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Editorial: Jim Sears and Center in the Square's legacy of improving lives

Jim Sears (copy)

Jim Sears, seen here after the announcement of his first, short-lived retirement in 2013, has for 30 years shaped the direction of Center in the Square, a Roanoke nonprofit vital to arts and culture in the valley and economic development downtown.

Jim Sears has already retired once as leader of Center in the Square in Roanoke.

That retirement, on the final day of 2013, concluded 20 years at the helm of an arts and culture and economic development cornerstone — but it did not stick. Sears’ replacement turned out to be a short-timer, and within six months Sears was back at the helm for what you could think of as an encore or even a full third act.

The truth, however, is that even when Sears retired briefly nine years ago, he didn’t really retire. Though he technically was relieved of his leadership responsibilities, he continued to hold office hours in Center, working on tasks like wrapping up the tax credit arrangement that paid for most of Center’s $28 million renovation in the early 2010s, or even tending to the koi in the rooftop pond. As he put it then, “There’s so much to be done when you have a 200,000-square-foot building.”

Given that news of his first retirement from Center proved to be “greatly exaggerated,” one might reasonably wonder if Sears, 76, really means it when he says that now he’s stepping down for real from his role as president and general manager.

The answer is that, yes, he does mean it, mostly. “You have to be for real eventually,” he joked. “There’s no other choice.”

And yet, he is going to remain involved, staying available to help with the transition as Tara Marciniak, Center’s director of institutional advancement for the past four and a half years, takes his place. “I think her management approach is better than mine, and she’ll do a better job than I did,” he said.

But even beyond that, he will still remain involved as a member of Center’s Board of Directors for the next three years, serving on a fundraising committee.

To Sears, that’s still a route to retirement. “It just takes time sometimes to retire.”

‘Deceptively complex’

When Sears came to Center in 1993 to become its fourth director, he had a full 25-year-career in academics already behind him. He finished that quarter century as president of Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave.

The board director who oversaw Sears’ hiring, retired banking executive and philanthropist Warner Dalhouse, once described heading up Center as “a deceptively difficult job, and deceptively complex because of the nature of artistic directors.”

Sears “grasped early on the nature of the peculiar assignment and has been successful at it,” Dalhouse said.

On Sears’ arrival, Center had been open for 10 years, its purpose to provide rent-free housing to cultural institutions, among them the Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts, Mill Mountain Theatre, the Science Museum of Western Virginia and the Roanoke Valley History Museum.

To offset the costs of building maintenance, Center also took on paying tenants. The most enduring and best known of those, the Roanoke Weiner Stand, still resides in a first floor space of Center’s McGuire building at 1 Market Square S.E. — the largest of five buildings that Center now manages.

The lineup of tenants has evolved through the decades. The Harrison Museum of African American Culture moved in on the second floor. The art museum, now the Taubman Museum of Art, moved out.

The combined History Museum of Western Virginia and O. Winston Link Museum resides now in the former Norfolk and Western passenger station at 101 Shenandoah Avenue N.E., another building Center owns. Opera Roanoke has its offices in the Center on Church building at 20 Church Ave. S.E. Mill Mountain Theatre houses actors in the old Shenandoah Hotel on Salem Avenue S.E. Roanoke Ballet Theatre rehearses in a building on Grandin Road S.W. that Center rents.

Since its debut in 1983, Center has been credited with transforming Roanoke’s market area from a place considered unsafe to a hub of thriving businesses. Even so, the multistory main atrium in the McGuire building, through its first two decades of existence, was plain and barren as a federal office, as Dalhouse once put it.

The renovation that served as the capstone of what you could call Sears’ “first term” changed that, introducing viewing screens with seating, an 8,000 gallon living coral reef aquarium, rooftop gardens and more.

‘A better society’

During Sears’ “second term,” he pursued a new direction, as Center ceased being just a landlord for other nonprofits and began ever more ambitious forays into creating attractions and offering original programming. Within Center’s main building, that includes the Roanoke Pinball Museum, the Starcade that offers vintage arcade games, and the biggest of all, the Don and Barbara Smith Children’s Museum, more commonly known as Kids Square.

Outside the building, this includes collaborations with Roanoke County’s Explore Park to create new ticket-holder draws, such as the Illuminights walk-through holiday lights display and the T-Rex Trail happening right now and continuing through Aug. 14. It also includes events in the Roanoke Industrial Center, such as Blue Ridge Nightmares and other ventures, that Sears hopes will help bring more economic development attention to the city’s southeast quadrant.

“We realized that we had to be an active programmer in order to have the income necessary to keep all of the space available for the other museums,” Sears said.

He insists that, even with the shift to creating attractions instead of just housing them, there has been no mission drift on the part of Center. All revenues that Center’s attractions raise beyond what’s required for their own budgets go into a pool of money that supports the nonprofit tenants, he said. “All of our money that we have goes into supporting arts and culture.”

He’s proud that during the COVID-19 shutdowns Center never laid off any staff. Center stopped receiving state funding back when Jim Gilmore was governor, so the $150,000 included in the new state budget for Center’s Get Schooled program at the urging of Rep. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, is a welcome change. Get Schooled, a pun on Center’s aquarium denizens, teaches public school students about science, math and agriculture.

Sears said his background as a college president prepared him for the decades running Center, because the jobs are similar. “You deal with different personalities, different people, and you’re trying to maximize everybody’s productivity and efficiency. You’re educating people.” But most importantly, “We’re building a better society. We change lives.”

This changing of the guard comes just shy of Center’s 40th anniversary. We look forward to the next four decades of Center changing lives for the better.

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