Who Are the Democratic Candidates for Roanoke City Council? We Asked Them 4 Questions.

Following Jamaal Jackson’s sudden departure from the City Council race, we introduce you to Democratic candidates Terry McGuire, Phazhon Nash and Benjamin Woods.

We sit down with presumptive Democratic nominees for Roanoke City Council, Terry McGuire, Phazhon Nash and Benjamin Woods. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE CANDIDATES

Update: As we reported June 12, Jamaal Jackson has not given formal withdrawal notice to elections officials, so he remains a contender.

In advance of a June 18 primary to determine the Democratic Party's candidates for Roanoke City Council, we intended to publish interviews with the four candidates vying for three seats.

Following Jamaal Jackson’s sudden departure from the race, we have decided to introduce voters to the three remaining candidates and likely Democratic nominees. We sit down with candidates Terry McGuire, Phazhon Nash and Benjamin Woods to ask burning questions about Roanoke’s present and future, touching on issues related to economic development, housing, crime and more.

We will run additional in-depth interviews with the candidates, including Republicans Nick Hagen and Jim Garrett, as well as any independent candidates who jump in the race, ahead of the Nov. 5 general election. We will also feature interviews with candidates for mayor — currently Vice Mayor Joe Cobb, Councilwoman Stephanie Moon Reynolds and former mayor David Bowers — later this year.

McGuire, a 41-year-old Franklin County native who lives in Old Southwest, is working to become a public school teacher, following a career as an environmental lobbyist. Nash, a 24-year-old Roanoke native who lives in Fairland, works at Carilion Clinic as an operations consultant. Woods, a 32-year-old Montgomery County native who lives in Raleigh Court, works as a consultant, currently on renewable energy projects.

Candidates’ answers have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Aside from a post-pandemic bump, Roanoke’s economic and population growth has remained fairly stagnant over recent years. What’s your approach to boosting the city’s economy? Where do you stand on the city’s development plan for Evans Spring?

MCGUIRE: Economic development, in my view, is connected to sort of a community's overall health and quality of life. In Roanoke, a lot of us have a really high quality of life — I would put myself into that category — access to nice parks, libraries, arts, safe neighborhoods, walkable neighborhoods. A lot of the work that we have is to sort of preserve and enhance that where it exists, and then to expand that out. Our goal should be that everyone in Roanoke has a high quality of life. So my first priority is for the people who live here, right now; they pay taxes, they have expectations, and they deserve functioning city government. I'm a huge supporter of the outdoor recreation economy, diversifying our local economy. I think it's fantastic the influx of jobs that Carilion has brought. I think, too, we have to have a vision for where do we want to go? Too often in Roanoke, we've been reactive, or just lacking in imagination and vision, and often kind of looking around of like, well, ‘How can we be more like, fill in the blank,’ or, ‘We want to be like Asheville.’ I think we could be the renewable energy capital of the South or of the country but we have to talk about that. … [On Evans Spring], I think it was a bad idea. I don’t support the plan that Council passed. I would much prefer that we redevelop and reinvigorate the Valley View area.

NASH: A lot of people focus on ‘boost the economy, boost the economy.’ But I like to look at it as what are ways we can have sustainable growth of our economy. And the biggest way to do that, in my opinion, is we’ve got to get more people living in our city. You can't grow if your base is leaving the city, whether it’s parents wanting their child to have better education, whether it’s young people my age, who are like, ‘I grew up in Roanoke, it's boring,’ I don't want to live there, I'm going to Charlotte, I'm going to Richmond, I'm going to Northern Virginia, or I'm going to a completely different state. We have to make Roanoke an appealing place for families and young individuals to want to put their roots and spend the rest of their life here. When we have that we can focus on what are the businesses that are going to attract them? What are the amenities they want? A lot of people like to focus on tourist attractions, what are things that are going to bring people to our city. I want to focus on things that are going to keep people in our city, because tourists come and go; our citizens are here to stay. … Tying into Evans Spring, I’m not one of these, ‘In order to improve our business we need to do massive development.’ Most of the time that doesn’t work. To develop all of that last space of greenery that we have in our city, really, to develop that for commercial reasons, I just can never get behind that.

