In advance of the June 21 Democratic primary for Roanoke City Council, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with each of the four candidates.
Councilman Joe Cobb, Terry McGuire, Councilwoman Vivian Sanchez-Jones and Peter Volosin are running as Democrats. The primary on June 21 — in which any registered voter can take part — will determine which three will go on to the Nov. 8 general election. The local Republican party has already picked their three candidates who will run in November: Dalton Baugess, Nick Hagen and Maynard Keller. Independents have until August to declare their candidacies.
The Rambler will be publishing interviews with the Republican and independent candidates as we get closer to the general election. In November, voters will pick three candidates for regular four-term terms and one candidate for a special two-year term to replace the seat vacated by former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. For now, these interviews focus on the competitive June primary.
This week, we sit down with Volosin about why he's running. (You can watch how we decided our publication lineup here!) Volosin, 36, works as a realtor with Lichtenstein Rowan Realtors. The Roanoke native ran for U.S. Congress in 2018 and Roanoke City Council in 2020. He lives in south Roanoke.
These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement to the widest possible audience. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running to serve on Roanoke City Council?
I'm running because I was working for the World Bank, doing economic development, poverty reduction, and I realized that the cities that I was working in had a lower poverty rate than Roanoke did. That's when I made a decision to come back to Roanoke and try and use my skills here to help reduce our poverty rate, which we have one in every five people. So 20 percent, here in Roanoke are under the poverty rate. That's my main impetus for running, is trying to reduce that poverty rate and make some economic change here in Roanoke.
If elected to City Council, what is the first ordinance you would seek to propose and why?
I think right now the most important thing is our gun violence. That prevents us from doing a lot of different things, whether it's trying to bring in a new business or even bring in a new family that wants to move to this area. So I don't think there's necessarily an ordinance exactly that's ready for me to go, but I think that the things that I want to work on with Chief [Sam] Roman and the police department is to make sure that we're able to retain and recruit police officers. Right now, we're like a half a squad. And then making sure we're doing more community policing, where they're walking the streets that they serve. And then putting mental health providers onto the force as well, to help out. Those are some some things that I think we need to start doing. We have a gun violence task force that is working on those root causes of gun violence, but we need to be doing more now. There's just seems to be a continuation of this violence that's continuing to happen, and we need to really stem that.
What are your top three priorities and why?
The gun violence is one, then No. 2 priority is economic development, making sure that we're getting better paying jobs in the area, we're supporting our small businesses. I want to make sure that Roanoke is competitive in the valley and in the state and in the world with getting talent to come and locate here and businesses to start to locate here. Right now, we're not even competitive in our own valley. Roanoke County has far more small businesses going to it. So we need to start working on how we can revitalize the economy here. Tourism, I think, is the natural thing for us, since we have such a beautiful setting. I think looking at new green jobs, you know, making solar panels, wind turbines, those types of things. There's a lot that we can be doing here in Roanoke, and I want to just start getting us on the right path when it comes to economic development. I've got a toss up between the environment and housing affordability at this point, because I think housing affordability is a really big issue right here in Roanoke. I work as a realtor. I see the rents going up, I see the prices going up. One of the things that we need to do is to start to create more units here in Roanoke. But at that same time, we need to make sure that we are putting in affordable housing and not, you know, what a developer thinks is affordable but what is actually federally affordable. Right now we have a two-year waitlist just to get housing vouchers. And when you've got a population where 20 percent of them live in poverty, we've got to make sure we have affordable housing that's available. So land banking is a big thing, inclusionary zoning is another thing I'd like to see us do. So I think that's probably my third priority, and then the environment is a close fourth.
What do you see as the most disappointing or frustrating action or inaction that City Council has taken recently?
I think the most disappointing action has been about taxes, specifically the personal property taxes. On average, car values went up 40 percent this year. When you have folks that live on fixed incomes, again, when you have 20 percent of your population in poverty, it becomes a decision between my groceries or my medication, and paying my taxes. So I would have liked to see the city council do a bit more when it came to tax relief, especially on the personal property tax, because that's one we can have a lot of manipulation on him. We know that that is a one-year thing. You know, it's not like, every year your car, your used car goes up 40 percent. If anything, it depreciates. This is the one time where it's gone up and instead of taking that at what it is, that it's a one-time thing, we need to be cognizant of what folks are feeling in their purses right now with inflation and also being on fixed incomes. That's, to me, the biggest thing I would have changed recently. If this was a thing that happened every year, we'd have to reevaluate it. But this is something that we know is happening because of the supply chain, we know it's happening because of a chip shortage, we know the reasons, and instead of us saying, 'Oh, well, let's just continue with this 40 percent increase on everybody,' we should have thought of a way to reduce that on folks. Because it kind of, it's the opposite of Robin Hood, you know.
