City Manager's Blog

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

Oct 10

A Year of Getting Things Done

Posted on October 10, 2022 at 3:27 PM by Casey Lewis

Recently, the Council gathered for their annual Strategic Planning Retreat, reviewing the current plan, discussing necessary revisions and beginning to plan for its update and the upcoming budget.  As has been their custom, the retreat began with a discussion of accomplishments over the past year and then challenges, both present and possible in the future.

This week’s post includes the accomplishments shared at the retreat.  The list, while not all-encompassing is representative of much of the great work accomplished by the Council and City staff in the previous fiscal year - July 2021 through June 2022.

Next week’s post will focus on the challenges presented and discussed at the retreat, followed by an overview of the actions taken or planned by Council and City staff to address each of these.

  • Secured funding to acquire and demo a collection of flood-prone properties including the former Ramada Inn
  • Acquired the Ramada Inn and initiated demolition
  • Melrose Streetscape as conclusion of work in the Melrose Orange Target Area
  • Secured additional grant funding for the Financial Empowerment Center
  • No Need to Speed Campaign
  • Re-opened public pools
  • Brandon Road Complete Streets Project
  • First (and second) Iron Man
  • Appointment of Clarence Grier as Deputy City Manager
  • Issued $33 million in bonds for CIP – record low interest rate
  • Secured renewed credit rating status from each of the three major credit rating agencies
  • Initiated construction on the new Transit Transfer Station – including initiating temporary operations
  • Completed transaction with Campbell Court property – demolition complete and construction underway
  • Initiated implementation of Public Safety Step Pay Plan – pay increases for police, fire-EMS and Sheriff’s Office
  • Initiated the preparation of Organization-wide Compensation Assessment
  • Issuance of hazard, retention and recruitment bonuses
  • Establishment of $15/hr minimum wage for City workforce
  • Convened the Star City Strong Recovery and Resiliency Fund Advisory Panel – ARPA funds
  • Initiated implementation of the Star City Strong Advisory Panel recommendations – ARPA funds
  • $1.7 million in deferred parks maintenance items completed
  • National League of Cities Equitable Economic Mobility Initiative – Gainsboro
  • Renaming of Lee Plaza – Freedom Plaza and Henrietta Lacks Plaza
  • Opening of the Roanoke River Greenway connection with Salem- Barnhardt Creek Bridge – Liz Belcher Plaza
  • Youth and Gang Violence Assessment
  • Youth and Gang Violence Outreach Team formed
  • Initiated Reimagine Recreation Center Plan
  • Opioid Abatement Fund Settlement Agreement
  • Installment of the Welcome to Roanoke Art Exhibit on the 4th floor of the Municipal Building
  • GO Fest – Downtown for first time
  • Secured State funding for shared lab space in the Innovation Corridor - $16 million State plus $2 million local – Carilion, VTC, VTF, Johnson Labs
  • Welcoming Week Celebrations
  • Shuttered Venue Grants ($8+ million) for COVID relief
  • Formation of the Youth Athletics Review Board
  • Initiated Star City Safe Effort
  • Implementation of the Plastic Bag Tax
  • Initiated the Language Access Services Program
  • All-America City Finalist
  • Sidewalk Camping Ordinance
  • Naming of Washington Park Basketball Courts – Ricky Renell Wright
  • Leadership Diversity & Equity Workshop – Equity Action Plans
  • Initiated Year of the Artist Campaign
  • State Resurgence Grant – Gainsboro
  • Restarted Leadership College
  • Opening of first Futsal Court
  • Opening of new downtown hotel
  • Completion of the downtown escalator replacement project
  • Initiation of HUD Healthy Homes program
  • Funding and Administrative support for Brownfields Grant – Walker Foundry property
  • Submitted at $324 million balanced budget
  • Initiated first City Economic Development Strategic Plan
  • Initiated Neighborhood Centers Analysis/Plan
  • Initiated Joint Master Plan Development – Evans Spring – City, EDA, Landowners
  • Initiated National League of Cities Inclusive Entrepreneurship Grant
  • Reinstated Annual Youth Summit
  • Authorization to issue $48 million in bonds for CIP
  • Law Library relocated
