Roanoke City Council Candidate Nick Hagen on Shootings Downtown, Government Bloat, and Imposing a Marijuana Tax

Nick Hagen, a Republican, is one of nine candidates in the regular Roanoke City Council election Nov. 8, 2022.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CANDIDATE

In advance of the Nov. 8 election for Roanoke City Council, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with each of the 11 candidates.

This week, we feature three candidates — one Democrat, one Republican and one independent — running for a regular four-year term of office.

Voters will be able to choose no more than three candidates out of nine running. The candidates are Dalton Baugess, David Bowers, Joe Cobb, Nick Hagen, Jamaal Jackson, Maynard Keller, Vivian Sanchez-Jones, Preston Tyler and Peter Volosin. (Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire are running in a special election to fill a two-year Council seat.)

This week, we sit down with Hagen, a Republican, Cobb, a Democrat, and Jackson, an independent.

Hagen, 34, is an attorney focused on cannabis law and a property developer. He lives downtown, and this is his first run for elected office.

Candidates did not receive copies of the questions beforehand, and every interview was conducted either over the phone or in-person.

These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement among the widest possible audience. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Why should people elect you to serve on Roanoke City Council?

I'm a lifelong Roanoker. I feel like I understand the city. I'm an attorney here in town. The only time I've ever lived elsewhere was during law school and undergrad. So I feel like I've been able to learn and study our city just from, honestly, living here so long.

I see the issues that we've had over the last, you know, 18 years where, we have had basically one-party rule in Council without any sort of diversity of thought. And as a result, we started to see the outcomes of that. We've seen the increase in crime, we've seen businesses leave, and it feels like Council’s not taking the time to address them.

I got into this because literally from where we're sitting now, somebody got shot outside of here back in 2018. And, you know, obviously, I was angry because it's right across the street from City Hall, right? Like, if they’re unwilling to keep themselves and their people safe, like, what hope does the rest of the city have? So it got me thinking about this. When the Gun Violence [Prevention Commission] was announced, I was thrilled because I thought that that was going to be an opportunity and a real chance for change to actually address it. But when push came to shove in 2020 and we started seeing the money that came in and where that money was going and that sort of thing, it's the same story that we hear constantly. It seems that the organizations and people that are well-connected received that money. Like, to me, that's not how government should run. It should be an equal chance for everyone.

So that's a very long-winded way of saying what I'd be able to bring to the table. Like I said [at a candidate forum] about the points about me being a lawyer, you know, we need people who understand the way that governments and law function. You know, the last attorney I think we’ve had on Council was Ray Ferris, and that's been some time. So I think we would be better served, particularly in our interactions with a city manager and his role, I think we would be better served to have an attorney that will be able to help all of Council.

One problem on many residents’ minds is violent crime — particularly shootings and homicides — which have increased both in Roanoke and across the country in recent years. Have you personally been affected by violent crime while living in Roanoke?

Yes. So, like I said, the shooting is what got me into this initially. I’ve seen it even just living here, there was a shooting down here in the Salem [Avenue] parking garage less than three weeks ago. Literally less than two blocks away from where I sleep, on Elm Avenue there was a shooting. Like, this isn't something where it's like, ‘Oh, I live in Southwest [Roanoke],’ or something, where I don't see it. You know, I'm literally in the heart of downtown, where we see it on a daily and weekly basis.

Roanoke’s police department has significant vacancy issues, and every candidate has said the city needs to hire more officers. Last year, City Council approved compensation packages that the police department described as “one of the most significant pay increases for officers in several years,” and Police Chief Sam Roman said in an April Rambler interview that he is satisfied with the resources that Council has provided. Is there anything you would do on Council to try to hire more officers, particularly since higher pay alone has not led to a significant increase in officers?

So there's a couple of things that we can do. We can basically start recruiting, basically sending out people from the city that go to the local colleges around Virginia to basically be like, Hey, you know, you should consider living in Roanoke, for those individuals who want to start a career in law enforcement. I mean, I remember when I was in college, there were people who would show up from various cities and regions and towns. That's a way that we can actually help bring in those people.

