live, work and play and we take that seriously and our actions and investments clearly demonstrate this commitment.

The Roanoke Economy is strong and resilient.   While the impact of COVID certainly was felt here as elsewhere, businesses have rebounded with vigor.  We don’t take this for granted and with our economic development team and partners are working diligently to ensure continued success.  These efforts include investments in our neighborhood centers, preparation of the City’s first ever economic development strategic plan, preparation of a development plan for the Evans Spring area, continued support of the development of the regional business park – Woodhaven, continued support of RAMP and development of a new shared lab facility in the Innovation Corridor in partnership with the State of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic.

We continue our strong support of downtown with our investment in jumpstarting a downtown ambassadors program and along Williamson Road with recent expansion of the boundaries of the Greater Williamson Road Business Association and pursuit of over $20 million to address transportation concerns.  Our continued support of our regional partnerships with Virginia’s Blue Ridge, Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and others have helped attract such events as the USA Cycling Amateur Road National Championship and the Twenty-24 Cycling Team as well as expanded access to broadband and additional transportation options by plane or train.

The Roanoke region is the economic engine for this portion of Virginia, and we will continue to do all we can to ensure its strength and vitality.

While challenges are of course present in Roanoke, as they are in any urban center. We are a safe, caring and economically vibrant community and we strive to ensure all our residents have equal opportunity to prosper in our great city.

The actions and partnerships that I have highlighted ensure we remain Star City Strong – that we ensure the “urban” in our metro-mountain region remains strong – and indeed it is!

  • Our police department and E-911 department remain accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement
  • More than 5,000 participated in Iron Man, the Blue Ridge Marathon, and USA Cycling’s Amateur Road Championship   
  • 28,000 attended GoFest in Downtown Roanoke
  • USA Today named us the Best Urban Kayaking Spot in the Nation – and we are adding an in-river kayak park to keep that title
  • We were a 2022 All-America City Finalist
  • Our Libraries were honored with the 2021-2022 Pacesetter Award from the Campaign for Grade Level Reading
  • We placed 4th in the Digital Cities Survey and were recognized as a top 10 Digital Cities winner for the 20th consecutive year
  • Our Public Works Service Center was awarded the designation of Exemplary Environmental Enterprise by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
  • Roanoke tied for 1st place for cleanest metropolitan areas in the country for Ozone and cleanest metropolitan area in the country for air pollution according to the American Lung Association
  • Our Department of Social Services completed more successful adoptions than any other local agency in the state for the fifth year in a row
  • During the 2021-2022 school year 16 individual and team regional championship titles were won by our student athletes, and 17 of those graduating student athletes were recruited to play at the collegiate level.
  • The NAMM Foundation named RCPS one of the Best Communities for Music Education for the 10th year in a row, and seven Patrick Henry High School students were named Commended Students in the National Merit Scholarship Program.
  • More youth attended our annual Youth Summit this year than any previous year

So, in closing let me extend a challenge to each of you.  Join me and the City Council and all our regional partners in continuing to tell the great story that is Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge.  We don’t let our challenges define our identity, we don’t run from them – we confront and overcome them.  We remain a city and a region on the rise, and we must continue to do all we can to ensure that remains the case far into the future.  We must celebrate all we have and are accomplishing and continue to tell the world what a special and vibrant place we have here!

Thank you and may God bless Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge!