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Posted on April 19, 2021 at 11:05 AM by Melinda Mayo
Most of us understand just how special Roanoke is—its people, its mountain setting, its culture, etc. A few things this past week reminded me just how much more Roanoke is, than what one might assume. The first was affirmation of the type of world-class medical research that goes on here and through that, the access we have to researchers from throughout the world. The second was a couple of articles in the magazine published by the Government Finance Officers Association—one written by a Roanoker about Roanoke, and the other written about the need to take some steps to address equity related to budgeting, steps we initiated months ago.
The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is an amazing asset in our community, filled with internationally known researchers conducting innovative, impactful research. A few examples include researchers who have done incredible work to establish the first pediatric rehabilitation resource center in the Nation, perform world-renown work on cancers, and conduct cutting-edge research on substance use disorders. The presence of the Institute and its work also grants access to researchers from the world over, not only to those working at the Institute but, thanks to the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series, to the entire community. This year, the series has brought experts on pandemics, vaccines, pediatric robots, and pain management, including a Nobel Prize winner. You can learn more about the amazing work taking place at the Institute by visiting the website, and also learn more about the happenings going on in Roanoke’s Innovation Corridor at this link. Recordings of the most recent lectures from the Strauss series may be viewed at this site.
Leading the Way
The GFOA—an international organization based in Chicago and led by former Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill, who has opted to continue to call Roanoke home—recently featured an article in its Government Finance Review written by Roanoke College Professor Liz Ackley. Dr. Ackley, who has been instrumental in ensuring the lack of a grocer in Northwest Roanoke is not forgotten and in doing all she can to see one locate there, writes about cutting-edge community engagement—in this case, efforts that accompanied the recent selection of the Belmont-Fallon neighborhood as the next focus area for funding we receive from HUD. Dr. Ackley discusses the need for a more thoughtful and beneficial process of community engagement, and uses the process the City used in partnership with ChangeLab Solutions and the New York Academy of Medicine as a case study for this better approach, highlighting the successful results.
This same edition of the magazine included a series of articles extolling the need to infuse equity into municipal strategies and financial decisions. Though the article highlights efforts in Austin, Texas and Duluth, Minn., it is rewarding to note that Roanoke City Council last year ensured their Strategic Plan update (adopted earlier this year) aligns with their equity objectives. This, of course, was accompanied by an update to the City’s Comprehensive Plan (City Plan 2040) and formation of the Citizen-based Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board. These efforts have now been followed with initiation of what will be a two-year undertaking, ensuring our budget yields equitable and empowering outcomes.
In each of these instances, it is easy to forget that we are a small post-industrial city of 100,000 people that many have never heard of (though, thanks to activities such as those noted, this is becoming less and less the case). So often, in so many ways, I am reminded that Roanoke is much more than what you might think. And that’s a part of why this is such a special place!
-- Bob Cowell
Posted on April 12, 2021 at 4:32 PM by Melinda Mayo
In previous posts, I have identified autumn as my favorite time of the year. I associate this with my upbringing in the Midwest, when the muggy hot days of summer were finally interrupted by crisp evenings, leaves turning bright colors, and light jackets. Though not my favorite season, while living in Roanoke I have grown to appreciate spring.
As a resident of Texas, I observed the difference between summer and autumn had more to do with the amount of light in a day than any change in temperature or leaf colors. However, in the spring I looked forward to the abundance of wildflowers that dotted the landscape—fields of blue bonnets with bright red Indian paintbrush interspersed, and the occasional pop of color associated with the various other wildflowers that bloomed.
A New Appreciation
Similarly, here in Roanoke I have come to anticipate the arrival of spring and its flowering dogwoods and redbuds—familiar sights to this Midwesterner, preceded by daffodils, tulips, and azaleas. Soon, these will be followed by rhododendrons and a plethora of other blooming flowers, shrubs and trees. Spring in the Blue Ridge is, if nothing else, colorful.
One of my recent sunrise hikes was in a thick fog after one of our many spring rains and featured deer, woodpeckers, a hawk, and more squirrels and chipmunks than could be counted. The forest was indeed waking from its winter slumber. Along my journey, I encountered a coyote and, as I got closer, it began to bark warnings—no doubt alerting me to a nearby den. I gave it a wide berth and continued on my way.
A Welcome Change
As I walk around my neighborhood and in downtown, there are noticeably more people out and about— especially so, as more people receive their vaccination against the COVID virus. All are enjoying the warm air, slight breeze, and bright sunshine. The walks are made all the more enjoyable by the dedicated work of our grounds crews from Parks and Recreation and Facilities, who ensure the flower beds are mulched, the fountains cleaned, and the trees pruned.
We are indeed blessed to live in such a place as Roanoke where spring is so vibrant and welcoming. It may not be my favorite season, but it is really difficult not to enjoy all the beauty that surrounds us and the renewed activities—by people, nature, and animals alike. Enjoy it, we know all too well that before long those hot days of summer will be upon us, not that those too aren’t enjoyable!
— Bob Cowell
Posted on April 5, 2021 at 4:19 PM by Melinda Mayo
Periodically throughout the year, certain employees are recognized either individually or collectively for the service they provide. Often, this is in recognition of exemplary work or for persevering under trying circumstances, such as those associated with COVID. With this post, I would like to honor those who provide the daily leadership and direction to those employees—our Directors.