  • Completed the remodel of the Gainsboro Branch Library
  • Received a donation of 41,778 books valued at $538,000.   This donation to the Roanoke Public Libraries was the Soho Center’s largest donation to a single public library.
  • Began implementation of the Assistant City Manager – Apprentice program
  • Continued improvements at the Wood Haven Technology Park
  • Launched a Spanish-version of the City’s webpage
  • Updated a number of City personnel policies including Remote Work and Marijuana Use
  • Welcomed an increased number of Afghan Refugees to our community following U.S. extraction from Afghanistan
  • Enacted a number of Zoning Code Amendments to further implementation of Comprehensive Plan - Eliminating the minimum parking requirements in all zoning districts throughout the City, permitting “accessory apartments” in all residential zoning districts in the City and Creating accessory uses for both “electric vehicle charging stations” and “solar energy systems” to embrace new energy efficient technologies
  • Initiated COVID test kit programs in library branches
  • Hidden in Plain Sight Funding Assistance
  • Urban Renewal and the Berglund Civic Center – a series of initiatives to honor the history of what preceded the Civic Center, the impact of urban renewal and to begin to forge a new path forward with the Gainsboro Neighborhood.  
  • The Public Works Service Center Improvements - an automated brine facility, a decanting facility, a water reclamation system, storm drain improvements, three covered storage buildings, and associated work.  The project has a value of $5,000,000 and has an estimated completion date of January 2023.  
  • The Roanoke River Greenway – Bridge the Gap construction - approximately 1 mile of a 10’ wide asphalt path from Bridge Street to the Norfolk Southern Material Yard. Work involves constructing a pedestrian bridge, installing retaining walls, earthwork and storm drainage. With the completion of the project, the Roanoke River Greenway will be continuous for approximately 10 miles within the City limits. The project has a value of $6,100,000 and has an estimated completion date of August 2023.  
  • Courthouse Renovations - renovating the J&D Courts area and upgrading the Sheriff’s Security Station at the entrance of the Courthouse.  The project has a value of $1,800,000 and has an estimated completion date of June 2022.  
  • RCPS Joint Use Agreement – 20-year agreement
  • Plan Review and inspections for Carilion Clinic Expansion - the ten-story tower--eight stories above grade and two stories of underground parking—will include trauma care, a new Emergency Room, and a second helicopter pad.
  • Honored Ukraine with raising of Ukraine flag at Freedom Plaza
  • 2022 USA Cycling Amateur Road National Championship – For the first time Roanoke will be hosting the USA Cycling Amateur Road National Championship
  • Roanoke Capital Access Fund - The City of Roanoke’s Economic Development Authority “EDA” is partnering with Freedom First offering Roanoke City licensed businesses the opportunity to apply for a business loan through the Roanoke Capital Access Fund.  In order to apply, City of Roanoke businesses must hold a current business license, must utilize accelerator and mentoring programs including the Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program “RAMP”, the Advancement Foundation’s Gauntlet, or the Roanoke Small Business Development Center, and must be entrepreneurs, businesses and/or higher education professionals working to create opportunities and success in research, healthcare and technology.
  • Neighborhood Month Activities – May
  • Melrose-Rugby entrance monuments restoration
  • Roanoke Higher Education Center Gainsboro Walkway Dedication – The dedication of the walkway connecting the main Higher Education Center building and the Culinary Training Institute
  • The William & Margaret Robertson Behavioral Health Wing, a 1,900-foot expansion which includes six counseling rooms and group counseling space at the Bradley Free Clinic.  This expansion benefitted from CDBG funding
  • GFOA Distinguished Budget Award
  • $2 million for deferred Parks maintenance – largest funding in decades
  • Acquisition of Richardson-Wayland property for relocation of Parks and Recreation operations and equipment storage
  • Marc Nelson appointed as Economic Development Director

