2013 State of the City

State of the City
Friday, August 23, 2013, Mayor David A. Bowers. Comments herein are subject to being revised.

Opening Remarks
It is an honor to give my 14th State of the City address and I want to thank everyone in attendance this morning and a special thanks, once again this year, to Joyce Waugh, and the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce for sponsoring the Mayor’s State of the City address. Thanks also to our stable City Council for their presence. It is great to be here, also, at the historic Patrick Henry and I want to congratulate and recognize Ed Walker and his team for the tremendous restoration of this grand old building here on Jefferson Street in downtown Roanoke. It’s just an example of blending the old with the new that has made Roanoke “The Magic City” and “The Star City” for over 125 years.

There are 3 themes that I want to convey to you this morning. First, Roanoke is on the right track. Secondly, our future destination will be exciting, and thirdly, Roanoke is getting better each day.

The Right Track
Roanoke’s on the right track for Amtrak passenger rail service to resume here in “The Star City” for the first time since 1979. It has been a long struggle, but thanks to Governor Bob McDonnell and a majority of the General Assembly, an historic transportation funding compromise was crafted this past session, which will help build and maintain our transportation infrastructure in the Commonwealth for decades to come, and will fund needed improvements to allow an early morning Northeast passenger train connector to leave from Roanoke and return each evening.

Roanoke is on the right track with downtown pedestrian improvements. Although we’re used to driving to and through the city, peoples’ interest in downtown is changing and I’m convinced that Roanoke’s Elmwood Park and City Market initiatives will make our downtown area thrive once again with shops, businesses and restaurants, and we’ll see a major regional draw for tourists and citizens from throughout western Virginia in our downtown.

Elmwood Park is near completion and it will soon be, once again, the premiere amphitheater and outdoor entertainment venue in our part of the Commonwealth. Needed streetscape improvements, including some very important drainage components, will be underway later this fall in the City Market. Construction will continue through the winter, but with the spring of 2014, I expect the farmers to be back on the City Market and will see increased tourism and pedestrian activity.

Development Projects
Roanoke’s on the right track with other initiatives, some of which are not quite as glitzy as downtown development.

While we see other cities struggle with bridge replacements, our bridge maintenance program is funded, and our 132 bridges here in the city are properly maintained for the safety of our traveling public.

Our inspections department is now fully accredited and has received an ISO rating of 1, and you should know that only 4 cities in the nation have attained that high rating.

Our drug market initiative implemented by the Roanoke Police Department has successfully gone into a second neighborhood. As of July 31, Part 1 Violent Crime is down 15.84 percent, and Part 1 Property Crime is down 14.18% as a result of this unique community policing effort.

Utility Services Initiatives
Roanoke City Council seems poised to move forward with the stormwater utility initiative, which will improve stormwater run off in neighborhoods throughout the city. It is estimated that there are
$70 million worth of improvements needed, and it’s going to take a long, long time just to accomplish that. Additionally, this initiative will meet EPA and State DEQ requirements and Roanoke will be the leader in the Roanoke Valley on doing our share in making the upper Roanoke River environmentally sustainable.

Roanoke’s on the right track for increased tourism, and hotel occupancy has gone up this year. Landon Howard and the CVB have done a great job in formulating a financially sound funding source for the CVB, and we’re expecting even greater things from that agency in the future, and hopefully positioning “Virginia’s Blue Ridge” to be more competitive with other great regions of the southern Appalachians like Asheville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.

Highway Improvements
Roanoke’s on the right track with major highway improvements, and although it would be fun to say that improvements near Elmwood Park will likely be dubbed the “Nightmare on Elm Avenue,” VDOT investments there and at south ValleyView Mall are important for access to and through the city on I581.

Roanoke’s on the right track with our schools, under the leadership of Chairman Todd Putney, the Roanoke School Board, and Virginia’s top school superintendent of the year, Dr. Rita Bishop. We’ve got great city schools, great teachers, and despite a constant struggle with state accreditation, we have improved our graduation rate from 59% to 80% in just the last few years.