Within the City organization, we rely upon a collection of Directors responsible for providing oversight for operations ranging from public safety to solid waste, and from technology to libraries. All total, 15 or so provide this direction. Who are they? Let’s start with an overview, then offer more detail. Of these 15, one-third are women, one-third are people of color and, combined, they represent a mix of those that have served many years in the organization and those that are relatively recent arrivals. All have honed their skills for a number of years, very often having started at an entry-level position within their line of work, be that a police officer, a planner, or a library cataloguer.
Leadership in public safety is provided by two Chiefs: Chief Sam Roman in the Police Department and Chief David Hoback in the Fire-EMS Department. Chief Roman started as a Marine before transitioning to a police officer with the City of Roanoke, where he served as a Lieutenant, Captain, and Deputy Chief before he was named Chief in 2020. Chief Roman’s experience is complemented by a bachelor’s degree and various leadership-training certifications from highly respected institutions such as Harvard University and the FBI. Chief Hoback started his career as a Paramedic, later serving as a Field Supervisor, Battalion Chief, and Deputy Chief, before he was selected as Chief in 2007. Chief Hoback’s experience is complemented by a bachelor’s degree and further recognition by the National Fire Academy.
Mark Jamison provides leadership in Public Works, where he is responsible for engineering, environmental management, stormwater and transportation. Mark has been with the City for 18 years, serving as a Traffic Engineer and Transportation Manager before being chosen as Director in 2020. Mark holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Civil Engineering. Leadership in General Services is provided by Jeffrey Powell, where he is responsible for sustainability, facilities, fleet management, solid waste and risk management. Jeffrey has a combined 32 years of experience in both the public and private sector, along with a bachelor’s degree and an MBA. His experience and degrees are complemented by a number of certifications, and he has even served as adjunct faculty at a number of institutions.
The Department of Technology is led by Vanessa Bohr. Vanessa oversees IT and E-911 operations, and has been with the City for 13 years, starting as an Application Developer. She was named Director in 2018. Vanessa holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, along with a myriad of complementary certificates. Amelia Merchant serves as the Director of Finance, leading the City’s finance, budgeting, real estate valuation, and retirement efforts. Amelia has been with the City since 2001 and was selected as the Director in 2017. She holds a bachelor’s degree and an MBA, along with various certifications. Amelia serves not only in a leadership role with the City, but also with the Government Officers Association of the United States and Canada, where she currently serves on the Executive Board.
The Department of Human and Social Services is led by Steve Martin and includes the City’s various social service programs, homeless assistance efforts, and foster care program. Steve has worked in his profession since 1988, and with the City since 2000. He was named Director in 2017. Steve holds a bachelor’s degree, along with a collection of certifications. Angelia Vernon leads the Human Resources Department. Angelia has been with the City since 2002 and was named Director in 2019. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and a professional certification with the International Public Manager’s Association.
Roanoke’s Public Library system is led by Sheila Umberger, who started her work with the City as the person who transferred the card catalog to a digital format. Named Director in 2004, Sheila holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Sheila has been recognized locally and nationally for her efforts with early childhood learning, community feeding programs, and efforts at advancing diversity. In 2016, the American Library Association—the oldest and largest library association in the world—recognized Sheila with the Peggy Sullivan Award for Public Library Administrators Supporting Services to Children. The City’s Planning, Building and Development Department is led by Chris Chittum who has been with the City since 1993, having been named Director in 2013. Chris holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Michael Clark leads the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. Michael joined the City in 2007 and has served as the Recreation Superintendent and the Parks and Recreation Manager, before being named Director in 2016. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is a Certified Parks and Recreational Professional. The City’s Economic Development Department is led by Rob Ledger, who joined the City in 2009 after an extended period of employment with the Roanoke Regional Partnership. Before that, he enjoyed a successful career with a private environmental lab. Rob has served as Director since 2019 and holds a bachelor’s degree.
Berglund Center is led by Robyn Schon. Robyn joined the City in 1998 as the General Manager of Marketing for the Civic Center, later serving as Assistant General Manger until her promotion to General Manager in 2011. In addition to 35 years of experience in live entertainment venues, Robyn holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and a certification in Public Assembly Facility Management.
The City’s Parking operations and Hotel Roanoke Conference Center are led by Brian Mann, who joined the City in 2018, first at Berglund Center and now in his current role where he oversees the contractual operations of the City’s parking operations and the Hotel Roanoke Conference Center. Brian holds a bachelor’s degree and is currently enrolled in an MBA program. Additionally, Brian brings years of experience with Virginia Tech and Radford University. The City’s Transit operations are provided under contract and led by Kevin Price, who was named General Manager for Valley Metro in 2018. Kevin has worked in transit since 1994, when he started as a bus driver in Blacksburg. In addition to his service in Blacksburg, Kevin worked in transit in Englewood, Colo. and for Regional Transportation District in Denver—at the time, the 10th largest transit system in North America.
This is the leadership team—an impressive group of men and women who lead the 1,700-plus folks who deliver services to our Community. I am honored to work alongside this group and I am consistently impressed with all that they and their teams are able to accomplish for Roanoke. We are truly fortunate to have such a great team in our City!