The second way is obviously we need to talk about benefits. So right now we're not on the Virginia Retirement System. With that, you know, we don't offer the same benefits that our surrounding localities do. So we need basically to get on that. Because right now, let's say that you plan to do 10 years in the Roanoke City Police Department. And let's say that for whatever reason you decide to move to Salem. Well now your retirement is useless over there, because those 10 years don't transfer. Similarly, if you were in the Salem Police Department and wanted to move to the city, coming here, it’s the same thing. We need to have that so that way we can help address the issues that we've had with staffing.

It’s not just pay. Because [at a candidate debate], that was a nice little trick that [Democratic candidate] Peter [Volosin] tried to try to play with me with, like, ‘Oh, [Republicans are] just talking about pay.’ No, we’re talking about a commonsense, very robust system of actually addressing these issues that we're not getting. You know, they want to talk about community involvement — and that's important, I'm not disputing that — but they're putting all their eggs in one basket. We can't do that. We don't have the luxury of time or resources in order to do so.

What other options — besides increasing the police force — do you see as available to City Council for addressing the root causes of crime?

So obviously we can take a look at what has done well on the Gun Violence [Prevention Commission]. Again, it's that we're-putting-all-our-eggs-in-one-basket problem. That it feels like rather than spending this money effectively — like talking with local organizations, local groups that specifically deal with crime — they're trying to focus on things like mediation, which as an attorney who, you know, has obviously studied arbitration, mediation, mediation is a pseudo-legal proceeding.

Let’s say you have a contract dispute and have to go to mediation. Well, if I were the mediator, I would then basically hear you both out and make my decision, which you all would agree with, right? Now, I have not — not since I’ve been a teen — have I ever been shot at. I don’t think mediation is going to be helpful if you're getting shot at, right? To me, it's one of those things where it just seems like this aspirational goal without actually thinking about the ramifications of it. So I think that we need to allocate our resources into, obviously, police pay, because that's one of the things that actually has data that suggests that this does actually reduce crime. We need to work with our communities basically to help stop that cycle.

We need to push new businesses to come here because less people are willing to engage in criminal behavior if they have adequate pay and good jobs in our community. And the reality is, that now we're seeing all these jobs leave. And it's not just the pandemic. We've seen so many businesses leave. Sheetz is having to move because of the homeless. Days Inn is leaving. You have these businesses that are leaving Roanoke City because of the ineffectiveness and failed leadership of Council, in my opinion.

Did you say it hasn't been since you were a teen that you were shot at? Did I hear that right?

Yeah. It's a whole thing. Basically, I was seeing this girl and her father peppered my tailgate. Yeah, it was terrifying. It's one of those weird stories that's not— It was years ago.

What specific steps do you believe city government should take to address Roanoke’s history and legacy of racism, which includes city-sanctioned segregation, redlining, discrimination and urban renewal?

I'm in a very unique position in the sense that one of my great grandfathers was one of the only Lebanese people on Henry Street. We saw the issues with the segregation.

Hell, even now, you go down to the MLK bridge, right? It's a wooden bridge, and we're in the South. I walked over that bridge to get to the Gainsboro Block Party back in May. You know, I'm a bigger guy. I felt like I was going to fall through that wood that’s rotting there. Like, this is stuff where we can talk about very small things that will help, right? Like, even just ensuring that we take pride in our communities again. Ensuring that, you know, we address and listen to the communities that have been disproportionately affected.

Hell, I’m a cannabis attorney. Like, I talk about, you know, the War on Drugs, and how it has disproportionately affected various communities at the end of the day. We need to acknowledge that and we need to work to do better at the end of the day and try to make sure that everybody has a voice that can be heard. And that's kind of what I'm hoping to be. Can you repeat the question again? Because I feel I got a little off track.

