BLACKSBURG — Anyone interested in Blacksburg’s politics will become acquainted with a new and important face next year.
Ron Rordam announced in March that he would not seek re-election as the town’s mayor, a position the longtime civil servant and insurance man has held since 2006.
Within moments of the news, two of Rordam’s town council colleagues and an established banker with business roots across the New River Valley each announced mayoral campaigns.
In the months since, the three candidates have taken strides to separate their identities in efforts to try to gain votes.
Leslie Hager-Smith, currently the town’s vice mayor, maps her days of community service back to the late 1980s when she began volunteering with her church. She says she has during that decades-long period built ties with the college town’s neighborhoods and merchants who have helped shape Blacksburg’s cultural heart.
Krisha Chachra has deep roots in the town as well. But unlike Hager-Smith, her peer on council, Chachra is a Blacksburg native born to Indian immigrants and academics who separately arrived in Virginia during the 1960s and early 1970s. Chachra graduated from the old Blacksburg High School on Patrick Henry Drive, a site that eventually turned into a political battleground for the town.
Raised in Tennessee, Ed Lawhorn has spent most of his adulthood in the financial world. He came to the New River Valley 12 years ago when he went to work for the Sun Trust bank in Radford. Now an executive at Union Bank & Trust in Christiansburg, he has cast himself as a loyal ally to a business community to which he says Blacksburg’s politicians have been unfriendly.
“I’ve had a couple folks who’ve told me it’s never been worse than it is right now,” Lawhorn, 66, said during a conference room interview at his bank. “Neither of my opponents, or town council, has been willing to acknowledge it and go to work on it.”
Chachra doesn’t exactly agree. Hager-Smith rejects Lawhorn’s notion.
Chachra, 41, is generally in line with a view that Blacksburg should be careful to not inadvertently damage neighborhoods and the town’s character by easing regulations designed to manage sprawl. But she concedes there is always room for improvement when greenlighting new businesses and developments. She said she doesn’t want business owners and builders to walk away from the table, even if their plans are far from meeting town requirements.
“I want people to feel like the answer they’re getting from us, is not, ‘No,’ but how do we get to ‘Yes,’” she has said during several events. “I think we’re working toward it.”
Chachra, for example, has proposed changes such as seeking third-party firms to streamline the process of approving site plans.
“If that’s what you feel, the perception is it’s real. It becomes real,” she said. “There are things we could do better.”
Hager-Smith, 61, points to the construction in recent years of luxurious off-campus student apartments, condominium and retail complexes and new entertainment spots. Is the town unfriendly to businesses? She said she doesn’t see how.
Delving deeper into the town and business perceptions
The town has a law that prohibits putting parking in front of new storefronts and buildings. Businesses can work around that law by obtaining a permit. But the process is subject to approval by town council, which has total discretion over the request.
About a year ago, council tweaked the parking in front of buildings regulation and drew criticism from some prominent property developers and business owners who argued that the arbitrary placement of parking could hurt business.
Rordam denied claims that the change toughened the ordinance and instead said it only aimed to clarify the law. He said council has discretion over permits anyway.
But Rordam made it no secret that he and town officials frown at strip mall-style developments.
Blacksburg, particularly in its downtown, doesn’t cut any slack with its building codes. For projects near or at historic properties, builders must follow strict construction parameters. And the committee overseeing historic properties will not hesitate to hold up a project if, for example, a building’s height doesn’t exactly fall under the district’s limit.
That construction and licensing process is what Lawhorn takes issue with. He finds the application process too open-ended. He doesn’t see the point of the town dictating what pieces of a project must be built first. He describes the inspection process as “a little unpredictable.”
“It’s not just development, it’s broader than that,” Lawhorn said.
Still, Blacksburg has seen business development.
In this decade alone, the town has seen its downtown’s architecture transformed by the arrival the Brownstone and Clay Court, two multi-story complexes on Main Street housing condominiums, office space and retailers. On the other side of Main is another multi-story development housing software firms, a Starbucks restaurant and a parking garage.
West of downtown at the intersection of University City Boulevard and Prices Fork Road is a relatively new development called University Crossroads that brought hotels and a multi-building shopping center housing retailers, restaurants and service businesses.
In early 2015, the town got a multi-entertainment complex at its First & Main shopping center that features an IMAX screen.
Hager-Smith points to all those projects when questioning the belief that the town has deliberately turned away business. In truth, some businesses may just want the town to ease the rules, she says.
“You can never be fast enough, easy enough for the business community,” she said during an early morning interview over coffee. “They want to optimize those characteristics because it helps them.
“You don’t just hand over the key to the city to somebody who’s the loudest person in the room.”
Hager-Smith champions Blacksburg’s character, which she said is among the things that draws outsiders. Features such as brick buildings and ornamental posts are the aesthetics the public identifies the town with, she said. The rules exist to keep the town from becoming “anywhere U.S.A,” she said.
Blacksburg and the school properties
Another issue debated by the three candidates is Blacksburg’s dealings with outside governing bodies, particularly in the town’s fights over the old middle and high school properties.
The old middle school closed in 2002 and the site has remained undeveloped since, due to years of disagreements about the property’s direction between each of the governing bodies for the town, the school district and Montgomery County.
Lawhorn puts some blame on the town for why the old Blacksburg Middle School property is still undeveloped.
“I believe the town’s had the opportunity — since the property’s in the town and town controls the zoning — to pull the parties together and get to a result more quickly,” he said.
Hager-Smith directs some of the responsibility to the county, which she says at one point too quickly signed a contract with a developer that she argues tied up progress due to the agreement containing no performance measures or a sunset clause.
Chachra said the town simply wanted the proper development and something that strongly adhered to the master plan, which serves as an overall guide on development.
“I think there were a lot of market forces at play,” she said.