Award Winning Community
Roanoke is on the right track, and we have been recognized with award after award from national and state organizations. The 1 that I am most proud of is our success just last summer in winning the All America City award. What I want you to know is that Roanoke has competed with other cities in the nation for this prestigious award and we have won the award 6 times, and no other city in America has won the award as often as Roanoke. The award isn’t just a plaque, it signifies our investment in pre kindergarten education, summer reading programs, efforts to assist the adult immigrant community in reading, and making sure that every child in Roanoke city schools can read at a third grade level when they are in the third grade. We should be mighty proud of being a 6-time All America City.

Our Future Destination
The second part of my talk this morning is to tell you that the future destination of our city looks grand. We are a “Star” among cities!

Once again this year, I can boast about the regional initiatives implemented by City Manager Chris Morrill in conjunction with Roanoke County’s Administrator Clay Goodman, Salem City Manager Kevin Boggess and Vinton Town Manager Chris Lawrence. Together, with Roanoke County, we are proceeding with efforts to combine a regional police training academy. We’re responding to controversy with a regional approach to our animal shelter. While you need to know that the tobacco money has brought better broadband service to cities like Galax than to Roanoke, we are moving as a region to make sure that the Roanoke Valley becomes competitive with broadband service so that we can compete with northern Virginia and other mid- Atlantic metropolitan areas.

The future destination of our city will be grand in that the skyline of Roanoke will be dramatically changing over the next 20 years. You may want to take a postcard photograph now and compare it to 2 decades from now. I think you will see a whole lot of development and change. Were not just talking about development in downtown Roanoke. We are talking about development of a “center city” from ValleyView Mall all the way through downtown to the Carilion Virginia Tech Medical School complex, on the Southside.

Bill Rakes and Bern Ewert oversaw this summer the groundbreaking of “The Bridges” development across Jefferson Street from the Virginia Tech Medical School. They envision condos and apartments, business centers and restaurants in that area just south of downtown.

In downtown, the city continues to work with developers for the building of the new hotel on our parking garage on Church Avenue at the end of the City Market. Now that’s really exciting!

The Evans Spring development, just west of I581 from Valley View Mall, is about 100 acres of undeveloped/inaccessible land that will be made accessible by the new VDOT interchange on I581. We have been working with neighborhood groups to make sure that this will be a “town center development” that provides access and continuity with the residential neighborhood, but also provides for additional commercial and business development along the Interstate.

Neighborhood Development
The Countryside neighborhood has long been a sore point of controversy. I have to commend City Manager Chris Morrill for really making an effort to try and work with the neighbors and make Countryside just as nice a neighborhood as Highland Park, Wasena, or Williamson Road.

Part of the network of greenways is going into Countryside and we hope to build a library branch there, so over the next several years I hope that Countryside will be stabilized and that we will turn the corner and make sure that, in the future, we will have additional residential improvements in that neighborhood.

Our “Big Mac” projects at the Market, the amphitheater and Countryside are now underway, as you can see.

The Mayors “ACT Initiative,” which was announced at last year’s State of the City address, continues to gather responses from our citizens who hope to lay a more substantial foundation for academic, cultural and tourism economic development in Roanoke for the future.

Just this month, we met with representatives from Washington and Lee Law School and the Virginia Tech Carilion Medical Center and the Virginia Tech Research Institute to begin discussions as to how WandL and Virginia Tech may develop a collaborative approach to mesh legal studies with the expanding research and new sciences at the Medical School.

Virginia Western continues to grow and Bobby Sandel’s leadership out on Colonial Avenue with yet the building of a new $26 million structure, and more to come, indicates the real interest within the community in our community college, and the benefit that the college has to our young people and others who believe in life long learning. Also, we’re continuing to work with Penny Kyle at Radford University in developing advanced nursing programs in conjunction with NL Bishop’s Jefferson College right in downtown Roanoke. Academic improvements are a real economic driver for Roanoke.