What specific steps do you believe city government should take to address Roanoke’s history and legacy of racism, which includes city-sanctioned segregation, redlining, discrimination and urban renewal?

So one of the things I've talked about is in relation to Evans Spring. There's a very real possibility that it will probably be developed. If it does happen, we need to talk about those neighborhoods that will be affected by gentrification, because their property values will go up.

If there is some new development like a Trader Joe's, Topgolf, part of that is that we need to take a brief history of that, make sure that we freeze those property taxes. That can help build up that generational wealth. So if somebody wants to sell their home, they can and then the new owner would pay the new taxes, right? But if somebody wants to will their home to their child or to their heir, then the new heir would have to pay that. But they still gain the benefit of the increased property values because they could theoretically sell the property in order to pay for parts of that tax, or use other parts of the estate in order to address it. So that's what I like to see because it's important to me that our histories are being recorded, remembered.

Trauma does have a generational aspect. We need to address that. We need to make sure that those communities are heard. We need to work with community leaders to, a) preserve that history, b) to make sure that we're never going to repeat this.

You know, government gets money to address some societal problem, and then you know, tries to solve it, but then it doesn't seemingly stop. And so we have that cycle in there. You know, I'm reminded — blanking on the gentleman's name — but the guy who the federal government gave a ton of money around the turn of the last century to basically develop an airplane, right? [Editor's note: It was Samuel Langley.] A ton of money to this one guy, and then the Wright brothers come in, and they basically created an airplane out of spare bicycle parts. Sometimes that cycle is not helpful and you get people who want that to continue, that process of money. So that again is a very long-winded way of saying, you know, we need to address our history of racial issues.

On Council, how would you advocate for mitigating the impacts of climate change at the local level?

So one of the things I've recently talked about is about the plastic bag tax. You get five cents charged for every plastic bag. Well, do you happen to know where that tax goes? Sixty percent of that [goes to a fund used for environmental cleanup and education]. The other 40 percent stays with the stores.

The problem, though, with that is that might sound good for small businesses that need to ensure that they have a way to keep track of these plastic bags. But for the big stores, for Target, for Walmart, for Kroger, they can buy in bulk. So what you tend to see with these sorts of initiatives is that they’re able to buy like say, one cent for 10 plastic bags. So what have we done now? We've now literally subsidized plastic bag creation by this tax. For me, that's something which I think is short-sighted. I think that it's harmful and you know, as we've seen, plastic bags do have an impact on the environment.

On the local level, we need to obviously encourage people to utilize solar panels. We want to encourage people who are looking at new types of energy and to develop it. Because honestly energy production is one one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gasses and, as a result, climate change.

This is well beyond the paygrade of City Council, but I am well for taking a look at all forms of energy to help address issues of climate change. On the more local level, we can basically help encourage businesses that are more green, like I do. Like I said, I do cannabis law. So part of that, for some of my larger clients, what I advise them is to do carbon capture from air technology and invest in that because, a) there is obviously the environmental impacts that that's helpful, b) there's also the marketing aspect of it, where we can basically have those cannabis producers to claim that they are carbon negative. Not carbon neutral. Carbon negative.

These little feel good measures, the plastic bag tags, stuff like that. Those tend to be things that help us make us feel like we're doing something without actually really doing anything. As I just said, where's the incentive for the Kroger or Walmart to stop producing plastic bags? Yeah, there's not at this point.

It’s not like Nick Hagen’s the Republican, and therefore he hates the environment. No, there's ways of helping the environment where it does have that beneficial impact on our budget, on our ability to actually get things so get our government running efficiently.

Roanoke operates on a weak mayor form of government, meaning that much power and authority rests with the city manager, whom City Council hires and to whom City Council provides a vision and direction for the city. You said at a Council candidate forum in August that you do not support the current city manager, Bob Cowell. Why is that?

I think he's abusing his power. And specifically, I've heard from members of Council, from—  Well, I've heard from the community at large. The community at large does not have faith in our current city manager.

