Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea didn’t waste time getting to his proudest moment in his fourth State of the City address.
In June, the National Civic League, which has named Roanoke an All-America City seven times over, made the city its first inductee into the All-America City Hall of Fame.
“That tells a lot about the people we have in this city,” Lea said. “We did not achieve this status overnight. We worked long and hard to get there.”
Hard work was Lea’s theme on the day for the annual address given by Roanoke’s mayors at Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center. The event was hosted by the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Lea mentioned hard work or working hard another 18 times during the course of his hour long rah-rah for Roanoke. This year’s speech, as has become the mayor’s habit, was primarily a long list of noteworthy achievements by the government, school system, public safety departments, businesses, nonprofits and others over the last year. Nods were also given to projects just getting underway or on the horizon.
“Roanoke works hard for a purpose,” Lea told the crowd of about 300. “To create value and quality of life. But most of all, we work hard because we care about our community.”
Following the city’s award on his list, was progress on the city’s innovation corridor, including expansion of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and a $50 million gift from the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust to support it, Carilion Clinic’s announcement of a $300 million expansion of Roanoke Memorial Hospital and the merger of Radford University and the Jefferson College of Health Sciences. Lea also cited the recent opening of Virginia Western Community College’s STEM Building.
The mayor drew attention to the city’s continued growth as a tourism destination.
“Tourism tells people who we are, where we are, and why they would want to be in Virginia’s Blue Ridge,” he said.
Lea mentioned the $18 million renovation of the old Heironimous building downtown that will be host to a Mast General Store, a popular tourist draw.
Demand for hotel rooms and hotel revenues in the area grew for a ninth consecutive year last year, Lea noted, and the recent announcement that the Roanoke Valley will host an Ironman 70.3 mile triathlon for at least three years bolsters the region’s reputation as a premier sports destination.
Lea highlighted achievements by the city’s schools, from a continued 90% on-time graduation rate to athletic achievements by sports teams at the city’s two high schools. Those include state championships for Patrick Henry High School in girls swimming, forensics and debate, and national title for a boys relay team and a regional championship for the girls basketball team from William Fleming.
Lea also cited a collaboration between the schools, Carilion, Delta Dental of Virginia and Freedom First Credit Union to install a pediatric health clinic at Fallon Park Elementary School, part of an initiative called Local Impact for Tomorrow, or LIFT.
Lea made a point of citing ways in which the city serves children. That part of his list included the Star City Reads program led by the library system, which has bolstered the number of city third graders reading on grade level, and the library’s Feed and Read program. That program, in cooperation with the YMCA and Feeding America, provides meals for kids under 18 in all city libraries six days a week during the summer.
Roanoke’s foster care program last fiscal year led the state in completed adoptions with 75, Lea noted, and is leading again so far this year, with 54 as of the end of March.
In the public safety realm, Lea praised the city police and Fire-EMS departments for hiring initiatives and their connections to the community.
He also mentioned the work of the city’s Task Force to Reduce Gun Violence, which the city council created in June, and recent cooperation between the city police and the Council of Community Services to win approval from the state to launch a harm reduction program to address public health issues related to the opioid crisis.
Lea drew applause at the mention of the opening of the new Franklin Road Bridge — and the end of the two-year detour drivers used during construction.
In the area of infrastructure, the mayor also touted the continuing work on the redesign of Colonial Avenue as it passes through Virginia Western Community College’s campus, and the upcoming replacement of the Wasena Bridge, slated to begin in spring 2022.
Another city project Lea plugged is the new transportation transfer center for Valley Metro, the city’s bus system.
Work on that is expected to begin as soon as next year.
“In light of all that has been done over the past year and our plans for the future, it is clear,” Lea said, “Roanoke’s leaders are not afraid of a little hard work.”