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City Manager's Blog

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

Jan 24

The Road to Paris

Posted on January 24, 2022 at 2:30 PM by Angela O'Brien

The Road to Paris

What might a NASCAR driver, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and an equestrian from England have in common?   In this case, their involvement with Virginia’s Blue Ridge Twenty24 – a premier team of cyclists with aspirations of competing in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.  Last week, it was announced that this phenomenal team of athletes with 14 Olympic and Paralympic medals, 17 world championships and countless national championships to their name, will call Virginia’s Blue Ridge their training home for at least the next three years.

Premier Female Athletes

For more than 17 years Nicola Cranmer a horse enthusiast turned experienced mountain biker has led the premier women’s cycling team, responsible for developing and managing many of the most successful female cyclists in the Nation.  The 2022 roster consists of six professional athletes racing road and gravel, five Zwift eSports athletes and 27 junior athletes.   The team is led by gold and bronze medalist Jennifer Valente and includes 2-time Olympian Marlies Mejias of Cuba and Rukhsar Habibzai, former Afghan national team captain and Nobel Peace Prize nominee.  The team also includes the #1 Ranked Zwift eSports female rider Kristen Kulchinsky and 3-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong.  Junior members include Maize Wimbush, the first female junior African American National Road Champion, Lilly McLeod, 2021 Junior National Time Trial Champion, Jessica Hall, Virginia State Junior Champion, and Isabella Robusto, who also happens to competitively race in NASCAR, at age 17!

Community Win

In addition to highlighting Roanoke’s Welcoming spirit and firmly staking its claim as the East Coast Mountain Biking Capital, the announcement introduces new mentoring opportunities as the athletes engage with community rides, seminars, and school visits – all supporting the empowerment of girls and women in our community and highlighting the contribution of immigrants to our vitality.  The announcement will further bolster travel and tourism in the area, with one study indicating an economic impact of more than $23 million over the course of the next three years.  The announcement builds upon a tradition of athletic excellence and community engagement, a legacy that includes Dick Emberger who competed in the 1964 Olympics, Shelley Olds who competed in the 2012 Olympics and Peter Tainer, Paralympic athlete – all athlete-scholars from here in the Roanoke area who continue to contribute to our region.

A Regional Effort

As with so many other major accomplishments in our area, securing Twenty24 was a regional effort, led by Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge and the Virginia Tourism Corporation involving multiple state-level elected officials along with local jurisdictions - City of Roanoke, Roanoke County, City of Salem, Botetourt County, Franklin County and a key introduction by Roanoke Times President, Sam Worthington!   The announcement further illustrated the regional significance and support with attendance by local elected and appointed officials, business leaders, hoteliers and even a collection of recent Afghan immigrants who wanted to be certain Rukhsar felt welcome in her new training home.

As said at the beginning and end of the announcement – the road to Paris begins in Virginia’s Blue Ridge!   Welcome to our community Twenty24 – we look forward to cheering on these phenomenal athletes!

-- Bob Cowell

Jan 20

Snow in the Star City

Posted on January 20, 2022 at 4:13 PM by Lauren Waldron

In addition to a share of good fortune and favorable temperatures, ever wonder what it takes to clear streets following a snow such as what the City accumulated over the past weekend?  Last weekend, the City received about eight inches of snow and a good amount of sleet–all total the moisture equivalent of about 12 inches of snow.  Even though crews were busy plowing all day Sunday and Monday, work begins well before the plows begin running.

Preparing for Winter Weather

Well before any forecast for winter weather, plans are developed for clearing streets and bridges, equipment is readied and supplies are secured.  These efforts involve personnel in Transportation, Fleet, Purchasing, Accounting, Public Works, and many others.  The plans are refined year after year, learning from the experience of the previous year.

When Snow is Forecasted 

A couple of days before any forecasted arrival of winter weather, crews begin preparing and repairing equipment, checking various forecast models, and reviewing plans.  With this most recent storm, the work began Thursday and continued into Friday when crews started pre-treating streets with salt brine to make snow removal more efficient.  Preparations include: salting sidewalks at municipal facilities, securing food and hotel rooms for personnel unable to make it home between shifts, and briefing the community on the latest forecasts and plans.

As the Snow Arrives

As the snow arrives, crews begin working major streets and transit routes.  Initially this involves additional spreading of salt and chemicals, and as snow amounts increase, turns to plowing.  Around 100 staff members are involved in operating the equipment used to move snow, working 12-hour shifts on a 24-hour schedule, using more than 50 pieces of equipment.  These individuals are supported by fleet personnel, helping make certain equipment continues to remain operational, custodians keeping facilities clean, and communications staff keeping the community aware of current conditions.  Emergency dispatchers, police personnel, and Fire-EMS personnel also adjust their work schedules and ensure equipment is snow worthy–for example placing chains on ambulances.  Throughout the event directors, emergency management personnel, and others are coordinating the various activities and the City Manager’s Office keeps the Mayor and City Council informed of current activities and conditions.  Our Communications Team also manages all messaging internally to staff as well as externally to the community.

Returning to Normal

The City has a goal of clearing 90% of all major streets within 24 hours of the end of falling snow.  With this storm that occurred around 11:30 p.m. on Sunday night.  By mid-day on Monday, the City’s first goal was met.  Once this is accomplished, the City’s second goal is to have 90% of all residential streets clear of snow, following which crews turn their attention to sidewalks at Municipal facilities and greenways as well as trucking snow out of downtown.  

Only through the dedication of these folks, who work consistently for as long as it takes, can transit service, solid waste collection, school attendance, and more return to normal and we can all get back to work.

