Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.


* * Mike Larkin is going places, right in Christiansburg



Every community needs a guy like Mike Larkin. He’s an economic development machine!

You may not have heard his name yet, but I suspect you will, over and over again. He’s bringing his singular energy and focus to his work, establishing Ignite - Life Pacific College while also repurposing the former Main Street Baptist Church into an academic, arts, and community center under a new non-religious non-profit called On Main Street Inc. I met with him to ask about his process.

For background, he said that LPC Ignite is one of two colleges belonging to the Foursquare Church, a Christian denomination founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in the Los Angeles in 1923. She was a traveling evangelist in the early 20th Century. “She was charismatic, magnetic. She broke the mold for women in ministry leadership roles and set a precedent for practical hands-on community ministry.”

She opened a ministry training center in California that over time became Life Pacific College. A second college was established in Mt. Vernon, Ohio and in the early 1980s moved just off Route 8, south of Christiansburg, and named Life Bible College East. The East Coast campus closed in 2003 and the property was transformed into CrossPointe Conference Center.

Meanwhile, Mike got a slew of degrees and pursued a varied career as a police officer, a YMCA executive, a minister, and a denomination executive overseeing global operations. He founded Ignite Life Pacific College in 2008 and was asked by the denomination to move the school from the Los Angeles area to Christiansburg in 2011.

Mike’s intention in founding the school was to provide general education and theology courses that are affordable while also presenting practical, hands-on opportunities for students to prepare them for their future. He wanted to make his college an integral part of its community. In the last 5-1/2 years, his students have contributed an astonishing 82,000 documented hours of volunteer service! On a weekly basis students serve 5-10 hours in the community, sending teams of students to the Roanoke Rescue Mission, Montgomery County Museum, Christiansburg Park and Rec department, and various other non-profit organizations. Partnering with Kiwanis and the Wilderness Trail Festival each fall is a favorite with the students.

“When we moved here in 2011, I drove past the old Baptist Church on Main Street and saw ‘For Sale’ signs. I saw potential. Our goal is to be in the community and not in a bubble on the hill.” So On Main Street Inc. was formed to purchase the old Baptist Church and reconstruction is underway. They gutted much of the building and built classrooms, a library, and administration offices. The 1908 structure on the corner is being restored to original beauty for weddings, banquets and meetings. In the larger hall they removed the pews to allow for more flexibility as a music, banquet and lecture hall. They found a church in Tennessee that had suffered the loss of their pews in a flood, and donated to them. The buildings are opening up in stages for college and community use.

“The intent of what we’re doing is to create community, to revitalize the town and the economy, and to get our students in downtown Christiansburg. That fits in exactly with our perception of the vision of the town leaders. Recreation. Entertainment. The Arts. Crooked Road and traditional music.”

So they’ll be bringing music events to the center, and not solely religious. For example they’ll be hosting a JAM chapter, the Junior Appalachian Musician after school program that teaches children to play traditional roots music. They’ll host weddings and receptions.

He said the renovation is coming along beautifully. The ultimate goal is to create a community showcase. They want self-supporting events so they don’t pass on costs to the students. However students are learning project and event management, show production, and other skills.

“We want graduates who will launch into organizational management, ministry leadership, strategic leadership positions and more. We want a self-sustaining model for a small college that provides employment and advancement opportunities for our students and a revitalization project for downtown.

“My wife and I knew that in moving from Southern California to Christiansburg, it would be very different. Rather than come with ideas for change and expansion we came to immerse into the community first. The change was actually in me. I think it’s a wonderful indication of the quality of life. The pace. The kindness.

“It’s a friendly culture and an amazing place to live and work. We’ve been under the radar. We’re here to serve and give. Up until now we’ve been the best-kept secret in town. Thanks to our hard working students we’re starting to make ourselves known.”


* * The “veteran” and the “rookie” march on Washington

January 20, 2017 was an important day in American history, when our country executed the time-honored tradition of peacefully passing the torch from one President to another. But the following day was equally important, when thousands of people peacefully marched on Washington, many other cities across the nation, and indeed around the world.