What I want you to know is that other cities like Raleigh and Greensboro and Greenville, South Carolina, have seen the value of forming closer “town and gown relationships.” In particular, bringing post graduate programs into the inner city is a benefit to the university and a benefit to the city, and the colleges and universities around Roanoke should know and learn from those successful models in other cities in the middle Atlantic states.

Cultural Initiative
Our cultural initiative is led by David Wine and Councilman David Trinkle. We’re going to Pittsburgh next month and look at their cultural approach to funding arts and cultural activities. Ever since Gibson Morrissey waived that wand for the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra many years ago, Roanoke has been on the forefront, in my opinion, of developing museums and providing outstanding artistic performances for our region. Every time I attend a performance in the Jefferson Center or the Civic Center, I’m always engaged in conversation with someone from Galax or Lexington or Lynchburg who come to Roanoke to see a show, shop at our stores, and eat at our restaurants. What I’m wanting you to understand, and I believe that you do grasp, is that sustainable arts and cultural organizations are economic drivers for our region and that Roanoke needs to make sure that we have a sound financial formula to sustain and improve our area museums and cultural activities. They’re good for our economy too.

Tourist Initiatives
And finally in talking about my ACT-Now Initiative and our destination for the future, we need to understand that Roanoke should be a tourist destination, and Landon Howard and the CVB are working on that idea. It is just in the early stages. Somewhere, somehow down the road we need to understand that people go to Chattanooga to see the Chattanooga choo-choo, Rock City and Ruby Falls, and they go to Asheville to see the Biltmore house. We need to figure out what it is that will bring people to come to Roanoke. What puts us on the map?! The answer to that question is now our No. 1 tourism economic development goal.

I want to conclude now with a reference to Bernie Niemiers’ Roanoke Business magazine. An article was written by former Roanoke Times reporter Mason Adams and it compares Roanoke with Asheville. In our mind, Asheville is what we’re trying to attain as a tourism destination. But, in comparison, by looking at the facts, Roanoke is in many ways in a better position than Asheville for the future. We have a more diversified economy and I think a more diversified population with over 104 different nationalities living right here in the Roanoke Valley.

But, the article also reports is that when you blog Asheville or blog Roanoke, people who blog Asheville are very positive and say what a great city it is. And when people blog about Roanoke, they are complaining or are not as upbeat or positive about what we’re doing, the track we’re on, and what positive achievements our future destination holds.

Getting Better Every Day
This all reminds me of a lesson I learned when I first ran for Mayor in 1992. During a mid-campaign slump, I was given the advice to go out the next day, and when people asked me about the campaign, I was to say “we’re getting better every day.”

I responded to the advice by saying that I’m not sure I truly believe it. The advisor chuckled and told me to at least try it and see how it works. He would check with me again in a few days.

The next day, I began to tell people, when asked, that my campaign was “getting better everyday.” Within a few days, I regained my confidence and began again sending a positive message of success. I’m convinced that my own attitude was an important turning point in the 1992 campaign and several weeks later, my dream came true and I was elected Mayor of the greatest city in America.

Now, it’s time for Roanoke to learn that lesson. Instead of blogging about our doubts, instead of questioning visitors why they would want to visit here, we should be more positive and confident. We have tons of reasons to be positive and confident that Roanoke is a great place to live, work and visit.

Positive Attitude
It’s a lot about our attitude about Roanoke. If we’re positive, if we have confidence, if we will say “Roanoke’s getting better every day,” then we, too, will come to believe it and we, as a community, will become more convincing to ourselves and visitors. Our blogs will be more positive, our perception of our home town will be brighter, and we will more sincerely, in the future, convey that to others.

We Roanokers, you and me, should begin today to say “Roanoke is getting better everyday.” We may not believe it yet, though we should, but as I myself learned years ago, sometimes just saying it can change our perception and help us to believe it and make it genuinely come true.

Concluding Remarks
After all, your Mayor does now genuinely believe that Roanoke is “getting better every day.” If you’ll join me, you, the people, then we can together make a difference.

I believe that Roanokers should take that message to heart! After all, we are on the right track, our future looks grand, and Roanoke is getting better everyday.