WRABA Chief Now Pulling Double Duty

WRABA President and Fincastle Town Council Member Wendy Jones.

by Anita Firebaugh

Wendy J. Jones doesn’t stand still … she has too much to do. The scrappy Fincastle resident has long been known as an executive with the Williamson Road Area Business Association, Inc. (WRABA), a tax-supported endeavor that works to improve Roanoke’s main thoroughfare. Now she has taken on an additional challenge, as a member of Fincastle’s Town Council.

“I’m the advocate for the businesses in this area of the city,” Jones explained of her WRABA role. She fights to ensure that the needs of businesses are front and center when Roanoke City is contemplating change that might affect the Williamson Road area.

“If she’s got something in her sights, don’t get in front of her, because she’s a go-getter,” John Leftwich, owner of Ivy Realty and President of the WRABA, laughingly said of his friend of 10 years.

Jones has been involved with WRABA for 15 years and has served in every position on the organization’s Board of Directors. She was the first female president and the first group president to serve back-to-back terms. She has been Executive Director for three years.

WRABA began over 30 years ago when the area declined as traffic patterns changed due to the completion of Interstate 581. Jones compares Williamson Road to Route 66, a once well-known highway that ran from Chicago to California. Like that road, Williamson Road reached its heyday in the 1950s and 60s and then fell into a reputation that had it being known more for some bawdy establishments than for business. But the Williamson Road area has made a nice comeback.

Business owners in the 1980s worked with Roanoke City to create a special district designation that allowed the city to charge a special tax in order to create WRABA. Landowners pay an additional 1/10th of a percent of real estate value to fund the organization. Active participants also pay annual dues to cover meeting expenses.

A generation later, the Williamson Road area is a destination point that offers a small-town flavor for residents. Within a five-mile stretch, people can find services such as real estate sales, beauty shops, automotive repair, grocery stores, and restaurants. “You can go to the park and play with the kids, and feel safe about it,” Jones pointed out. The crime rate has dropped 40 percent in the last 10 years.

WRABA sponsors Star City Motor Madness, which brings 25,000 people to Williamson Road for a weekend of car fun. The group also sponsors the Greek Festival, the Roanoke Valley Wine Festival and Fiddle Fest, all of which occur within the WRABA special service district.

Additionally, the organization sponsors quarterly clean-ups of the area and has officially adopted Williamson Road. “The voluntary trash pick-ups have led to more pride in the area,”  Jones said.

The organization also adopts several children from local schools and provides gifts and necessities during the holidays. In her hometown of Fincastle, Jones runs a similar event, called Operation Christmas Cheer, to help those less fortunate.

WRABA is responsible for placing vertical banners on poles in the area and has a traversing banner near 10th street that advertises special events. Jones works closely with Roanoke City at all levels, including the police and fire departments and city planning. “Our goal is not to keep legitimate businesses out,” she said, but to bring businesses into the community.

Keeping membership up and attracting business to the area is Jones’ primary challenge each year. She excels at helping existing members with problems and in recruitment. “She has extremely good skills as far as staying on top of situations and not letting anything get out of hand,” Leftwich said.

The organization’s active membership exceeded 100 members last year for the first time ever, and Leftwich credited Jones with that increase. “A lot of that was due to her personal visits to everybody on the road,” he explained.

Some of the problems Jones has helped solve include the placement of medians in the middle of Williamson Road, which she studied to ensure appropriate access for businesses, helping with sign permits, water issues, and storm water drainage. The latter has been a thorn for over 20 years, when extensive work on the storm water drains in the area last took place – but was not enough to resolve the problem. Jones continues to pressure the city for resolution.

A recent coup was the revamping of the old Roma Restaurant into O’Reilly Auto Parts, Jones said. She was happy to see that new business come into the area. The announcement of the closing of the Williamson Road Post Office has been a blow. “No one warned us it was coming down,” she said of the closure.

Jones is concerned not only about businesses, which now must spend time taking mail to a post office miles away, but also about elderly or handicapped residents who must find another way to get their stamps and packages.

In Fincastle, Jones worked with the town’s sidewalk committee prior to running for office in 2010 and she is focusing on a new sidewalk project, one of the town’s most ambitious undertakings in many years. Construction on the sidewalks should begin in 2012 if not earlier.

As if these ventures were not enough, Jones also runs a bookkeeping business from her home – and operates a chapel. In 2005 Jones and her husband Bob purchased the former Fincastle Baptist Church structure and moved in. She has remodeled it in part for a living space, but the chapel remains and can be rented for weddings.

In her spare time, what there is of it, Jones likes to fly airplanes; she is also very proud of her two children and a stepchild. Her son served in Iraq and is currently studying law at the University of Virginia through the JAG program. Don’t expect Wendy Jones to be standing still for long – at least any time soon.