“This is a great place to be and a great time to be here.” That’s how Terry Jamerson, chair of the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, succinctly summed things up at the “State of the County Address” on November 13.
Jamerson welcomed about 300 guests to the annual breakfast meeting, held this year at the Holiday Inn Tanglewood. She introduced Martha Hooker, chair of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, who expanded upon the state of Roanoke County in her remarks.
Hooker introduced her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors– Vice Chair Jason Peters from the Vinton District, George Assaid from Cave Spring, Joe McNamara from Windsor Hills, and Phil North from Hollins– and thanked them for their commitment to the citizens of the county.
She congratulated McNamara on his election to the Virginia House of Delegates in the November 6 election. The county is seeking applicants for appointment to his position who will serve until a special election is held in November 2019.
She also expressed appreciation to County Administrator Tom Gates, who announced last week that he will be stepping down from his position on January 4, 2019.
Hooker recognized officials from several local jurisdictions. Vinton was represented by Vice Mayor Keith Liles, Town Manager Barry Thompson, Assistant Town Manager Pete Peters, Town Executive Assistant Susan Johnson, Finance Director Anne Cantrell, Public Works Director Joey Hiner, Deputy Fire and EMS Chief Chris Linkous and Angie Chewning and Kathryn Sowers from the Vinton Area Chamber of Commerce.
She then invited Roanoke County School Board Chair Jason Moretz to present an update on the county school system. He recognized his fellow board members: Vice Chairman Don Butzer from the Catawba District, Tim Greenway from Vinton, Mike Wray from Cave Spring, and David Linden from Hollins. He also introduced new Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ken Nicely, although he is not new to the system.
“I can speak for the entire board when I say we had the right person for the job right here,” said Moretz.
He emphasized the dramatic changes that have taken place in education in the past 20 years— from passive learning with a teacher at the lectern to active hands-on learning with a teacher facilitating.
Moretz said the Roanoke County Schools focuses on the five C’s of success— Citizenship, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking, and Communication.
He singled out a program at Herman L. Horn Elementary that combines those skills with innovative technology in the MinecraftEdu program. The popular game has evolved into an educational tool in which participants can craft buildings and conceive of entire civilizations through simulation activities. The students at HLH used MinecraftEdu technology to build the Jamestown fort.
Moretz mentioned Ashley Roop from William Byrd High School, who created a painting of Carvins Cove that was transferred to vinyl and now adorns the side of the Western Virginia Water Authority building in downtown Roanoke as a massive mural.
He applauded the advances in school safety and security in county schools through the School Safety Task Force partnering with the Roanoke County Police and Sheriff’s Department, Fire and EMS, Salem Police, and Vinton Police to increase the presence of law enforcement in the schools.
Moretz thanked Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall, Vinton Chief Tom Foster, Sheriff Eric Orange, Fire and EMS Chief Steve Simon, and “countless officers, SROs, deputies, and staff who work every day to keep our schools safe.” In recent months the Sheriff’s Department has assigned two additional deputies to serve as school resource officers in the county’s elementary schools.
Vinton now has its own community resource officer who checks in with the two elementary schools in Vinton on a regular basis, in addition to the county deputies.
Moretz praised the work of the newly established School Safety Advisory Committee, made up of parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators who set as their first priority expanding mental health resources available to students.
“In September, the School Board invested nearly half a million dollars to double the number of mental health counselors in our secondary schools and expanded our school counseling staff so that every school has a dedicated school counselor,” said Moretz.
He mentioned the capital improvement plans for renovating several school facilities (including W.E. Cundiff and William Byrd High School).
“In about two months, we will begin the renovation and expansion of Cave Spring High School,” Moretz said. “We are very excited to be moving forward with this long-needed update to a school that is 60 years old.”
Moretz said that all the hard work by the school system leads to students who are “opportunity ready,” and backed that up with some facts:
• Roanoke County has one of the highest graduation rates in the state. There were 1,100 graduates in the Class of 2018; 95 percent of the class graduated on time.
• The Class of 2018 earned more than $13.4 million in scholarships.
• New apprenticeship programs which provide students the opportunity to get a head-start on future high-wage careers in high demand industries have expanded four-fold.
• BCAT now has both EMT and Nursing Careers certification programs.
Hooker then returned to the stage to present an update on the state of the county as a whole, focusing on new opportunities for growth, expansion, and regional cooperation.
She described innovate technology with award-winning GIS applications offering easy access to county services for citizens, the new Mobile Incident Command application which allows public safety personnel to coordinate during emergencies, and technology education for children and adults in the county libraries including the first humanoid robot in the nation.
“The growing success of Explore Park is another example of teamwork that is helping the park to become a distinguished destination in our region,” said Hooker. “With the addition of a top-rated disc golf course, a variety of camping options for visitors, and equestrian programs, Explore Park is quickly becoming a daytime destination for residents and an attractor for visitors to our region.”
Soon the park will add a unique aerial adventure ropes course to draw even more visitors.
Hooker commented upon the many redevelopment projects both in the works and upcoming, such as the Wood Haven Technology Park. The board is pleased that VDOT has fully funded improvements on I-81, which will include additional lanes between exits 141 and 143.
She complimented Vinton on new activity in the town.
“The decision to build a new library in the downtown set off a chain of activity resulting in the redevelopment of Roland E. Cook, the former William Byrd High School, and a new Macado’s location,” Hooker said. “Vinton is becoming a vibrant downtown with new people moving in and new businesses starting up.”
According to Hooker, companies considering new investment are most concerned with quality of life and proximity to suppliers. The Commonwealth of Virginia has improved its quality of life ranking from 10th to fourth in the nation; its proximity to suppliers to 12th and is now ranked fourth in “Best States for Business.”
Hooker believes Roanoke County should concentrate on “Place-making” and “Quality of Place” to attract new corporate investment and support population growth. A major focus should be on workforce development.
“We need to grow our population of young and educated technical workers in the region,” Hooker said.
She applauded The Gauntlet Business Program and Competition by The Advancement Foundation in Vinton for fostering entrepreneurs.
“We should be proud of what we have achieved together, and look forward to what can be achieved next,” said Hooker.