Roanoke City Council Candidate Peter Volosin on Diversifying the Economy, Urban Planning, and Building Green Infrastructure

Peter Volosin, a Democrat, 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 Volosin, a Democrat, Tyler, an independent, and Baugess, a Republican.

Volosin, 36, works as a real estate agent with Lichtenstein Rowan Realtors. The Roanoke native ran for U.S. Congress in 2018 and Roanoke City Council in 2020. He lives in the Clermont Heights area of South Roanoke.

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 think there's three characteristics that I have that I think are really good for serving on City Council. I have experience in urban planning and poverty reduction and economic development from my work as an urban planner. I've served the community as a leader. I’m the head of the Fair Housing Board of Roanoke. I'm also the president of the Roanoke Diversity Center. And then, I think I have a great vision for the future, and seeing what we can do to make things better here in Roanoke. Because I'm from Roanoke, I've seen it change since when I was a kid. I was born in 1986, so I’ve seen it through the ’90s and kind of when some of these big buildings downtown were made, and I've seen it grow. But then I've also seen it stagnate. So, having that is, I think, a great perspective to have when on City Council.

One problem on many residents’ minds, like you said, 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?

I mean, I haven't been a victim of a violent crime here in Roanoke. I've seen it from my home and called the police. I've also had somebody I know get shot and killed this past year. So while I personally haven't been a victim, I have seen it. It's come close to home.

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?

I think, you know, raising pay is a great way to try and get folks. I think if the police want to unionize, I think that's another way to get people that would come to the area. I think most people like to have a say in what their voices are and what their working environment is like. And I think that's something that we have to think about is, beyond just payment and compensation, how can we make our officers feel welcomed here in the city and feel like they’re community partners? So how can we make sure they're doing a lot of community policing? And also, how can we see what's going on in our current policing administration that might be preventing some things from happening, whether it's policies that we have in place or whatever. We need to get folks back onto our public safety forces, whether that's at the fire department or the police station. We've really got issues with hiring folks, we have to make sure we're more competitive, and we're providing a better workplace.

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

I think the Gun Violence Prevention [Commission] has done a lot of great work, figuring out what we can do for intervention and prevention. Those are the kind of long-term things that we need to do. And we're seeing funding. We saw the announcement just a couple of weeks ago, a half-a-million-dollar grant that we received. So those things are starting to click into place. You know, even with hiring a police officer, they don't get onto the street until probably nine months after they get hired, right? So we know this is going to be at least a somewhat long-term problem, several years, for us to get out of. And so those things are being implemented. I think, in the short term, we need to continue to build neighborhood watches.

I was at Noble Neighborhood Watch the other night, they had a great program. And they said there are other neighborhoods near them that are going to be doing neighborhood watches as well. So I think that's one way of doing it, is kind of, community taking back the streets. And I also think we need to provide more before- and after-school programs for our kids. I think one of the big things is that our kids in Roanoke don't have hope. I think from the last Census, it said the childhood poverty rate in Roanoke is 30 percent. So if you're not giving them hope, you're not giving them structure, you're not giving them the tools, the opportunities to succeed, you know, that's what happens. And so we need to make sure that we are providing more for our kids to do so that they can grow and have the opportunity to succeed.

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 think that's kind of one of Roanoke’s, you know, original sins. And I think it's, to this day, has helped create this poverty that we have, because when you take away people's homes, you take away their generational wealth. You take away their businesses, the same thing. It takes away their generational wealth, their family wealth, and that's where we have to realize that's what happened. And so now we need to start thinking about how we can help build up our minority communities that were affected by that, because they should be able to succeed the way that any other company has or family has here in Roanoke.

So, you know, I think that's helping out with homeownership. I think that's looking at grants for facade grants. I've seen other cities doing that, to help people fix up their homes, which are going to benefit all the properties around them as well. But we always have to look at things and say, ‘What does the community want?’ And so I think there needs to be some discussion with the community that was affected and say, ‘Hey, what can we do to help out?’ I think some of the things that I want to do to help reduce poverty, or some of the things that we should have done, you know, back in the day, which is make sure that we have services going to all these areas where we have concentrations of poverty. We built projects that are away from jobs and health care and education, you name it, grocery stores. So we have to make sure that we're bringing those services back to those folks so that they have all the tools they need to succeed.

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

I think there's a lot of things that we can do. I know that Commercial PACE financing just became a program. It's Property-Assessed Clean Energy. It's a way for companies to be able to put solar panels on their warehouses and stuff like that for a low rate. So I would make sure that we're getting that done here in Roanoke. I'd like to put in a green building code, start to work with developers and figure out how we can be building greener developments here in the city. I also think we should be doing a lot more of brownfield redevelopment, instead of using a lot of our city's green spaces, our few remaining green spaces that we have, to start looking at places like Norwich, and others that are industrial that, you know, might be better as residential, and start to build in those areas.

