Festival of Ideas Captures Imagination of Many at (X)Po

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Attendees network during a break at the CityWorks (X)Po.
Attendees network during a break at the CityWorks (X)Po.

by Gene Marrano

Put a bunch of very creative people in one room for three days, with wildly diverse backgrounds, from all over the country, and see what happens, what ideas bubble to the surface. That was the concept behind Ed Walker’s CityWorks (X)Po, held last week at the new Charter Hall atop the refurbished City Market building.  Developer and CityWorks founder Ed Walker masterminded the event, which aligned itself with something called the Small Cities Movement.

Focused on big ideas for small towns of 100,000  or less, those in attendance got to hear from a variety of speakers, several locally-based but most from outside of the valley. Organizers hoped to attract 350 to the three-day conference- but almost 500 signed up and they ran out of programs.

Speakers ran the gamut from local food advocates to poets (Tech’s Nikki Giovanni),  from downtown planning experts like Kennedy Smith to hip-hop musician Toni Blackmon.  There were authors, environmental advocates, filmmakers, government workers (including Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill), entrepreneurs, architects and storytellers.

Documentary  maker Susan Brecker was extolling the benefits of film festivals in small cities. Her late husband Michael Brecker, the jazz musician, fell ill to leukemia, the subject of her film. The New Yorker spoke at the  (X)Po. “I believe film festivals can energize small cities,” said Brecker during a break in the conference. “It can bring people together through entertainment. I really believe film festivals are a wonderful way to add cohesion.”

Ernie Zulia, head of the theater department at Hollins University “and a huge fan of my hometown,” said he was using CityWorks (X)Po “as an opportunity to  charge my batteries.  This is one of the most inspiring days I’ve had in years. It feeds and generates more ideas. You’ve got to appreciate the smaller connections that are powerful and generate a lot of community development. It’s all about collaborating and exchanging ideas.”

“The energy  is really starting to be infectious,” said Sharon Rappaport, who runs the creative firm The Farm out of Roanoke and New York City with her husband. She volunteered for CityWorks (X)Po, helping to keep things organized and on track.  Rappaport said she was “really energized” by what she had heard.

Former Roanoke City Councilmember Rupert Cutler said the Star City can now compare itself favorably to small urban hotspots like Asheville and Boulder, CO. “We’re right up there,” he claimed.  He enjoyed listening to Kathryn  Walker – Ed Walker’s wife – talk about  the “Must See TV” performance art event several years ago, which led to an arrest outside the City Market building, “and how we learned from that.”

Cutler also took note of a speaker from Portland, OR, describing how that city has added more bicycle lanes in order to become more pedestrian friendly. “We need to do that,” said Cutler. Roanoke Regional Partnership director Pete Eshelman said the movement started in Portland  made  him see that “the potential of what cycling can mean to Roanoke, not  only for health, but for economic vitality. That’s what I’ve walked away with so far.”

Event  Zone executive director Larry Landolt  called it an “emotional day. My head spins in terms of ideas.” He saw some concepts and themes that could be folded into Festival in the Park. “The biggest thing for me is that it’s collaborative. It’s all about reaching out.” Landolt was impressed by the creativity of Roanokers he had never met before.

Sean Luther, executive director for Downtown Roanoke Inc., said several staff members were attending the (X)Po. “I think it’s a really good opportunity for those of us from Roanoke, to stop and see what we’re doing, and realize that we’re a leader in a lot of things.”

Visual artist Katherine Devine was excited to see so much creativity and visualizing involved in the process at CityWorks (X)Po, and in other cities. “Creativity is behind everything  –  looking at how we live, how we drive, how we eat, how we choose to live creatively.”

Kennedy Smith, who helped revitalize downtown Charlottesville, talked about the decline of downtown centers in the 50’s and 60s, as the automobile,  credit cards, air conditioning and suburban malls  led to several decades of decay. “All of these things together took their tolls on downtown,” noted Smith. Roanoke has been through that and is on the upswing.  CityWorks (X)Po may just be another step in that process.