Everything from his issues that he's had with fire and safety pay and his basically calling our firefighters liars. And I'm paraphrasing, so I apologize in advance about that. But, you know, it remains that he did that in the press, right? Like, he needs to understand that, he can say whatever he wants. But, you know, when you start to insult the people who are bringing legitimate concerns to you, it doesn't really bode well, that they believe that you might actually be able to solve the problem.

Roanoke is holding a special election this year because of the felony convictions of former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr., who was found guilty in March of embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses. Even before the charges were announced, Jeffrey had a history — which was publicly available in court records — of not paying people. Do you have any history of financial mismanagement or impropriety?

No, I don't have any issues of financial mismanagement or impropriety. Honestly, if I did, I wouldn't be an attorney, because we have to report that to the [Virginia State] Bar. Because we have a fiduciary responsibility to our clients, the Bar doesn't like it to have attorneys that have histories of financial fraud or anything like that.

Second part. Have you ever been charged with a crime — including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

So, I do have some stuff that happened when I was a minor. A girl lied to me about how old she was and I let her drive my car. So I learned to follow-up with people and make sure that they are on the up and up. As for speeding tickets, I've had a few of those. I pulled up [this history] when I was thinking about all the things that could possibly come from…. Okay, the last time I had a speeding ticket was January 25, 2019 here in Roanoke County. Expired registration on my car in Salem City in 2017. Speeding ticket in Roanoke City in 2012. Speeding ticket in Roanoke County, also in 2012.

Have you ever ridden on Valley Metro?

Yes, but it's been awhile. Obviously, I have a car and so that's been helpful but in my youth I did. Predominantly before I had a driver's license, so we're talking about, like, Oh, my God, 19 years. Sorry. That just kind of hit me there.

What specific improvements do you think the city should make to its public transportation system, and by when should those changes be completed?

I would love to see them done as soon as possible. Realistically, it'll probably be a decade, but one of the things I want to see done is rather than having the centralized station out here, we should follow in larger cities’ footsteps where they have basically line systems and then they have them cross at certain stops. I'm most familiar with D.C. because I went to school at George Mason and lived on the silver line.

That should help with reducing travel time, reducing overcrowding, and actually addressing fuel usage because you know, these buses are not electric. They are gas powered, diesel machines. So we can help with fuel efficiency as well by doing that.

So an example I use when talking to people is that if you wanted to go from Towers Shopping Center to Tanglewood [Mall], you have to come downtown, right, which a) increases your travel time tremendously, and b) is super inefficient, if you think about where Towers is versus Tanglewood. You know, to me, it seems ridiculous that we wouldn't have already a system where you can have this overlay, over-crossing lines, instead of a centralized hub system.

One in every five Roanoke residents lives in poverty, and nearly half of all households make less than $45,000 annually, according to Census data. What can City Council do to reduce the city’s poverty rate and increase families’ wealth?

Help bring in more businesses. Work towards basically helping bring in new industry, help bolster the industry that we have currently. Make sure that we can address the derelict buildings that we've had, like if you go down Salem Avenue here, there's a bunch of old warehouses, which — I can talk about cannabis because that's what I'm thinking about right now — but it would be great for grow houses and repurposed for that, or even just any sort of development.

You know, we need new businesses to come here. Right now, the largest employer is Carilion. If Carilion tomorrow — and hopefully won't — but if tomorrow Carilion decided to be like, ‘We're done with Roanoke,’ the next largest employer is the City. So we need to basically start diversifying and make sure that we have new industries here. That should bring in new jobs, which will help address poverty, which will help basically, well, everybody.

The first time I ever heard about food deserts was [with regards to] Melrose, and it’s still a food desert after 17 years. If we encourage new businesses, grocery stores are part of that. I thought that if they wanted to actually do something better with the old Roanoke Times building, it would be great as a grocery store. Because we have obviously new property developments springing up downtown, and there's no place to get fresh produce apart from the farmers market on the weekends. And they have the parking for it and they obviously have the loading zones for it. But instead the school system decided to buy it.