WOODS: City leaders have talked for decades now about trying to create a tourist engine to generate at least sales in the downtown district. I think that the approach to communications and marketing in the city needs to be completely revamped and modernized. I think that they need to do whatever they can to have downtown parking available and cheap. That's a huge barrier to people patronizing businesses down here. And then what I think of long-term growth, you know, Carilion has been a blessing to the city. What we need to do is to work with whoever it is to create kind of like startup engines for the research that’s coming out of that biotech research and Carilion and the Virginia Tech school. That they have the opportunity, the space and the infrastructure to build it here, rather than having to go to the Research Triangle or Northern Virginia to build it. … [On Evans Spring], I did not like the plan that they adopted. There's enough immediate pushback in that area of saying that they did not want a big box store, you know, they didn't want a Costco, they didn't want a Topgolf. I understand that because you don't want your backyard to be somebody else's playground, because that's what it would have been. My view at the end of the day is I don't want the city to spend money on that development.

What would you do on Council to bring about truly affordable housing? What is your position on recently enacted zoning changes meant to spur housing development?

MCGUIRE: How are you all defining affordable housing, because that’s the big question, right? Affordable to whom? There is a lot that we can do to address this, and I think we also have to be honest with ourselves and our community and our constituents. There's a housing crisis at the national level. We have a huge amount of housing that is sitting empty. So that's one thing is how do we crack down on this kind of bad landlord behavior, I guess. Another is redevelopment. I believe we have a big opportunity; we could be doing more. I want to look at how do we redevelop Valley View, Crossroads, different corridors around our city, Franklin Road, Melrose, where we have tracts of land that are either vacant, or we have existing commercial or industrial that's vacant or underutilized. … [On zoning], we're going to have to see what happens with the citizen lawsuit. I had some major concerns with the zoning package, not the intent, because I think there's a lot of good stuff in there. I would have wanted to see concurrently put forward a plan to address and improve our code enforcement.

NASH: I think affordable housing is critical. You know, when you're looking at that younger demographic of people that we want to really stay in our city, some of the medical students, for an example, they don't make much money. And so affordable housing is crucial. And I think the best way we can do that is to really, really, really work on our inclusionary zoning. And to really put something down on paper, where we mandate developers that come in the future, to have to base a certain percentage of it, a housing development or an apartment building that's built, [for example] 30 percent of that be affordable housing. I think another avenue that we need to really invest in is the land bank, putting more money into that. … [On zoning], I overall support it. I know there are issues, code enforcement, for example, parking, that citizens are concerned about, and those are all valid. And Council needs to now start making the proper plans to be able to, you know, reduce the impacts that could come from this.

WOODS: I don't think that the zoning changes are going to do anything but piss off people that bought houses in the neighborhoods they live in. Within the next six to 10 years, they only projected another 80 units be built in the city and that doesn't even scratch the surface of the actual need, which is in the thousands of units. I don't like the rezoning law. I would roll that back. On the other end of affordable housing, we need to get creative on all these commercial buildings that people are never going to come back into. To try to get apartments or condos built down here in the downtown district. I think if you lower the [property tax] rate, then that will help with immediate costs to people. And expanding the supply, it just means that — people don't like it — but you're going to have to talk with developers and people that are actually going to build these structures in these vacant parking lots, whether it's downtown or off Williamson Road or Franklin Road.

What should city government do differently, if anything, when it comes to addressing crime, and gun violence in particular?

MCGUIRE: These are state and federal issues in a lot of ways because a big part of the problem is guns, gun violence. What do we do about that at the local level? We have a problem with guns, unrestricted and easy access to guns. There are things that we're doing at the local level that I want to encourage [like the gun lock program]. I'm most focused on what are the long term solutions, right, and how can we chip away at that? That’s tough. You’re talking about breaking cycles of poverty. One of my top priorities is more after-school programming and youth recreation, creating those opportunities for kids that gets them kind of off that wrong path that some of them may be on or may be vulnerable to falling onto. The urban heat issue, there is really good data showing that there are connections to urban heat and tree cover and access to green space, and crime rates and juvenile crime and mental health generally. After-school programming, youth recreation, connected to literacy, strong schools, and what are the things that we can do for parents, young parents, parents that may not have all of the skills for whatever reason to be the best parents.