I think transportation is another thing that we have to look at, is how do we improve our transportation here in Roanoke so that everybody's not driving cars? How do we start to put in more electric charging stations for vehicles? There's a lot of funding that's coming to Virginia, about $100 million, that we should be trying to get a part of to put more electric charging stations here in the city. There's lots of different things that we can do. And, you know, I worked in sustainable design and that's one of the things that I think is really important for our city to make sure that we have a great Roanoke for future generations to enjoy.

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?

Yes, I was one of those people. I don't feel like it's necessary to comment on that. Bob has been employed and has done a good job with the city, but I have my own reasons why I think we should be trying to find somebody else.

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 do not.

And have you ever been charged with a crime — including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

I’m sure [you know] from The Roanoke Times article. I had a hot dog in the car charge. It was from when I was out at Mac and Bob’s meeting somebody very quickly. And I had my dog Rula in the car. She was fine, she’s right now laying on the couch opposite me. You know, sometimes we make mistakes, we do stupid things. It was an error of judgment. The dog was fine, the windows were down, there was water in the car. But, you know, it's one of the things I will absolutely never do again, for sure.

Of course, I've gotten speeding tickets. I say that nonchalantly, but I come from a family of lead foots. I'm fairly certain that I have one or two there somewhere along the line. You learn from those same things that I learned. Don't be an idiot. That's what my mom used to tell me. Don't be an idiot.

Have you ever ridden on Valley Metro? And what improvements do you think the city could make to its public transportation system?

So I'm going to have to tell you, I have been on Valley Metro once in my life, and it was when I was 10 years old. My mom taught me how to use the bus. And I haven't used it since and, you know, I don't think the routes have changed since.

When I'm doing urban planning, one of my favorite things is transportation. I actually did my master's thesis on a transportation system in Africa when I was living over there. And so it's really interesting to me. There's a couple things. I think we shouldn't have put the bus station where we did, but that's done already. So we have to then work with that. I'm happy to see the new traffic tracking apps where we can see where the buses are now and stuff like that. Those are great upgrades, and partly because of the new station, so it's wonderful that we're moving into the 21st century on some of the things. But our route map still hasn't changed. I think we need to rethink the way our route map works. You know, it used to be that everybody worked in downtown and that's where everybody was going, right? So that's why you have this hub in the middle. But that's not the case anymore. There's a lot of jobs in the Tanglewood area, there's a lot of jobs in the Valley View area, there's law jobs in Salem, and Vinton and the other places. So we have to use those as mini-hubs. I think that's a way to reduce the wait for each bus that gets there.

You know, the buses run only once an hour. I think it's great that we have the van service that’s going to be coming, but I also worry about how we're going to do with staffing. Right now, we're short on bus drivers, and I know that the bus union is negotiating their contracts, but they used to get paid less than the people cleaning the buses got paid, and they're the ones that are responsible for our lives and everything like that. I think there needs to be some fixes there. And bus stops themselves are just, you know, sometimes they’re just a sign on the side of the road. We need to make sure that they're accessible for folks, that they're not dangerous. We're getting more and more rain. It'd be nice to have shelters on as many of them as possible so that, you know, we don't get wet while we're waiting for the next bus in the next hour. So I think there's a lot that can be done with our transportation system. There's a lot of good momentum with the new bus station, and we should build on that and continue to see what we can do to improve the transportation 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?

So I think we talked about, you know, some of the things that we want to do about minorities, or minority neighborhoods. I think we talked about, gosh, we talked about a lot already. I think there are two main things that we have to keep in mind. One is economic development. We have a great partnership with Carilion and Virginia Tech. We're seeing great benefits from that, but not everybody in the city benefits from the hospital system, so we need to continue to diversify our economy here in Roanoke.

We have to look at our infrastructural advantages. I mean, we've got a highway, we've got trains and airplanes coming in and out of here. So what can we do with our logistics? What are the things that we can be looking at, as future economic drivers, like building solar panels, some of the manufacturing of green building equipment. And I think we look at Roanoke history, we built trains here. Well, now high-speed rail is coming up. We're seeing a lot of big investment in that. Maybe that's something we can try and bring here to the city. So we have to look at every different type of thing that we can to try and bring it here to the Roanoke Valley, and make sure that we're diversifying that economy. But at the same time, we have to make sure that we're giving our small businesses the help they need.