I caught up with two local women who went, one a veteran of prior marches, and one a teenager who attended her first organized demonstration. Laurie Buchwald is a Radford-based nurse practitioner and former candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. Isabella Burgoyne is 14 years old, a student at Radford High School.

I asked what compelled them to go.

Isabella said, “I went to the march in solidarity to all the women who have been abused and mistreated, and to thank the women who have fought for all our rights in the past. Reproductive rights; I haven’t needed them yet. It’s just nice to know that everyone, all women, have the right to do what they wish with their bodies. I have the right soon to vote!”

Laurie added, “In the same way that I am grateful for the early nurse practitioners who fought for me to be able to provide healthcare to women – we are still fighting – I am grateful to the women who fought so that I might have the right to vote. Now it is my turn to fight for the women who will come after me, to make sure that women achieve equal rights under the law and are protected by the Constitution. Just 50 years ago, women were not even able to get a credit card, serve on a jury, go on birth control pills, get an Ivy League education, and experience equality in the workplace. Many of us still don’t!”

“When Trump won the election, I was so disappointed,” Isabella added, “because I know it will affect me and all the people around me. He legitimized sexual assault and bullying of women. He made that okay. It’s not.”

Laurie said, “He has a longstanding disregard for women. I see women all the time in my office that have been sexually assaulted. They have to fight to have somebody to believe them. When the commander in chief can say and do those things, it will make it even harder for them to be believed. It is appalling to me.

“We need to continue to move forward and fight for our rights. I never called it an anti-Trump march, but there’s no doubt that his actions have galvanized the world.”

Isabella said, “This was my first march. Sometimes they can be dangerous. This one was peaceful. I didn’t think my parents would let me go, but they were all for it. Both my mom and my dad went.”

Laurie said, “There were 1200 buses parked at RFK (stadium). Four came from Christiansburg. We could have filled so many more. The crowd was amazing.” They had a two mile walk to the rally site, “It was the most amazing, powerful, thing. I almost cry just talking about it. If I had never gotten beyond the Capitol, I would have been happy for the amazing sense of love and solidarity. Everybody was committed, united and optimistic. It was phenomenal, overwhelming.”

Isabella said, “There were kids, young adults, and older adults, jammed with people.”

They were in the same area where the inauguration happened the day before, but the crowd was larger.

Laurie said, “We were hearing about massive rallies in other cities. We felt like we were in a global community of love. If we never heard a speaker or musician, and many people didn’t, we were still moved by the day. There were no cross words. No negative remarks. Everybody had everybody else’s back. It was a gift enough. Now we need to go from moment to movement, from passion to power.”

Isabella said, “I feel a crushing responsibility to do something. We have a lot of work to do. It’s going to be my future.”


* * What's the matter with the old BHS site?


I don’t know about you, but the brouhaha between the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors and the Blacksburg Town Council over the sale of the “old” Blacksburg High School property has me flummoxed. Why can’t the sides come together?

Here’s the background as I understand it. The high school on Patrick Henry Drive was constructed in the mid-1970s. From the beginning, due to problems with poor site selection and preparation, and overall shoddy workmanship, the building had the structural integrity of Swiss cheese. And all the design charm of a penitentiary. I’m guessing the design architect is now in an asylum somewhere.

Anyway, after a snowstorm seven years ago, the gymnasium roof collapsed. Miraculously no lives were lost, but the building’s life effectively ended that day. Spendthrift ways back then strapped us with higher costs later.

Teachers, staff, and students of not only the high school but the middle school then faced two years of disruption, including attendance at 70+ year old schools in Christiansburg, as a replacement high school was built at a larger site near the multi-school complex on Prices Fork Road. All’s well that ends well.


Except there’s the matter of the old, crippled building and the site upon which it sits. Here’s where things get prickly.

Virginia has an odd municipal structure whereby cities are completely independent but towns are semi-autonomous. What this means is that cities provide their citizens a range of services including police, rubbish collection, fire, rescue, recreation, planning, and for our discussion notably schools, but towns share some services with the counties that encompass them. In this case, for the most part, the town of Blacksburg provides every amenity listed except schools; its seven schools (BHS, BMS, and five elementary schools) are owned and managed by Montgomery County. Those of us who live in town pay taxes to both entities.

