Ramblings: Roanoke School Contractor on the Struggle Bus; Fishburn Park Cafe Advances; Final City Budget Unchanged

What are Ramblings? Ramblings are a collection of short items that have caught our attention for one reason or another.

What are Ramblings? Ramblings are a collection of short items that have caught our attention for one reason or another. We’re on the lookout for tidbits related to money in politics, data, business, civic engagement or interesting events. Think you know of something that could be a Rambling? Drop us a line at editor@roanokerambler.com and we may well write about it. Happy reading!

Durham School Services, which provides bus service for Roanoke City Public Schools, told board members Tuesday that it's not where it needs to be with staffing. ROANOKE RAMBLER FILE PHOTO

School board directs 'fury' at Durham

Roanoke school board leaders chastised the district’s bus contractor Tuesday over its continued struggle with hiring enough drivers.

Despite the need for 140 drivers, a report from Durham School Services showed 127 drivers with commercial licenses, less than staffing levels in February.

“They are certainly not where I had hoped to be,” John Elliott, a Durham executive, told board members. “They are certainly not where I had said that we would be during my last time presenting to you.”

A nationwide shortage in school bus drivers has plagued Roanoke’s district since the pandemic. Frustrated school leaders in December floated the possibility of terminating Durham’s contract.

Elliot said many of Durham’s half dozen drivers on temporary duty from Texas had to return home for “circumstances unforeseen.”

Board member Joyce Watkins expressed concern with plans to seek more out-of-state drivers.

“When you guys shared with us that you were bringing in drivers from other states, the first thing that entered most of our minds is, ‘What happens when these people go home?’” she said. “And that chicken has come home to roost, and it doesn't appear like you guys had a plan for that when it happened.”

Durham officials said they have held employee breakfasts; recruited at a local festival and job fair; and will soon distribute an employee survey to see what they need to do to retain drivers.

Watkins said she wants to hear more about what steps Durham has taken and less about what they’re planning to do.

School board chair Eli Jamison told Durham representatives that “studying a lot is not the same thing as studying smart,” and that they need to up their game.

“In February, the last thing I said to you is we have a trust problem. And exactly what was predicted to happen happened. We were told this would happen, you told us it would not and then it happened,” she said. “I’m having a hard time with a little bit of fury.”

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Roanoke planners approve sale for Fishburn Park cafe

A proposed coffee shop in Fishburn Park took another step closer to reality this week.

Roanoke’s planning commission unanimously approved the rezoning of 1.1 acres of parkland to allow for the business from residents Keri Kidd vanBlaricom and Justin vanBlaricom.

The city agreed in December to sell a dilapidated, 200-year-old cottage and surrounding land to the couple for $10 on the condition they invest at least $150,000 to restore the building. The commission approved a related request from the city to vacate the public’s right to the land.

City Council will take up the matter at its Monday meeting.

The deal has set off contention among residents in the Grandin Court neighborhood. Some residents oppose the sale of public land. Others say a coffee shop will be a welcome addition to the area that will salvage the long-neglected cottage.

“This is an excellent opportunity to save this structure,” said Dalton Baugess, a nearby resident, who ran for City Council last year.

“We’re doubtful that the vanBlaricoms will be successful,” said Owen McGuire, president of the Grandin Court Neighborhood Association.

When Sarah Glenn, planning commission chair, asked McGuire if he was speaking on behalf of the association or himself, several attendees in support of the project shouted, “Himself!”

Two weeks ago, the city’s citizen Parks and Recreation Advisory Board sent a letter to Council reiterating its opposition to the parkland sale.

“With a large percentage of businesses failing within the first year of operation, PRAB members are highly concerned about this site should the developer end up selling the property,” chair Jerome Stephens wrote. “The Board would also like to review documentation from the bank that states the additional parkland is required as collateral in order to receive their loan.”

The vanBlaricoms have said the 1.1 acres of land is needed to leverage a bank loan.

Justin vanBlaricom told The Rambler Monday that the sale needs to close before doing an assessment, which will determine how much the full renovation will cost. But he said 1.1 acres is needed so that there’s enough financing “to do the job correctly.”

In 2017, Lora Katz, an architect and former planning commissioner, agreed to buy the house and 0.75 acres for $10 but backed out a few months later citing high renovation costs.

Planning commissioners on Monday expressed enthusiasm for the project.

“I think it’s a fantastic partnership between the private sector and the public sector,” commissioner Frank Martin said.

Commissioner James Smith noted how the city has sold park buildings before, including one in Wasena Park that became The Green Goat Restaurant, which Smith called a successful project and great contribution to the city. The 2014 sale involved the building and about one acre for $2,000, according to city records.

Responding to some residents' concerns about financing for the Fishburn Park cafe project, Smith said, “It’s not our job to look at somebody’s business plan. It’s how they use the land.”

Council makes no change to proposed Roanoke budget

Roanoke City Council opted for no changes to a $355-million budget proposed last month by City Manager Bob Cowell.

The budget, covering July 1 through June 30, 2024, prioritizes employee pay increases, particularly for police officers and firefighters.

Last week, Cowell briefed Council on concerns residents raised at a public hearing about the budget. Those included the desire for more parking near River’s Edge Park South; extra urban forestry staffing; enhanced bus services; and more recreation and youth programming.

Several business owners at a facility near River’s Edge have lobbied Council for more parking. Cowell said the city embarked this week on a parking study for city parks.

The city will fund one tree care specialist but not two, Cowell said, because the urban forestry department already has three vacant positions.

Members of the Bus Riders of Roanoke Advocacy Group called on city leaders to fully fund the Valley Metro bus service.

Laura Hartman, the group’s founder, chastised city leaders at the budget hearing for inaction on a service called Metro Flex that will expand on-demand bus service from 8:45 p.m. to 12:45 a.m. on weekdays and on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“It’s been a year,” since Council announced the service, Hartman said on April 27. “I worry that contracting our transit to Valley Metro might be an excuse to avoid accountability.”

On Friday, Valley Metro issued a request for proposal for a company to provide Metro Flex. Bids are due June 9.

As for recreation and youth programming, Cowell said, the city has already committed more than $5 million in the upcoming budget. The city is not funding some department requests — including additional staff at the Eureka Park Recreation Center and Washington Park Pool — because those refurbished facilities likely won’t be ready until the next budget cycle, he said.

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