-- Bob Cowell

Jan 03

Looking Ahead Into 2022

Posted on January 3, 2022 at 2:52 PM by Lauren Waldron

Last week, I reflected on a few of the many accomplishments of the City in 2021, and highlighted some of the remaining challenges.  This week, I will look ahead into 2022, and discuss a few of the initiatives that lie ahead.

COVID-19

I only wish we could say 2022, would not include a discussion of COVID-19, but alas that is not the case.  With the arrival of the Omicron variant, though appearing less harmful, COVID remains just as disruptive.  Just last week nearly three dozen City employees contracted the virus and dozens more were isolating due to close contact, just as hundreds more in our region similarly contracted the virus.  The anticipated rapid rise in the number of cases is likely to place a strain on our ability to maintain levels of service–this will likely be as true for public safety as it is for the libraries or parks and recreation.  All we can hope for is that this latest variant is indeed less dangerous and leaves as quickly as it arrived.  For certain, we will continue to deal with COVID-19 and its many impacts throughout 2022–maybe by year’s end we will be able to say we are past the worst of it.

ARPA

As noted in previous posts, the City received $64.5 million in federal assistance through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).  As with the CARES Act, the Council formed a Citizen-based Advisory Panel to make recommendations on the most effective way to use the funds–in this case, how to respond to the impacts of COVID-19 in a manner that builds resiliency and transforms the community.  The Panel made their recommendations to the Council in the fall, and implementation on those recommendations is in full swing and will continue through 2022.

Strategic Priorities

As in the years past, Council has identified its strategic priorities through their Strategic Plan.   A revised version of this plan will be presented in January and adopted in February and will continue to focus in seven priority areas.  In 2022, this focus will include projects and initiatives as follows:

Education – The City will continue its substantial investment in education, continuing to fund at a higher level than any of the other strategic priorities.  Further, the City will continue to support the School Division’s efforts at expanding equity in their programs.  In 2022, these efforts will include greater pay for teachers and staff, continued implementation of the School Division’s Equity in Action Plan, which includes renovation of the recently purchased Roanoke Times Building and development of emerging Career and Technical Education opportunities at a new ROTEC facility at Ruffner.  Additionally, the City will continue to fund investments in municipal library operations and support of students attending Virginia Western Community College.

Community Safety – The City will continue to focus investments and enhancements in public safety including the next phases of pay increases for Fire-EMS personnel, Roanoke Police Officers, and Sheriff’s Deputies.  Funding will continue to support the efforts of the Gun Violence Prevention Commission, bolstered by the use of $2 million in ARPA funds.  The City will continue its investments in building safety and code enforcement as well.

Human Services – The City will continue investing in social services along with its enhanced partnerships with Blue Ridge Behavioral Health and Bradley Free Clinic; advancing mental health services in the community; and the Collective Response to Substance Use, advancing access to prevention, treatment, and recovery services for those with substance use disorders.  These activities will be further bolstered through the use of the dedicated ARPA funds and funds from the settlement of litigation with Opioid manufactures and distributors.

Infrastructure – The City will continue investing in streets, sidewalks, parks, greenways, and transit.  2022 will see the beginning of the Main Street Bridge replacement, continued progress on the new downtown transit transfer facility, initiation of the final portion of the Roanoke River Greenway, and the expansion of the paving program and sidewalk repair efforts.  With the support of ARPA funding, work will get underway on replacement of the Eureka Recreation Center in 2022.  We also will learn more about how the recently approved federal infrastructure bill may assist our community.

Good Government – The City will continue its efforts at updating its website, increasing access to and transparency of its Capital Improvement Program, and expansion of its language access program.  Additionally, 2022 will see continued progress on focusing our annual budgeting efforts to ensure more equity and to reduce disparities in service delivery.  Of course as always, the City will maintain a balanced budget, continue to place funds in its reserve accounts (rainy day funds), and retain its strong credit ratings, allowing us to borrow for capital projects under very favorable terms.   2022 will also see the beginning of the latest push to ensure the pay of our employees remains competitive–this began in 2021, with the first phase of pay increases for public safety employees, a series of employee bonuses and the establishment of a $15 minimum wage.

Livability – The City will continue advancing on its efforts at being as welcoming a community as possible–this includes continued support of our recently arrived neighbors from afar and continued support of our efforts to reduce homelessness in our community.  2022 will see the continuation of the most extensive investments made in our parks and recreation facilities in decades.  We continue to work with various groups to better each of our neighborhoods.   Through use of ARPA funds we will progress on two neighborhood hubs in the Northwest–one in Gainsboro, and the other on Melrose, focusing on job creation and access to health care and fresh food.   

Economy – The City will continue its investments in economic development efforts.  In 2022, these will include the continued marketing and development of the Wood Haven Technology Park, a joint development with Roanoke County and the City of Salem, located in Roanoke County, and continued support of the expansion of the Innovation Corridor.  Through use of ARPA funds, the City will also invest heavily in new job training programs, seeking to connect those in our community with job opportunities in growing strong sectors, through targeted access to specific skills.  2022 will also see the preparation of the City’s first comprehensive strategic plan for economic development and the next steps in supporting the next village and neighborhood centers–or complete neighborhoods.

These are but a few of the challenges, projects, or initiatives that lie ahead for 2022.  As it is said, only time will tell what 2022 presents us with throughout the year.  I am confident that by the end of the year, I will be able to report on the many accomplishments and successes of our community, and also illustrate how we have tackled some of the most difficult challenges that have faced our City.  To a prosperous, safe, and healthy 2022!

-- Bob Cowell