With over 42,000 residents, Blacksburg is the most populous town in the state (with Leesburg close behind). But 25 cities across the commonwealth have fewer people than Blacksburg and manage their own schools. Blacksburg considers this option from time to time.

Almost from the collapse of the gym, Blacksburg has maintained that should the county ever wish to sell the property, Blacksburg would like to purchase it, keeping it in public use. The devil is in the details, in this case the price and responsibility for demolition. Each party has hired reputable appraisal firms to attempt to assess the true market value. With all due respect to my friends in the appraisal business, determining the value on this unique property is at best a black art. The county set the price at $3 million, whereas the town offered $2.4 million, plus the town would be strapped with demolition costs, estimated around $1.4 million. (As a frame of reference, the county spent $63 million on the new high school.)

As a resident of Blacksburg, this money seems to want to come from out one of my pockets into the other. Everybody in Blacksburg is in Montgomery County, but not everybody in Montgomery County is in Blacksburg. This truth has created conflicts in the two governing boards, which now seem to be treating each other as hostile, competitive foreign powers rather than mutually-dependent entities.

Blacksburg’s stated position is its willingness to purchase the land at a fair price and keep it in public use, possibly “banking” it for a time when population growth might dictate that another school is needed. This makes imminent sense to me, as growing pains under Virginia Tech’s ambitious expansion plans are already emerging, and procuring a suitably large property for a new school later will be exceedingly expensive.

I’ve long been studying why some communities are successful and others are not; in fact my new book is about that. Key is the decisions of not only the business communities but the governance as well. Words like cooperative, visionary, reality-based, diverse, and innovative characterized the successful communities, whereas antagonistic, short-sighted, myopic, homogenous, and unimaginative characterized the unsuccessful ones.

Communities that host colleges, especially research universities, invariably fare better than those that don’t. As Virginia Tech goes, so goes Blacksburg and so goes Montgomery County. Denying the growth Tech will foster is improvident and ultimately counterproductive.

As taxpayers we entrust our local officials to make sound financial decisions and to work cooperatively and in good faith. But we also expect them to be farsighted, not penny wise and pound foolish, and not make decisions that will cost the next generation more in the future. Blacksburg has put forth a reasonable, fair offer; let’s move forward with it. After all, someday the county may need that land, or other town-owned land, for its next school. When the shoe is on the other foot, maybe cooperation from today will be remembered.


* * James Creekmore is a restless man


Blacksburg lawyer, James Creekmore, wants to make Blacksburg the entrepreneurship capital of Virginia. He’s already underway.

He told me as we met in the conference room of his downtown office, “We’re taking our firm in the direction of recognizing that our niche here is helping start-up businesses. We’re helping entrepreneurial and forward thinking companies get off the ground and get a good start.”

I knew from a previous conversation that although he’d been in the area for ten years, during most of that time, most of his business was elsewhere. “That’s right,” he agreed. “We did a lot of work in the coal and gas industry. That work changed dramatically and the climate for the production and sale of coal and gas in America was diminished. Our client sold all of its coal mines in Virginia. So our business with them diminished, and our focus shifted towards emerging technology companies, start-up companies, and more intellectual property work.

“We had three people working full-time on coal and gas litigations for three years. Once that work moved on, we moved with a vengeance towards entrepreneurial companies.”

Creekmore became an active participant in the Virginia Tech organizations that helped entrepreneurs. They were in contact with young, emergent companies in the valley. “There was not a place outside the university that provided hands-on mentoring and tutelage for business. There was no physical place off-campus. These young businesses needed training and education.

“My family had always been in business, so I learned how to run businesses from an early age. Emerging businesses are moving very fast (with their product idea) and don’t have time to set up sales, personnel, taxes, benefits and inventory. We saw a couple of companies that had product ideas where they couldn’t keep up with their market. Before they produced their prototype, other companies beat them to it. It is too much for a young company to do at one time.

“We began focusing on helping these new companies to structure sound fundamentals. Then they could focus on what they produced.”

“Do you have a model for what you’re doing?” I queried.

