Chris Morrill’s first year in Roanoke: a reminder of what might have been

There’s a great piece in the Roanoke Times about their current city manager — and our former assistant one — Chris Morrill: “New Roanoke city manager keeps a low profile”.

Given the recent turmoil in Savannah over the city manager search, the article is almost sad to read. There seems little doubt that if Morrill had stuck it out in Savannah a little longer, or if Michael Brown — who considered other positions during his final years here — had left sooner, then Morrill would be Savannah’s city manager. (I’m sure some are reading this and assuming that the black majority on city council would have pushed for a black candidate, but I’m certain that would not have happened. Morrill was too well respected by too many aldermen and by too many people in the community; I bet he would have been offered the top spot without a search and I doubt there would have been any serious complaints.)

While the piece is peppered with phrases like “the jury is still out,” it’s obvious that influential citizens from across Roanoke are impressed with Morrill and his quiet, consensus-building approach. He’s a listener.

I’m most struck I think by how different Morrill’s approach feels from the approach of the city manager’s office in which he worked here in Savannah. I hear people complain all the time about our elected leadership, but it was the city manager’s office in Savannah that proposed and implemented increasingly complex bureaucracies that had the effect of stifling business and frustrating law-abiding citizens. I’ve written about example after example of that trend over the years — from the wristbands and gates on St. Patrick’s Day (now being discontinued after several years of wasting resources) to the relentlessness of new regulations on bars, from the unfriendliness to street commerce, which manifested itself in the recent international news of banning Girl Scouts from selling cookies in front of the organization’s founder’s home, to an abominable permitting process that delayed some new businesses from opening for weeks or months. I could go on and on. Maybe Morrill worked hard here behind the scenes to temper the arrogance and overreach of the city bureaucracy — and maybe it would have been worse without him. I don’t know, but I do know that Morrill always stood out as one person in the city government that would be quickly and thoughtfully responsive.

I’m also struck by Morrill’s emphasis on place. He has brought urban planner Christian Sottile, whose work I’ve written about recently in a post about the placement of a new arts center in Savannah, to Roanoke for consultation. That’s a great move, and it sounds like some of powerful folks in Roanoke might have learned something from that visit. I have so far seen no evidence one way or the other about acting and soon-to-be permanent city manager Rochelle Small-Toney’s grasp of Savannah’s urban form, but I do know that she has used Sottile in the past. Let’s hope she will do so in the future. And let’s hope she takes a lesson from Morrill’s playbook in Roanoke. Take a look at the upbeat ending to the Roanoke Times’ piece:

“Communities are successful when they believe in themselves, and word gets out about them, and it’s almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Morrill said.

“We have some incredible assets here. Look at the mountains, the greenways, Virginia Tech, Hollins [University], Roanoke College, Jefferson College — which hardly anyone knows about. We have some great urban space, great neighborhoods. Part of economic development is to convince our community how good it is so we become our own economic development leaders as we travel around the country.”

That idea of making every Roanoker into a civic booster plays back to Morrill’s philosophy of governing — that is, he wants to look for the best of everyone’s ideas instead of just imposing his.

“I think we often get better ideas from a group of people,” Morrill said.

“You can get into where it’s the cult of a person who’s leading things. I really think when the organization as a whole, the community as a whole, is all getting their ideas out there and we’re figuring out together how to move forward, we’re going to do better things.

“At the end of the day I don’t care who takes credit for it, as long as it gets done.”

I always had a great deal of fondness for Chris and respected his work in Savannah. I should add, however, that I was dubious early on of some expansion projects of which he was a major booster, including New Hampstead and Savannah River Landing. Both of those projects are major failures at the moment and stand to cost the city significant amounts of money over the next few years. In the long run, those might look like wise bets on the future, but the proverbial jury is still out. Morrill and others who did not foresee or expect the real estate bust had access to the same information that I did; I’m still puzzled by how they trusted for so long that things would work out fine.

But it’s also worth noting that when the dimensions of revenue declines became clear, Morrill spearheaded efforts to get Savannah’s budget under control with as little pain as possible. I sure wish he were still here doing just that, and I would love to have seen what he would have done to improve the political and economic climate here. And I have little doubt that he would have had great understanding of and respect for Savannah’s urban spaces.

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