Roanoke operates on a weak mayor form of government, meaning that much power and authority rests with the city manager, which City Council hires and to whom City Council provides a vision and direction for the city. What sort of vision would you bring to Council?
My vision for our city is one that is sustainable. And I know that's a buzzword, but there's three things that we need to work on, that if we get them in balance, it makes us a sustainable city. The first is the economy. I think we need to be nurturing our small businesses, again, making sure that we're bringing more jobs into this area, whether that's a large employer or a small employer. I always like to say Advance Auto, which was our last Fortune 500 company, did not move here. They started right here in Roanoke and created a wonderful company. Norfolk Western, yes, that started here, and joined with Norfolk Southern. So I think that there's a lot that we can be doing with the economy, whether that's tourism, whether that's getting big employers, we just need to be more competitive in that way.
The other thing is, we want to make sure that we're being equitable. We want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to succeed here in Roanoke and right now, that's hard to do. So I see better transportation, more services being in areas where they need it most. We have a lot of concentrations of poverty that are not near jobs, not near grocery stores. I mean, the majority of the city is actually a food desert. So we need to start working on those types of issues as well that make sure that everybody has access to opportunity, access to food, access to doctors.
And then the last part of that is the 'third E,' which is the environment. And that's where we need to start making investments. We have one of the best environments in the country, and that's why people come and see Roanoke, because they want to go hike and take in the natural beauty. Well, we've got to make sure that that's around as long as we can, and we have to do our part. So, you know, I'm thinking we need to start moving to renewable energy sources, solar panels on schools, public buildings, doing more of, actually, I think, renovating our parks, and then hopefully adding more parks when we get the opportunity to. Hybrid and electric vehicle fleets. We know how much it costs right now in gas. I don't think that's changing, and it's not going to change very short-term, but even in the long term, as we move away from hydrocarbons fueling vehicles, those prices are just going to continue to be high and it's better that we make the investment now in electric vehicles so that we can reduce what we're paying as a city when it comes to electricity and filling up the tank.
As you go around and talk with voters, what have been, a recurring topic or two that have come up that you found either unexpected or kind of a foremost concern on people's minds?
Well, I think it depends on which part of the city you're in. One that I found was unexpectedly on folks' mind still is the 0 Brandon Avenue development. And that was mainly in southwest, of course, where that area is. And then as you move into the northwest area, the No. 1 topic is gun violence, hands down. That is the biggest issue. And it's been really interesting to hear folks, and what they're saying on the doors as to you know, they're saying that it's younger folks, it's younger kids that are doing it, and how unsafe they feel. Even if it's not happening on their block, or within their blocks, they can hear it, and so they don't want to go out and walk. They're not as in touch with their community because of it, because they feel like they need to be inside. And I think that's been the most impactful thing that I've heard on the doors, is the stories about gun violence. Somebody's cousin dying, or somebody's friend dying, or, you know, 'Last night, there were gunshots over here.' Or, 'The other day, the park sounded like Beirut, because there was a bunch of guns going off.' And even one person said, 'This block that I live on, we call it Hell Block.' That's not what I want to hear in Roanoke. I don't want to hear that a block is called Hell Block because of so many guns going off at night. That's a not a great state for our city to be in right now. I think that's why gun violence is such an important part of this campaign, because every door I knock on, I hear that.
We're going to do a quick rapid response, where we'll list some specific issues that have prompted controversy or close votes that came before City Council recently. For each one, say whether you would have voted for or against the ordinance and say why in a sentence or two. The first one is the sidewalk homeless camping ordinance recently.
I understand why they voted to block people from being on the sidewalks. But the question is, what's the solution? Where can these people exist? And that's what I want to see City Council working on, is where can these people go? Because clearly the Rescue Mission is not working for them. I've seen places like Phoenix where they have a little park with many homes, tiny homes on them, and folks can live in that to get their feet under them. They've got social workers and police that are there to make sure everything is all right. That's my big issue with with the vote, is that if you're going to ban them from sidewalks and ban them from parks, we have to find a solution for where they can exist. And if you continue to ban them from everything, then they're just going to go into the neighborhoods, which is what they've done.
