Race For Roanoke City Council Heats Up

City Council candidate Joe Cobb.

Barring some last minute filing that forces a primary, three Democrats will vie for three open seats on Roanoke City Council this May: Joe Cobb, Djuna Osborne (a former candidate for the House of Delegates) and Colors Virginia Publisher Robert Jeffrey Jr. Two independents are running again for their seats on May 1 (Ray Ferris, Bill Bestpitch) and Dave Trinkle is not seeking a fourth term.

Cobb was pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge, flirted with a position in California and then decided to stay in Roanoke. He’s doing some community outreach work for Highland Elementary School and pursuing a doctorate, largely online. Cobb made his formal announcement in January at the Gainsboro Library. “I’m running because I love this city, I love how this city has welcomed me and given me the opportunity to really grow as a person – and live authentically.”

It’s well known that Cobb came out as a gay man more than a decade ago; he has now married his male partner and they are raising a family together. The church he pastored in southeast Roanoke was a welcoming refuge for the LGBT community in Roanoke.

“I want to pay that [welcoming] forward and because my life has been in public service, mostly in the non-profit and faith based worlds. Now I want to direct that towards city government.” Cobb has his own thoughts on how to get the different quadrants of the city to come together – witness the concern some in northwest have towards “outside” developers like John Garland (also a City Council member) coming into their neighborhood and buying property. People want to be heard in a safe space, says Cobb.

“The challenge becomes when somebody comes into a neighborhood and thinks they have the answer [but] never talks with anyone that lives there. It’s backwards. [I want] grassroots conversations.” Cobb feels City Council can take more of a leadership role in fostering that dialogue. Also at the top of his agenda is a concept called land banking, where Roanoke City could buy dilapidated properties and hold them for the right developer. “Cure the blight … then allowing investors in. If people that can see that type of immediate change, there’s an inspiration in that.”

Meanwhile a familiar face seeks a fourth term: Bill Bestpitch has served off and on since 2000 (including an 8 year hiatus). At one point he ran as a Democrat but he seeks the City Council seat again as an independent candidate in May. This may be his last term if reelected, but says, “never say never.” Bestpitch announced another bid with the slogan, “building together for the future.” The doubling in size of the Virginia Tech-Carilion Research Institute (the 67 million dollar construction project is underway) is a key to the future, says Bestpitch.

Bestpitch also notes that the 80 miles of fiber optic high speed internet lines installed by the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority are a plus as businesses sign up to move huge amounts of data. New sites for development near I-81, expansion downtown including AEP, Power School and Atlantic Credit and Finance (which is moving from Orange Avenue to 111 Franklin Road SW and will hire 100+ new employees) are indicative “of the lots of good things that are happening,” says the longtime councilman.

As for transmitting the gains made downtown to outlying neighborhoods, Bestpitch says more may have to be done to get the message out about the employment opportunities available.  For some of the positions coming available training but not a four year degree may be what some need to secure a living wage. “We need to make sure people understand that these opportunities are available to them.”

There are ways the city can help lift people up but Bestpitch says “there has to be some personal responsibility as well – to look for the opportunities for training and employment.” Bestpitch also points to improvements in city schools like higher graduation rates and storm water management projects well underway in neighborhoods – bolstered by a residential and commercial storm water management fee that will start being added to property tax bills in July.

Gene Marrano