Fifty years ago this fall, the Roanoke Valley was consumed by one issue: Consolidation.
Well, Roanoke and Roanoke County were. Salem was never part of the consolidation plan and Botetourt County was far too rural then to warrant attention. Merging Roanoke and Roanoke County into a single government seemed a natural thought at the time — at least to those who favored such a thing. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, there had been a wave of consolidations in Hampton Roads that saw Hampton absorb Elizabeth City County (1952), Newport News take over Warwick County (1958), Virginia Beach subsume Princess Anne County (1963), and South Norfolk and Norfolk County join together to become Chesapeake (1963). There also were failed attempts to merge Hampton and Newport News (1956), and Richmond and Henrico County (1961). The same year that Roanoke and Roanoke County voted on consolidation, so did Winchester and Frederick County, and the next year so did Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The point is: There was a trend. The push in the Roanoke Valley was triggered by the same factors — a belief that a consolidated government would avoid duplication and thus save taxpayers money. In the Roanoke Valley, duplication was on full display: Roanoke and Salem had just built what were considered rival civic centers. As we know, of course, consolidation failed — both then and again in 1990. Both times city voters were very much in favor, but county voters were not. Some county voters were wary of being “taken over” by the city — at the time there was a much bigger population imbalance. Others were opposed to the consolidated school system that was an inevitable part of the deal. There was an undeniable racial dimension to that.
With a half-century of hindsight, we can now look back and wonder what might have been different if the city and county had consolidated. Some things are unknowable, of course, most notably how much money might have been saved, if any. But some questions and conclusions are pretty obvious.
1. Local government today would be a lot more contentious. The plan called for a governing body with 11 members, each elected from separate districts or wards. We don’t know how those districts lines would have been drawn — that was left up to the courts — but here’s what we know today. Today, the city and county are much closer to being the same size. Then, the city was population 92,115 and the county was 67,339. Now the city’s population is estimated at 100,033 and the county at 93,672. Yes, yes, we know that the city’s population today includes some portions of the county that it was able to annex in the ‘70s so the “old county” and the “old city” may actually be about the same size. In any case, here’s the point: The politics of city and county weren’t all that different in 1969 but they sure are today. In 1968, for instance, both city and county voted for Republican Richard Nixon. As late as 1985, all three Democrats running statewide carried both city and county. Both localities were up for grabs, politically. Now, though, there’s no question how the two localities will vote. In the last presidential election, Donald Trump took 61% in Roanoke County; Hillary Clinton took 56% in the city (four years before, Barack Obama took 62%). How might this have played out in local government? Today the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors is all-Republican; Roanoke City Council consists of five Democrats and two independents — but one of those independents (Bill Bestpitch) is a Democrat who simply chose to run as an independent. A Republican hasn’t been elected to city council since 2000 and isn’t likely to be anytime soon. Now imagine an 11-member governing body for both city and county. We can’t know the exact partisan split, but it’s fair to assume it would be closely divided — but likely with a Republican advantage. Trump took 54% of the vote in the city and county combined. Democratic voters in the city should be happy that consolidation never passed. Today’s governing boards in the city and county are generally harmonious; the board for a consolidated government would not be. We can have a nice philosophical argument over whether a more divided government would be better or worse for democracy, but the tone of local government would undeniably be different. A consolidated government would be more like Montgomery County, which is perpetually split 4-3 along party lines — just sometimes different parties are in charge.
2. Would Noel Taylor have ever become mayor? He was Roanoke’s vice mayor when the incumbent died in 1975; then was elected in his own right — and re-elected again and again until he retired in 2002. A consolidated council would have chosen its own mayor. Taylor might well have gotten elected to council but we can only speculate whether a consolidated council would have elected him mayor. Today, Taylor’s name adorns public buildings. It’s unlikely he’d have had an opportunity to become a civic icon in a consolidated government.
3. Would downtown have been brought back to life? By the mid-’70s, downtown Roanoke had fallen into a state of disrepair, as retail stores fled for the malls. “A downtown cancer” one prominent business leader called it. The council elected in 1976 came into an office with a mandate to revitalize downtown. It hired an energetic new city manager — Bern Ewert —– who set in motion the “Design ‘79” project that invested heavily in downtown. All the private investment we see in downtown today can be traced back to that initiative. Would a consolidated government have been that interested in downtown? Even in city politics, there are always complaints from neighborhoods that downtown gets too much attention. In a valleywide government (minus Salem, of course), those complaints would surely have been more numerous. Politically, it would seem harder for a consolidated government to have focused that much on downtown.
Other things might have been easier. The valley’s water systems might have gotten merged sooner; the water crises of 1999 and 2002 might have been avoided. Interestingly, the two “rival” civic centers that caused so much angst in 1969 have now evolved to fit very different needs. They are no longer considered rivals at all. Then it was hard for some people to envision the Roanoke Valley as a single economic unit. Today, though, many think of everything from the Alleghany Highlands to the New River Valley as part of the same economic region — and nobody talks about consolidation anymore.