 - Bob Cowell

Oct 03

Pride in Service

Posted on October 3, 2022 at 2:39 PM by Casey Lewis

Pride in Service

Last week the Council gathered for their annual strategic planning retreat where they heard briefings on homelessness, increasing costs due to inflation and supply issues, workforce concerns due in part to compensation challenges along with opportunities associated with economic development, increased federal funding on infrastructure and more.  This year, the retreat included a tour of recently completed or currently under construction capital projects.  These included renovations in the Oliver W Hill Justice Center, a large stormwater project near Williamson Road, new athletic courts and playgrounds in northwest Roanoke, street paving projects in the Raleigh Court area, Fire Station 7, the former Richardson Wayland property adjacent to the Roanoke River greenway recently acquired to consolidate parks and recreation offices and equipment, the site of the demolished Ramada Inn on Franklin Road and the recently completed improvements at Rivers Edge Park in the Innovation Corridor.

However, the two highlights were not surprisingly, related not to buildings or places but rather to the people that provide the services we all rely upon day in and day out and the equipment they rely upon and the projects they work on.

Sweeping the Streets

A part of the tour included a stop by a municipal facility few in the public likely even are aware exists, the Public Works Service Center which houses the equipment and people that take care of our streets, storm drains, parks, equipment and more.  Over the past few years, the Council has invested over $5 million in this facility and associated equipment, ensuring these essential employees have the spaces and equipment they need to excel at their jobs.  Equipment Operator Don Hamilton shared with the Council the street sweeper he uses each day, keeping our streets safe and debris out of our stormwater system and streams.  All the while he beamed with pride in what he does and does well, exclaiming that of all the places he had worked none were better than the City of Roanoke.  Don was joined by personnel from Parks and Recreation, Stormwater Utility, Solid Waste, and other departments, each sharing the great work they do.

Protecting our Water

A short distance e away, in Washington Park, two equally enthusiastic and dedicated employees, Curry McWilliams and McKenzie Brocker explained the Lick Creek stream restoration project that removed invasive species, eliminated streambank erosion that had exposed a sanitary sewer pipe and helped create in its place a stream with a restored riparian buffer filled with appropriate plants that will evolve with time that filters rain water as it moves through the park creating a more natural and accommodating environment for plants, insects and animals and people.  This project includes new pedestrian access to the park, interpretive signs about the restoration and helps slow and better manage water during significant storm events.

Great People Make a Great Organization

In both of these instances it was readily evident what I already know - we have great people in Roanoke doing great work.  I am appreciative of the Council’s interest in spending a part of their day out seeing the great work they have helped make happen on behalf of the residents and businesses and Roanoke and most importantly take the time to engage in the folks doing the work.

All together for the betterment of the community and those that call it home - that is Roanoke!

— Bob Cowell

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Sep 26

Reassuring, Worrisome, and Hopeful

Posted on September 26, 2022 at 9:08 AM by Casey Lewis

Reassuring, Worrisome and Hopeful

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 108th Annual Conference of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in Columbus, Ohio.  For the first time since before the onset of COVID, I was able to join thousands of City and Town Managers, County Administrators, Assistant and Deputy Managers and other senior local government leaders from across the nation and elsewhere in the world.  As has been the case in the past, the opportunity was insightful and rewarding, offering many learning opportunities that I trust will continue to make me a better manager and benefit Roanoke and its residents.

This year perhaps more than any other year in the past, I found myself experiencing an interesting blend of reassurance along with apprehension.  More often than I can ever recall, the conversations in the halls, exhibit area, educational sessions and events were closely aligned.  Large, small, urban, rural, blue state or red state, U.S., Canada, New Zealand or Belgium – the concerns, challenges and opportunities were very similar – community by community.

Reassuring Company

It was reassuring to hear and take part in conversations and educational sessions where community leaders were grappling with many of the very same challenges as we are here in Roanoke.   For the most part, I knew this prior to the conference but there is something reassuring about hearing directly from fellow administrators that we are all engaged in the same struggles.   Homelessness, most especially those living out of doors, unsheltered is a challenge whether in communities in New York, Texas, Oregon or here in Virginia.  Gun Violence is wreaking havoc in communities from Minnesota to Florida and from Arizona to Michigan and all parts in between.  No community in attendance is able to attract and retain enough police officers, fire fighters, sanitation workers, engineers, accountants, landscapers and so on, to meet the service needs or expectations of their communities.  While budgets currently remain healthy, all recognize they are temporarily propped up by plentiful federal aid and are quickly being eroded by inflationary pressures and worse still, is the looming specter of a likely recession, even as most communities have yet to fully recover from the last major recession and certainly not from the economic impacts of COVID.


The apprehensive or disconcerting part was that along with each of these conversations and inside the workshops or at the general sessions, all present are applying mostly the same tools and interventions.  That is, we are all working diligently in much the same way to end homelessness, gun violence and address workforce issues in our community.   We are all preparing our budgets in much the same manner, anticipating the looming shocks and revenue losses.  While a bit reassuring that we are on the same path as most others, it is a bit worrisome that for most of these significant and critical issues, we as a society have yet to arrive at adequate solutions and interventions.  


I am reassured by the fact that thousands of administrators, elected officials, researchers, police and fire chiefs, outreach workers, clerks, supervisors and many more are all working toward meaningful and sustainable solutions, sharing lessons learned and continuously innovating new and better ways of doing things.  While quick and easy solutions may elude us at the moment, I am confident that real and lasting responses to each of the challenges are possible and assure you that I and each of the 1700+ employees of this organization will continue to identify, test, innovate, adapt and implement the best responses possible, in pursuit of the results we all seek.

- Bob Cowell