It’s stuff like that where it seems like a certain majority on Council has been thinking about things in the past. And they're not looking towards the future for Roanoke, which is irony because I'm one of the Republicans running, so go figure that out. Like, Roanoke’s not going forward. We need to be going forward.

What's your philosophy on residential or commercial developments whose construction would involve reducing green space, such as clear cutting trees or eliminating parkland?

Roanoke’s green spaces are one of our big attractions throughout the valley. These green spaces are important. They bring in a lot of business. So generally when it comes to things that would harm our green spaces, harm those outdoor environments that we’re able to bring in new tourism and new businesses, that sort of thing, I'm generally against them.

Obviously, we need to have places for development. And that's one of the reasons why I restore historical buildings, because a) I think our history is obviously important, and b) it brings new life to these spaces which have been derelict for so long.

We have a lot of spaces that can be revamped and reutilized in Roanoke. And, you know, before we need to talk about eliminating our green spaces, we need to take a look at those and see what, if anything, we can work with developers, work with people wanting to enter the housing market, and work with them before we start tearing up our green spaces because our green spaces need to be preserved and utilized, you know, for future generations.

This question is unique to you. Your campaign platform talks about lowering taxes. What kinds of taxes specifically would you like Council to lower, by how much, and how would you balance the budget with the resulting decrease in revenues?

Okay, man. So first off, let's talk about personal property tax. I would love to have done what Roanoke County did [rebating before the tax bill went out].

We used to not have a meals tax in Roanoke City. When I’m talking around with restaurant owners, the meals tax was originally done, it was supposed to be only done for three years. I think we're now in the 10th year of it. I'm all about honesty in government. I want to basically make sure government is transparent. I want to make sure that we can address those. Let's see, other taxes in the city. Did you know that there's a tax on fortune telling? I wish I was kidding. It's in the ordinance. It is literally there.

Is that a big problem?

It’s not a big problem. I think taxes are. I’m just pointing out that there are things that the city has done in the past which we don't really need to continue to have. Shouldn’t we be looking at these things where government can be more efficient, and work for the benefit of everybody while still reducing the cost of those services? The property tax, obviously we’re freezing that.

As to address this deficit that my views presumably would cause, one of the things I want to have talked about heavily … once we get legalized, adult-use, over-21, recreational cannabis sales, the odds are there's going to be a tax and the tax would likely be allowed for a portion of the Commonwealth and then localities.

So one of my proposals to the General Assembly has been that you do a 10 percent sales tax for the Commonwealth and then up to 5 percent for the cities and localities. So how would that work? Well, let's say Roanoke City allows for dispensaries and we say Okay, we're going to allow the full 5 percent of the sales tax. Now, assuming we have the same number of dispensaries as we do ABC stores … we're looking at starting out about an annual increase in revenue of about $8 million [just for the city]. That goes a long way.

What are you reading currently?

Oh my god, I have like five books that I’m reading currently. So this one, From Seed to Success: [How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time by Ryan Douglas] basically talks about how to open a dispensary, to address the things that the author has learned about that.

I'm reading Misquoting Muhammad: [The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy by Jonathan A.C. Brown], which basically talks about — I was a religion studies major, so that makes a little bit more sense for that — the religious and philosophical questions that Islam has in the modern world.

I'm reading Chasing the Scream [by Johann Hari] which deals with the first and last days of the [War on Drugs]. It talks about drug policy, whether we can address those sorts of things. And then I’m going through the Children of Dune [by Frank Herbert] because I'm a nerd.

So I try to read the Bible at least once a year. That's been a thing for me ever since I was in undergrad. It helps me with my Catholic faith. I try to read at least a book a week, give or take, but with the campaign and my businesses it's been less than that as of late, unfortunately.