With the close of 2021 fast approaching, I take a few moments with this post to review some of the accomplishments of 2021 and the challenges that remain. Next week, I intend to provide a glimpse into 2022 and what we will focus on.
As we started 2021, we all, no doubt, had hoped COVID-19 would be a distant painful memory. Unfortunately, we end 2021 with COVID very much still present, anticipating the beginning of 2022 perhaps to be even more challenging due to the emergence of the Omicron variant. However, there was good COVID-related news in 2021, most notably the availability and distribution of vaccines and boosters. To date, about 54% of the adults in Roanoke have been fully vaccinated and more than 18,000 have received the third dose booster. Youth over the age of five are also now eligible to receive the vaccine and that process is underway. Though the Omicron variant appears to be a formidable match for the vaccines, there is no doubt that the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths would have been much higher were it not for the availability of vaccines.
COVID hit certain sectors of our local economy hard, such as hospitality, live entertainment venues, restaurants, etc. Each of these suffered greatly from COVID-related shutdowns and increased expenses as reopening occurred. While some have returned to pre-pandemic levels, most businesses continue to struggle. The remainder of the local economy has seen a bit of a boon. Housing prices rose at rates not seen in decades, retail sales (mostly online) were at or above pre-pandemic levels, and unemployment returned to the low levels seen before the arrival of the pandemic. Indeed, as elsewhere, the local economy recovered so quickly that it has been accompanied by inflation, supply chain issues, and employment shortages. Though some businesses permanently closed due to COVID, amazingly new businesses continued to open and major expansions at Carilion Clinic and the Fralin Biomedical Research Center moved forward, fueling the local healthcare and biomedical research sector.
We entered 2021 as we did 2020, with concerns that the local economy would be hit hard and, along with it, tax revenues. With that concern, we kept expenditures tight in the approved budget. Revenues in most categories outperformed conservative projections resulting in a year-end surplus. The surplus, combined with state and federal COVID-related aid, allowed the City to increase pay for public safety personnel, provide bonuses for employees and advance on a number of key community initiatives. Through the use of citizen-led Advisory Panels, we successfully deployed millions in CARES Act funding into the community and prepared for the same with American Rescue Plan Act funds, offering grants to small businesses, non-profits, and arts and culture organizations. Aid to individuals and households struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic is also being provided as is assistance to local health clinics struggling to meet increased demand. Major projects such as the new downtown transit transfer station and Fire Station #7 were either started or completed in 2021. With the adoption of the new Comprehensive Plan and the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, work got underway in addressing equity and deferred investments. Among other accomplishments, this resulted in the formation of the Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board and the expenditure of more than $2 million on deferred park maintenance needs.
Though much was accomplished in 2021, significant challenges remain. Foremost, as noted is the continued presence of COVID-19. Its impact continues to cast a shadow over the community, affecting health and wellness, along with economic vitality. COVID has also contributed to a number of the remaining challenges present in the community – gun violence, homelessness, mental health, and substance use all increased in 2021 and remain great concerns going into 2022. With each of these challenges, the City government and the community have continued to offer a strong response. The formation of the Gun Violence Prevention Commission, increased spending on public safety, increased spending on mental health, and funding the first staff dedicated to a collective response to substance use in the community are but a few examples. Much work on each of these remains for 2022.
In many ways, 2021 was a better year than perhaps anticipated and yet in others it was just as (if not more so) challenging as 2020. We have much to be thankful for as we look back on 2021 and we have much to prepare for as we look ahead toward 2022. No doubt, we will take on the challenges that lie ahead, just as we took on those present in 2021 – together and with a confidence that there are solutions and that we will work hard to identify and implement those solutions.
-- Bob Cowell