Small businesses keep their money here in the valley, and that's what continues to build our economy. So we need to make sure that we allow our small businesses to grow and make the policies and tax rates and everything like that easier for them to stay here in the area. So economic development is a huge part of how we're going to be able to reduce poverty, because people have to have good jobs. And that's how you gain wealth as well, right?

Then the other thing of this is that, I learned at the World Bank, poverty is a multi-dimensional animal. It's not just one thing that creates somebody impoverished. So you have to look at schools, you have to look at health care. And this is what we did when I was working at the World Bank. We looked at poverty pockets in the pilot cities we were working in, and we said, ‘OK, where's your infrastructure? Where's your hospitals, your parks, your education facilities, your water, your health care facilities?’ And we took all of those, and we located them on the map for the first time and we could see all these different patterns and say, ‘Hey, the best thing for you to do to reduce poverty in your city is to, when you're going to put it in a new hospital, put it here, or if you're going to put in water, put it over in this part of the city, because there's no water lines there.’ So, it makes it easier for us to make a strategic investment in where we're putting services so that we can help those communities that are most affected.

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

I assume in most construction, you're going to lose a few trees here and there. But I guess if it was clear-cutting — we're stripping a hill or doing something like that — I think that we have to try and preserve as much of the green space as we can here in Roanoke. That's why I think we need to be doing more brownfield redevelopment, and I think that means the city sometimes preparing land or using the land bank to take over some of these sites, and have them ready for developers to use. But, you know, I think we need to plant more trees in the city. If we can, when we're doing our land banking, we find some areas that we need to put some more parks in. I think that's another way of, you know, taking vacant land and turning it into more trees. I think, as much as possible, we don't reduce our parkland.

But I think with the green spaces, I know there's talk about Evans Spring, there’s talk about 0 Brandon [Avenue]. What we should be doing is trying to minimize the amount of space that— it depends on the lot of the land, right? So if it's in an area with a lot of infrastructure, you want to keep it as densely populated in sections so that you can keep other sections of it green, right? There's a lot of different things that we can do with policies. I think adding more green roofs on buildings is another great thing, and maybe incentivizing the way that developers keep more green space, maybe they get a tax break or something like that. I'm just thinking out loud here, but something to help incentivize keeping spaces green instead of just tearing down to build everything.

This question is unique to you. You mentioned your work as an urban planner and how that might translate to Council. But what specific work have you done as an urban planner, and what were some of the lessons that you learned that could help in Roanoke?

I think there's two main ones that I think really correlate with Roanoke. One is, I worked at the Urban Land Institute in their Building Healthy Places Initiative. I worked with Ed McMahon, who is actually one of the guys who came up with the greenway idea for Roanoke. And that initiative was looking at different Main Street corridors that had seen better times, I would say kind of like Williamson Road, and how to take corridors like that and turn them into areas that are healthier for people. So they have more trees for shade, more benches, more sidewalks for people to walk on and make it a more walkable community and slow down the traffic so that there's less traffic incidents and deaths. So that's one of the things, when we talk about Williamson Road and the future of Williamson Road, that's what I think of, is how can we make that area into more of a neighborhood than it is now? So just looking at things through that lens is a real benefit on City Council.

And then I think my work at the World Bank, like I talked about before, with poverty reduction, that's a whole different side of urban planning that I think we don't really think about too much here in the United States, is how do we reduce poverty through planning? And, you know, I'm sure there are plenty of great people that are doing that. But it's something that I was able to do firsthand and say, ‘Oh, wow, look at the things that we can do, just by getting data from our different government agencies.’ And one of the things that was really fun about that World Bank work was one of my jobs was to go around and ask the department heads of every local government what data they had. Like, we go to solid waste and say, ‘Hey, like, what information do you have? Do you have anything on an Excel file, even written down?’ so that we could put all that information into one spot. And we called it a geo portal.

One of the cities I was working with was Semarang [in Indonesia]. So if I worked in the health department, and I wanted to see information about air pollution, I could find it there in that geo portal without having to go to another agency and ask them for the data and all that. And that openness and transparency allows for the city to function in a better way, a more efficient way. And so that's one of the things that I really hope to bring to Roanoke, is making us a smarter city when it comes to looking at the data to say, ‘OK, well, is this working? Is it not? If not, then, you know, how can we fix it?’ Or maybe we just do something different. Using the scientific method kind of, with city policy.

What are you reading currently?

My iPhone. I normally read the news. I read the news before I go to bed and when I wake up to see what’s going on. So I read The Washington Post, The Roanoke Times, The Rambler, Cardinal News, and I do CNN just to see what the headlines are.