New City Manager Takes The Reins

Robert S. Cowell, Jr. will be Roanoke’s new City Manager.

After a search process that began in early spring, the replacement for City Manager Chris Morrill has been selected and goes to work in September. Bob Cowell Jr. has 20-plus years of experience in community planning and was most recently the Deputy City Manager in Amarillo, Texas.

Roanoke City Councilman Dave Trinkle chaired the personnel committee that worked with an outside search firm and took input from residents on what they wanted to see in Morrill’s successor. “It was a very engaged process,” said Trinkle during a late August Council meeting when Cowell made an appearance and gave brief remarks.

More than 80 candidates were whittled down to the final 7 that were interviewed. Trinkle said Cowell demonstrated a broad range of experience, “from planning, to neighborhood revitalization, and economic development. He is described by many as the go-to guy for information and awareness … in Amarillo.”

Cowell earned a B.S. from St. Louis (MO) University and an M.S. in Urban Planning from the University of Tennessee.

Amarillo is larger than Roanoke and has a larger annual budget. Downtown revitalization, transit plans and enterprise zones were some of the projects Cowell was involved with. He was also a visiting professor at Texas Tech and Trinkle said Cowell hopes to fit in some teaching in Roanoke as well.

Vice Mayor Anita Price said Cowell’s resume made the task of finding a new city manager “not too difficult to fulfill.” Price said she was impressed that Cowell was already able to zero in on some of the issues Roanoke City deals with on a regular basis.

John Garland called Cowell “a really nice guy” and “the smartest person in the room.” Like Price, Garland noted how much research Cowell had done on Roanoke before the interview process. “I can’t wait to get you on board to solve some of those problems that we do have,” said Garland.

“You get it. At least that’s the impression that all of us have,” said councilman Ray Ferris. “As much as we loved him, we were not looking for a Chris Morrill clone – we were looking for someone who could put his or her own stamp on the city manager’s office, and help us move this city forward.”

Michelle Dykstra said she was impressed by Cowell’s “ability to stay calm under pressure” during the interview process. Bill Bespitch noted that Cowell turned down another potential opportunity because he wanted the Roanoke job. Bestpitch also said Cowell has already crafted a first 100 day plan. Mayor Sherman Lea was struck by Cowell’s “ethics and your honesty. That’s very important. We’re delighted to have you here.”

Cowell, who will meet the public at a reception in early September, spoke briefly at the August council meeting and said he was “thrilled with the opportunity. I’m very excited about being here and following in what Chris [Morrill] set as a foundation. You really have a lot of momentum going.”

Cowell said he wants to keep the positive things presently in place moving in the right direction while they work on what needs to be fixed. He added that he felt a connection to City Council the first time they met him collectively during the interview process, as they each identified themselves and talked about their own backgrounds.

Gene Marrano