0 Brandon Avenue.
Multiple times I've gotten this question. I would have voted no based on what I've seen from both of the projects. I think there are some worries about the traffic and being able to turn left. I think if we can work that out, that will be a big step. I want to see more of a conservation easement, which was put forward in the 2017 plan, keeping that hill the way that it is. And then I think there was some talk about riparian buffers and making sure that there's enough space for those. I think we need to make sure that we're developing, because, like I said, part of the affordable housing crisis is that we're in a supply-and-demand issue right now. We have very little supply, we have a lot of demand. And so we need to be developing more in the city, but we need to make sure that those developments are beneficial to the community that hosts them.
The new bus station.
I would have voted no on the bus station. This is a no-brainer for me. As an urban planner, I focused in transportation. I really enjoy how transportation networks work, and one of the best things that we could have done was to put a multimodal transportation hub at the parking lot right next to the Amtrak. It's called the Lampros lot. I would have even use eminent domain to take that. We did a study. As a city we studied, what should we do for this? What is the best idea? And we went with a lot that, in the study, they said, 'We're not even going to suggest this. We don't think that this is a viable option.' But that's where we are now. I think we also could have looked at taking this opportunity with building a new bus station to look at the transportation network and see how we can maybe make it better. We use a hub and spoke system, which is what used to work in Roanoke because everybody was working downtown and everybody had to go back out after that. That's not the way things work anymore. People work from home, people work in all different parts of the city. We need to really look at our transportation system and say, what would be better for us to do? So I don't agree with the way that they've done the bus station.
And then the last one is the plastic bag fee.
I agree with the plastic fee. I lived in D.C. for 10 years. And you know, five cents is not a lot. But what it's doing is, it's behavior change. It's not really a tax that's supposed to make a lot of money, right? It's really to try and encourage people to move away from plastic bags. I'm happy to pay a five-cent fee for a paper bag at Kroger when I forget mine, or I have like 20 of them in my car. If anybody wants one, they can come and get one. But I think it's important that we move away from single-use plastics in general, so I think that the plastic bag tax is a necessary evil that we should be doing to just try and change the way people feel about this plastic that we feel is just disposable. But it has an effect as it goes down the stream and into the river and that affects tourism as you've got people kayaking down the Roanoke River and there's plastic bags everywhere. So the cost of those bags is way more than five cents in the long run.
We have a couple just kind of off-the-wall questions. If you were building or landmark in Roanoke, what would you be and why?
Well, I mean, I would love to say my dad's restaurant, Jimmy V's, but it's not really open anymore so I don't know if it's much of a landmark. I like the Jefferson Center because of its history and its rebirth. I think that's a great symbol of Roanoke and I think we're in a time where we can have a rebirth here in the city.
What books are currently on your nightstand or what are you reading at the moment?
I don't get much time to read. But if I have a book on the nightstand is normally about urban planning, but my favorite book is Jane Jacobs' The Life and Death of Great American Cities. And that's because Jane Jacobs was the person who came up with community-based revitalization of cities. She talks about the broken windows, though somebody else did the broken windows, it's eyes on the street. There's more safety on the street when there's more eyes on the street, so you want to build areas that are able to have eyes on the street 24/7, where there's people out at night, there's people during the day, and it creates a safer environment. So there's a lot that Jane Jacobs did, but that's my book.
Is there anything else that you think voters should know? Or anything else that you wanted to add in general?
I just want people to know that I really love this city. It's my hometown, and I want to see it thrive and do well. And I think we're on the cusp of being able to revitalize ourselves and, like I said, with the rebirth of the Jefferson Center, that's what Roanoke is right now. We've put in these things that we we needed, right, like the broadband. Those things that have been done, those infrastructure things are getting us closer to where we're able to finally flip on the switch and say, 'OK, businesses come here.' But we still have work to do when it comes to gun violence, when it comes to small business development, when it comes to even getting food in the city. And so if we're able to work on those things, make real forward motion, because I feel that we are getting a little stagnated right now, I think that's what I bring to the city council is more energy, new ideas and new ways to achieve those things that we all want, which is opportunity for everybody here in the city, and for our city to be growing and thriving and the way that we all feel it should. Everybody always talks about, 'Roanoke has so much potential.' I'm tired of hearing that. I want us to reach that potential. And that's why I'm running for City Council because I believe that we have it and I know that we can do it. We just have to get over that hump, get some more energy and get some new ideas on the city council, and I think that we can get there.
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