This week it will be one year since I attended my first “official” event as City Manager in Roanoke – the State of the City Address last August. My, how time flies! I thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on what I anticipated as I arrived in Roanoke, what I have learned in this first year, and what might lie ahead for the next year.
As I was searching for places to pursue my next career move, Roanoke made the list for a few reasons. The Location – I have always held Virginia in high esteem as a place steeped in history with a strong sense of place and a vibrant economy. Ever since attending graduate school at the University of Tennessee, I have been enamored with the Appalachian Mountains and hoped to one day return as more than just a casual visitor – Virginia’s Blue Ridge is a beautiful part of this Country! The Opportunity – Roanoke offered a great opportunity as a community with strong momentum and a clear sense of direction. I recall the recruitment brochure describing Roanoke as a place that did not need fixing, but rather a steady hand to keep the good things going. A Strong Organization – Roanoke had the reputation of a strong and well-run organization benefitting from a string of very successful City Managers and a very capable Council. This was the type of place that could lure me from the booming Texas economy and that held great promise. This was the type of place where I felt I could contribute my skills and abilities to further its success.
The First 365
So, has Roanoke lived up to those anticipations? In many ways it has exceeded my early expectations. The location is even more spectacular than originally anticipated. The many unique and vibrant neighborhoods, the Roanoke River Greenway, hiking in the mountains, the fabulous restaurants, and lively cultural offerings have all proven far more wonderful than originally thought. The momentum portrayed in the recruitment brochure offered just a glimpse of what is going on here. Sure, the economy has started to hum along and Virginia Tech continues to invest heavily in our future. But, it’s the entrepreneurs, CoLab, RAMP, etc. that highlight the depth of what’s going on here. It’s the small businesses scattered all over the city – downtown, in the Northwest, in Grandin Village and along Williamson Road that surprise. The commitment of so many to help those in need has been nothing short of amazing as well. The number of people and organizations aligned to address poverty, access to healthy food, the homeless, the addicted, and our youth is simply amazing and illustrates a momentum every bit as significant as that of the local economy.
The organization is not only strong and capable, but, in many areas, it is best in class. Seven City departments are accredited by state and national organizations declaring them “as good as it gets.” The professionals, the managers, and the front-line workers that serve our city are very capable. There is a reason we are a seven-time All American City and the strength of the local government – both elected and staff – is a big part of that reason.
I did also learn, as should come as no surprise, that the recruitment brochure did perhaps sell our challenges a bit short. Like so many other small post-industrial cities located in the United States, and especially in Appalachia, we face some very serious challenges, including: concentrated poverty, especially among our minority population; stagnant population growth; drug addiction; gun violence; and the legacy of racial inequities. While I consider Roanoke up to the challenge to address these issues, I also now know our failure to do so will constrain the momentum we are otherwise experiencing.
The Next Year and Beyond
So what’s next? Upon completion of my first few months, I presented to the Council my initial thoughts about Roanoke and where we, as an organization, might be headed in the next few years. More recently, I had the benefit of leading the Council through a strategic planning retreat where they discussed their priorities for the community over the next several years. Our priorities will continue to focus on growing economic opportunities at a regional and neighborhood level – efforts associated with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, tourism, advanced manufacturing, and health and wellness – will continue to be the economic “game-changers” for the foreseeable future. But equally important will be strengthening our neighborhoods and commercial corridors. Entrepreneurs, small businesses, incubators, and non-profits hold the key to offering every individual, family, and business access to our community’s growing economic sectors.
In addition to economic expansion, we also need to continue to focus on expanding educational opportunities – preparing students for school, helping them succeed in school and, upon graduation, offering them opportunities to secure a better place in the local economy through certifications, degrees, or similar education. We will also need to continue to ensure people are safe from violence, can overcome addiction, and have the opportunity to enjoy the best of what our community has to offer in arts and culture, and in outdoor recreation.
We will orient ourselves to succeed by prioritizing, by coordinating our efforts, by seeking out partnerships, by innovating, and by empowering those closest to challenges and opportunities to succeed with as little obstruction as possible.
The year has flown by for me. I was excited to arrive in Roanoke, have loved this first year, and have learned a tremendous amount. The current status of Roanoke is strong, but vulnerable. To guard against any weaknesses we may face, the future should focus on maintaining momentum, building resiliency, and continuing to make Roanoke a shining star! I am proud to play a part in this effort and look forward with great anticipation the upcoming year.
- Bob Cowell