Chachra and Hager-Smith weren’t on council the entire time that the old middle school site sat in limbo. They were, however, several years into their council service when in 2013 the governing body hesitated on a mixed-use development plan from developer Jeanne Stosser that shared similarities with plans Stosser filed with the town earlier this month.
The old high school closed a few years after its gym roof collapsed in early 2010.
The county owns all school properties and each year has the final say on the school district’s budget. The town controls zoning, or the kind of real estate and uses allowed on its lands.
Council has been adamant about either preserving the old high school site for recreation or land-banking it for another school in the future.
Blacksburg could have bought the property itself, but the town had until very recently refused to meet the county’s $3 million asking price. The disagreement over the value of the land stemmed from independent appraisals each locality performed on the property.
The old high school site ended up going to a Shelor Motor Mile real estate arm, which is slated to close on the property next month. The town unsuccessfully tried to counter Shelor’s deal.
In addition to calling the town’s appraisal flawed, Lawhorn said Blacksburg also had a head start in the negotiations. The stalemate between the town and county came to light during a joint public meeting about year ago, more than three months before Shelor and Ellenbogen disclosed their offers.
“The property was offered to us first,” Lawhorn said. “For my perspective … you either decide ‘Yes we want it, or no we don’t,’” Lawhorn said.
A small window for the town to buy the old high school still exists as the county recently approved an amendment allowing the town take over the Shelor group’s agreement should the developer choose to do so. Rordam signed a letter earlier this month expressing the town’s willingness to take over the agreement.
Chachra attributed the town’s failure to acquire the old high school to a breakdown in communication. She has since said that Blacksburg could have paid $3 million, but argues that it wasn’t made clear to the town that it could have paid that amount over the course of three years instead of in a single transaction.
Chachra criticized the repeated exchanges of letters between the town and county addressing the old high school.
“It’s just nonsense we have to resort to writing letters back and forth to negotiate a piece of property so important to our community,” she said.
Hager-Smith said she believed the town was in “good faith” negotiations.
“I’m not sure what we could have done,” she said.
Hager-Smith now supports the $3 million deal, which she said town residents have repeatedly urged the town to take.
More on the candidates
Hager-Smith and Chachra were, respectively, elected to council in 2008 and 2009. Lawhorn has held positions on civic boards such as that of the New River Community College’s Educational Foundation.
Hager-Smith traces her roots in community service when she began volunteering with her church shortly after she and her husband moved to Blacksburg during the early 1980s.
“That’s where I discovered a potential for leadership and passion for the community,” she said.
During that period, the Cincinnati native held positions during the 2000s as the director of community programs at the YMCA and director of the organization that eventually became Downtown Blacksburg Inc., which supports merchants in that section of town. During the late 1990s, she had a stints as a New River Valley-based reporter for The Roanoke Times.
Hager-Smith has received backing from some figures affiliated with town government. One supporter is Paul Lancaster, a member of the town’s planning commission.
“She seems to have a good handle on what everybody is thinking,” Lancaster said. “I just like the direction she heads in. She’s always visible somewhere downtown. I think she knows that downtown is more than just a bunch of stores and buyers.”
Another group that has thrown its support behind Hager-Smith’s mayoral run is Citizens First, an organization known to advocate for an array of sustainability and quality-of-life concerns. They have previously supported her council runs and have backed several successful council candidates over the past dozen years.
Chachra is the daughter of well-known local businessman Vinod Chachra, who came to Blacksburg during the late 1960s to do grad school at Virginia Tech. About two decades later, Vinod Chachra founded a library cataloging company called VTLS that in 2014 was sold to a West Coast firm called Innovative Interfaces.
Chachra spent a chunk of her adulthood outside Blacksburg where during the late 1990s and early 2000s she lived in Washington, D.C., and performed freelance work for USA Today and NPR. She briefly returned to Blacksburg afterward and worked for her father, but in 2003 left the mainland to teach journalism at Hawaii Pacific University.
Chachra said it was around her time in Hawaii that she developed a more serious interest in politics. Then in 2007, tragedy struck.
“It’s a really pivotal moment for you,” Chachra said, recalling the Tech shooting. “A lot of people ran for council that year.”
Chachra draws a portion of her support from those partaking in Up On The Roof, a monthly networking social for the business crowd that she hosts on the rooftop of the Kent Square Complex.
One Up On The Roof frequenter is Leslie Harwood, who works for the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and who was a frequent presence in the town’s talks last year to start regulating homestay businesses such as Airbnb. Harwood, who’s an Airbnb host, said she found Chachra to be among the most approachable on council during the homestay talks.
“She was always open to understanding more about what homestays were and what it meant for the community,” Harwood said.
Lawhorn’s ambitions go back to high school and college when he began taking notice of two bankers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who he recalled often provided arrangements and fixed issues.
“That appealed to me. It inspired me,” he said, recalling that they inspired his career choice and gave him a peek into public service.
As chairman of the NRCC’s Educational Foundation board, Lawhorn has championed a relatively new program that covers the cost of tuition at the school for recent high school graduates from several New River Valley localities. He points to that effort as a qualifier for mayor.
Lawhorn has also drawn support from the business community. One supporter, who contributed to his campaign, is Doug Juanarena, who was once an investor to the tech company that cloud-computing giant Rackspace bought to establish a location in Blacksburg.
Juanarena has described council as lacking business acumen, which he said hurt the body during the contentious battle over the old high school.
“Well it’s pretty simple,” Juanarena said as he explained his support for Lawhorn. “I don’t think our council has the diversity in business experience, if you look at the old high school deal with Montgomery County.
Had there been a negotiator, let alone a business person to explain the value of the property, that might have led to a different outcome. People acknowledge council didn’t do everything they could have done.”