NASH: Every decision we make related to gun violence should purely be in an effort to reduce the deaths that we've been experiencing here recently from gun violence. So I would like to see us invest in real practical interventions that have been proven and done elsewhere and I'm not talking about you know, We'll just copy and paste, right? We know that doesn't work. Roanoke has its own mentality. But some of the things we've done in the past, you know, citizens laugh at that, you know, talent shows, whatever it is. But we talk about getting to the root of the causes, we need to focus on the mental health of our youth, we need to teach them conflict resolution, we need to go into the schools and specifically target children [with high rates of trauma]. So we really need to focus on the mental health of our students, we need to focus on not letting them slip through the cracks, more after-school programming, more things that keep them off the streets, and putting resources into places where we know our kids like to go. When City Council tried to do a curfew, a year ago at this point, I spoke out strongly against that.

WOODS: I think that they made a right step in bringing in the current police chief. The rhetoric around it is just gun violence that City Council itself cannot control. Like, you're not going to be able to control it, as a city councilor. It's a nationwide issue. I do like that they're starting to think, and they've applied some resources, in long-term prevention, gun prevention, after-school programs, and stuff like that to keep people engaged. Honestly, kids just trying to make money is what it usually boils down to because they’re tired of being broke. So taking some of those after-school programs, long-term, deflection measures that they've started to do, I think coupled with making sure that our police department is also staffed. It hasn't been fully staffed in I don't know how long, make sure that they're paid well that we can retain. Because if you don't pay them well then they're going to leave and you want well paid officers to be able to be able to build relationships in the community.

Roanoke has a city manager-form of government, where the manager is responsible for the city’s day-to-day operations. After City Manager Bob Cowell’s resignation, the current Council is likely to appoint a permanent successor. Do you agree with this decision? What qualities do you think Roanoke’s next city manager should possess?

MCGUIRE: So we're going to have at least three new members of Council next year. And we may have another depending on the mayoral outcome. We’re going to have a temporary interim placeholder for [Luke Priddy’s] seat. So I believe that Council should appoint an interim city manager in a nine- to 12-month capacity with the option to remain on if it's a good fit. ... Two of the most important qualities or characteristics that we should look for in our next city manager, I think first and foremost, is an understanding of what community engagement looks like, and a commitment to that. I don't think we do a good enough job of meaningful community engagement in Roanoke. And secondly, I think it's really important that we have someone that has imagination and a vision for where do we want to go? City Council's job is to provide policy direction and guidance to the city manager, and then the city manager's job is to execute. So it's a collaborative relationship.

NASH: I would not like to see the current Council appoint anyone. You know, there’s going to be someone appointed to Luke Priddy’s seat. And so I just don't necessarily agree with an appointed Council member, two outgoing Council members, being the ones that make a decision on a role that is, you know, really the quarterback our city. … The qualities that I would like to see in someone that first of all, has a good reputation. Someone that's young in the sense of, they're going to bring new energizing thoughts, creative ideas, they have a real fire and a real passion to be able to come into our city and enact real change. A city manager that has experience with good public engagement and community engagement and community collaboration. I would like to see this person be a person of color, potentially a woman. And that's not to say that I want to exclude a perfect candidate because they might not be a person of color or a woman. But if we can find that perfect candidate and they are a person of color or they are a woman, I would love, love, love to see that diversity put into that position. Also a person that has a good track record of financial stability.

WOODS: They should wait. It's their responsibility to steward the city government until it is turned over to a new generation, which is going to happen, just looking at the age of people running, regardless of party, compared to who's there who's leaving now. … I think that they need to look for someone who, for one, is going to create a healthy working environment for city employees. We need to make sure that the city employees are taken care of and not being taken advantage of whenever they're going to work. So I think being a good and experienced manager of people is the biggest thing that we need, because that's their first job, is to manage the staff members of the city. I would like to see somebody, a candidate come forward, that, you know, that has a wide range and diverse viewpoints of how to grow a stagnant place and that has a vision that can work with the Council to do that.

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