City Manager's Blog

Learn about the City of Roanoke from the City Manager's point of view.

Feb 25

Hitting Above Our Weight

Posted on February 25, 2020 at 9:58 AM by Melinda Mayo

“Punching above their weight” is a reference used in boxing when a lighter-weight boxer defeats a heavier-weight boxer—illustrating an accomplishment beyond what would be expected.  So it often is in Roanoke. Our City continues to provide experiences that exceed expectations, whether it be a visiting dignitary, the research coming from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, or an art exhibit. Last week we had two such occurrences. 

The first was hosted by Roanoke College with the visit of Washington Post columnist and acclaimed author David Ignatius. The second was provided by RAMP, the region’s innovation and businesses accelerator, with the visit of Michael Vonesh, who leads the innovation work group for W.L. Gore and Associates.

Can We Be Civil?

Roanoke College, through its Henry Fowler lecture series, has brought Presidents, United Nations Ambassadors, Supreme Court Justices, and other political and thought leaders to our area.  Henry Fowler was born and educated in Roanoke before earning his law degree at Yale. Fowler went on to lead the legal team with the Tennessee Valley Authority and later served in the Treasury Department under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the latter as Secretary of the Treasury.  His family has long provided generous financial support to Roanoke College to host speakers not often heard at small colleges in small cities. 

The most recent speaker, David Ignatius, spoke on the state of discourse in our Nation, bemoaning the vitriol so often found in politics today.  Though deeply concerned about the future, he held out hope, highlighting a recent trip where he accompanied a contingency of Congressmen to a national-security-related conference held in Germany, where away from the bombard of reporter questions and Twitter feeds, they engaged in collegial conversations and bipartisan ideation about things that really matter.

Ignatius especially highlighted the need for consumers of news to be diligent in knowing their sources and that the bar has been raised for all levels of media to seek real facts and make real contributions to what is needed to promote engagement and knowledge.  His was an enlightening and surprisingly optimistic presentation.

Innovative to Succeed

RAMP, the region’s innovation and business accelerator, and the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council, the region’s tech-oriented business association, held a dinner with speaker Michael Vonesh.  Vonesh leads W.L. Gore and Associates innovation efforts, a pretty big deal for the company that invented Gore-Tex!  Perhaps even more significant is that Vonesh was here in Roanoke speaking at the invitation of faculty at Virginia Western Community College who serve as instructors at RAMP and also as consultants for Michael at W.L. Gore and Associates! 

Vonesh shared the significance of innovation in advancing business interests, as well as making meaningful changes in people’s lives, citing the work done by his team on medical devices.  Many of Vonesh’s points aligned with the varied efforts underway in our community in the areas of advanced manufacturing, technology, and certainly bio-medical research and healthcare. 

These are just the latest such events that continue to display how often Roanoke and the region are able to hit above their weight.  These types of events are two strong examples of what a special place we live and work in, and provide continued hope for a bright future.

— Bob Cowell

Feb 19

Books I Am Reading

Posted on February 19, 2020 at 10:56 AM by Melinda Mayo

I was recently asked by someone if I had read any good books lately.  About the same time, I was listening to a podcast from Book City Roanoke featuring Council Member Bill Bestpitch, where he was discussing the influence books have had upon him and what he was currently reading.  So, these two occurrences prompted this week’s post – here is what I am reading currently or have read recently.

What Type of Book?

First, it is important to know that I am one of those readers that is typically reading five or six different books at a time.  Could be due to eclectic interests or an inability to focus, I will let you draw your own conclusions.  I generally read books about cities (should be no big surprise), history (especially history about cities), and current issues.  I rarely read fiction but when I do it will likely be something by Cormac McCarthy, any Irish author, or historical fiction (think Cold Mountain or Devil in the White City).  I also enjoy collections of essays from time to time, especially those by Wendell Berry or Thomas Merton.  In addition to the books that I read, I enjoy (no judgment please) reading economic reports, journal articles, and other various articles and studies related to public policy, governance, and the like.


With the aforementioned in mind, I am currently reading four books in addition to diligently working my way through the book of Acts in the New Testament.  The first is Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.  I was fortunate enough to attend Dr. Kendi’s presentation at the Melrose Branch Library last year and have been participating in a book group presented by Book City Roanoke on the same.  I am nearly finished with this book and have found it immensely informative and incredibly thought-provoking.  It is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about the history of racism in our Nation, and what we need to be doing to address it.

