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Redevelopment Leaders Star at Regional Forum

Kathryn and Ed Walker discuss the Valley’s future at this week’s Roanoke Regional forum held at the Jefferson Center.

by Gene Marrano

For the past two-plus years, the Roanoke Regional Forum has brought dialogue and interesting speakers to the dais, as a joint effort by Roanoke College and the Regional Chamber of Commerce. Past notables have included best-selling authors and network television correspondents. But one of the biggest if not the biggest crowd ever turned out Monday night at the Jefferson Center to hear two home-grown stars: Ed and Kathryn Walker, who are involved with redevelopment, leadership and the arts, promoting their hometown tirelessly.

Ed Walker has become synonymous with downtown redevelopment (the Cotton Mills, Hancock Building, Patrick Henry Hotel etc.) and for cultural projects like Kirk Avenue Music Hall and 101.5 The Music Place, purchased via his CityWorks Foundation.  Kathyrn Walker helped found the Batten Leadership Institute at Hollins University and is a major advocate for the arts.

“They are two people who believe in … the power of ideas and the power of community,” said Roanoke College president Mike Maxey during his introduction.

On Monday the husband and wife power couple spoke about community, cooperation, ingenuity and turning Roanoke’s liabilities – like its smallish size – into assets.  It is vital that Roanoke connect with other cities its size, to learn from what has been done successfully elsewhere, noted Ed Walker.

There is a shift to a “network society” from a hierarchal one, a society where “everything is connected,” said Kathryn Walker.  That affects Roanoke noted Walker, who advised the civic, cultural and business leaders gathered not to look for that one big donor or mega-company “to replace the railroad.”  Instead we must “do a lot with a little. What Roanoke really needs is the best of you – people willing to take a risk.”

She still hears the occasional “there’s nothing to do in Roanoke,” but that happens less and less these days, with assets like the Taubman Museum, the greenways and more restaurants per capita than just about any other city.

 “I think Roanoke is becoming more self-confident,” said Kathryn Walker, “we’re valuing our size.”  She also had a suggestion the next time someone complains about the Roanoke Valley: “ask them what are you going to do about that?”

Ever the optimist, Ed Walker said he wasn’t adverse to taking the occasional risky flier on a project, adding that the lower startup costs in Roanoke make it the ideal place to do just that.

As for smaller cities in general he spoke about the “untapped strength [that is] hidden in plain view.”  He had kind words for those working in the Roanoke City government offices and said City Manager Chris Morrill “has been absolutely stunning,” so far in his two years on the job.

Uncoordinated efforts by different groups – long a criticism of how things get done or don’t get done in Roanoke – results in a “massive amount of waste,” said Walker, who asked out loud how Roanoke can best leverage the assets it does possess. Turn weaknesses into strengths, “make something interesting happen,” he implored those in the audience.

“Friends, family and what we are taught growing up help shape our direction later on,” said Walker, who used a slide show to talk about the nurturing family that gave Orville and Wilbur Wright the direction needed before producing the first successful flying machine.  “[That’s] the root cause of most change.”

As for his hometown, small cities like Roanoke must “engage with the rest of the world,” said Ed Walker.  The valley can benefit from a familial approach to problem solving in order to move ahead.  Bridge the gaps between different groups locally or “we are doomed to mediocrity.”

Walker also said that Roanoke and Blacksburg must learn to act as one locality, much like Seattle-Tacoma, Raleigh-Durham and Minneapolis-St. Paul, leaning on each other for particular strengths. He’s envious of a job creating engine like the Corporate Research Center on the Virginia Tech campus and hinted he may work on the same model here.  “We’ve got to be more connected,” Ed Walker insisted.

Expect both Walkers to be part of any movement to get more connected, to Blacksburg or communities elsewhere that are similar in size to Roanoke.

(The next Roanoke Forum presentation on Monday, May 14 at Fitzpatrick Hall features MSNBC’s JJ Ramberg, host of the Your Business program.)

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