The second is The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America.  This book highlights the inequities in economic growth occurring in our Nation and most of our cities, and suggests some remedies for addressing the associated challenges.  The third is Urban Forests, a fascinating look at how trees have played (and still play) a significant role in forming the character of our towns and cities, and the many people that struggled to ensure they remained so.  The next is a bit more obscure, the fourth is entitled The Canal on the James: An Illustrated Guide to the James River and Kanawha Canal.  The book details the history of a canal first promoted by George Washington when he was working as a surveyor, intended to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River via a canal paralleling the James and Kanawha Rivers.  Only portions of it were built – as far inland as Buchanan – before the enterprise ceased, bested by the railroads and topography.  The book highlights locations where remnants of the canal may still be seen.

Other books that I recently completed that are worthy of taking a look at include Inclusion by Jennifer Brown, a book that explains why diversity and inclusion are so important to the viability of businesses and organizations.  Another is The Future is Asian, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the growth of Asia and its likely continued dominance in economic expansion and global influence.  Finally, I just completed Cities: The First 6,000 Years, which offered an interesting overview of how and why cities came into being and how vital they have been to economic growth and innovation through the centuries.

What’s Next?

What might be next?  I also must confess that I am constantly seeking out additional books to read or purchase, so I have a long library wish list as well as a tall stack of books to choose from.  Of particular interest is Thomas Jefferson’s Education, a book about Jefferson’s grand vision for a University and his struggles at trying to secure its success; Ballpark, a book about the role baseball and baseball stadiums have played in various cities; How to be an Anti-Racist, Dr. Kendi’s follow-up to Stamped From the Beginning; and Barrio America, a book about the role Latino immigrants have played in revitalizing many American cities.

So there you are, an insight into what I am reading and may read next.  There truly seems to be more to read than time to read!  Happy reading.

-- Bob Cowell

Book Resources:

Feb 12

A Few Things You May Not Have Known

Posted on February 12, 2020 at 8:56 AM by Melinda Mayo

Local governments are called upon to do any number of things, often services that others will not or cannot do.  City of Roanoke services cover a wide array of needs associated with community safety, quality of life, and health.  As we work on the annual budget, I am reminded of the diversity of these services and also am aware that perhaps not many realize all that we are called upon to do.  So, this post focuses on a few of the lesser known, yet vital services we provide.

Indigent Deaths
Did you realize that it is the City’s responsibility to handle the bodies of the indigent who pass away in our community and those who have no family claiming the body?  Section 32.1 of Virginia State Code requires in cases where a resident of Roanoke passes away and no one claims the body, that local law enforcement take possession of the body and secure cremation services through a funeral home.  In other instances, where family members are found but unable to pay the costs of cremation, the City again steps in, this time through our Department of Social Services.  In both cases the City is generously assisted by area funeral homes who perform the necessary services for considerably less than typical costs.  In the most recent year (2019) the City spent more than $64,000 providing for more than 123 cremations.

Sweeping the Streets
Did you know that it is the City’s responsibility to remove animal carcasses and sweep debris from along its more than 1,200 lane miles of streets?  In 2019, the City’s Stormwater Utility removed more than 2,000 tons of debris through its street sweeping operations.  That’s 2,000 tons of sediment, bacteria, and trash kept out of our stormwater system and streams. The city spends nearly $1 million annually on streetsweeping operations. Crews clean the downtown streets nightly, major arterial streets monthly, and residential streets about once every three months.  You can check out when your street might be on the list for sweeping by following this link.  Street sweeping costs are paid through the stormwater fees that each property owner in the City pays.

Mental Health
Did you know that the City of Roanoke provides mental health services?  Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare Services actually provides the services on behalf of the region, with Roanoke contributing more than $600,000 annually.  This amount only accounts for about 10% of the actual costs of the services provided to residents, with the remainder paid by the Commonwealth.  The services provided include crisis assessment and stabilization, developmental disability services, counseling, and therapeutic day services for area youth.  Blue Ridge Behavioral Services is one of 40 such service providers throughout Virginia and serves the City of Salem, Roanoke County, Botetourt County, and Craig County, in addition to the City of Roanoke.  Last year more than 11,000 Roanoke residents received assistance through Blue Ridge Behavioral Services.

Public Art
Did you know that the City of Roanoke owns hundreds of pieces of art ranging from large public sculptures such as In Flux in Vic Thomas Park to paintings such as Billy’s Ritz located in the Mayor’s Office?  The City’s Public Art Program was established in 2002 and is overseen by the Arts Commission, which was established in 1983.  In 2002, the City began setting aside 1% of the cost of certain public projects included in the Capital Improvements Program, under a program known as “Percent for Arts.” These funds are used to commission artists to contribute public art to various city projects, such as Rhapsody in Knowledge, which was recently installed at the Melrose Branch Library, or Freedom, Justice and Compassion located in front of the Oliver W. Hill Justice Center.  Much more information about this program, including where you can see the various public art, can be found by following this link.

These are but a few of the services we provide that perhaps residents are less familiar with.  Each are significant and either address an otherwise unmet need or improve the quality of life in Roanoke. 

-- Bob Cowell