“I’m sort of making it up. I’ve read a lot of business plans and protocols for incubators and accelerators. We have a co-working facility where different businesses can rent a desk or use an unreserved desk space and work. Otherwise, they’d be working at home or in a coffee shop. This has wi-fi, a printer, paper, pens, paper clips, binders, a kitchen with coffee service, and other amenities. We provide the physical tools so they can focus on their product development.”

He explained that they also provide educational programming. Lawyers. Accountants. Bankers. Investors. Insurance people. These folks will provide tutelage so the entrepreneur can focus on their product.

“Entrepreneurs need fabric, agreements on paper, which become the glue that hold their companies together. If it’s just a guy and a buddy, sooner or later they will have a problem that will be difficult to unravel. You plan for a divorce when you are getting along.”

James is particularly motivated to diversify the businesses in downtown Blacksburg, and to lessen the dependency of students with such businesses as bars and restaurants. He’d like to see vacant downtown spaces filled with start-up and technology companies. “This business community is very receptive to and supportive of new business ideas that benefit everybody. People here want to work in tandem, as ‘we.’ Everybody knows each other. People want others to succeed. There are older folks who are trickling down knowledge. There is trickle up of talent from Tech. We’ve got the perfect marriage. I’m the guy in the middle, working to bring them together.

“I really like downtown Blacksburg. We have great local shops and restaurants. We need them focused on servicing each other, apart from the students. I’m creating ‘food courts’ for businesses. The older, more experienced people have been completely supportive. They’re coming to me. This was surprising to me.”

“What do you want to see ten years from now in downtown Blacksburg?” I asked.

“I want to see every building, every storefront, filled with something. Lawyers. Beauticians. Doctors. Restaurants. Shops. Foot traffic makes the difference. Nobody wants empty buildings downtown.

“Every five years my law firm goes in a different direction. I don’t sit around and watch TV in the evening. I’ve learned to adapt and charge forward. I have what I call ‘professional ADHD.’

“We can’t wait for someone to bring jobs to our community,” he said. “We’ve got to make them here.”


* * So I got rear-ended

A confusing swirl of thoughts swept my mind as I lay there in the middle of the road, my helmeted head resting against the pavement. I felt that unsettled mixture of pain, apprehension, and indignity, coming to grips with the fact that I’d just been rear-ended, thrown from my motorcycle by someone clearly not bothering to take the responsibility of driving seriously.

Was I hurt? I didn’t know. I knew I felt nauseous and disoriented. I knew my new BMW motorcycle was somewhere nearby, but I had no idea how badly it might have been damaged.

I had just left my office in the Christiansburg Industrial Park. I was on Industrial Park Drive, fully stopped, looking to make a right turn on Roanoke Road, headed to some errands in town before home. It was cold, about 25F as I recall. I was fully decked out in my normal protective gear – helmet, reinforced jacket and pants, gloves – and with the season even my electric jacket. I always wear protective gear. It makes a huge difference in a spill. Ask me how I know.

I continued to assess my condition. I unwrapped my legs from where they’d landed. The driver appeared, looming over me. He wore an orange jacket. “Are you okay?”

Me, “I’m not sure.”

“Do you want to get up?”

“No thanks. I think I’ll just lay here.” I needed a moment to self-assess. I was happy to have the helmet on. Not as comfortable as a pillow, but given the asphalt “mattress,” it was passably relaxing. I was in no hurry.

He continued to stand there. No apology, of course. Some lame excuse like, “I thought I’d put it in ‘Park,’” that I didn’t believe. Nobody puts their car in ‘Park’ at intersections.

Shortly thereafter, sirens rang out. People wearing nice, crisp uniforms began appearing. A cute police woman. The fire chief. Some rescue squad people, all looking young enough to be still in high school. Even the fire inspector, who earlier that same day had inspected my building, said something funny like, “Nice seeing you again, but sooner than I expected,” showed up. I don’t know if he really said that. I was groggy.

Some minutes later, the fire chief and inspector convinced me to get up, and they lifted me to my feet. I took off my helmet and the young rescue squad people escorted me their van for an evaluation. My vital signs were apparently good enough to reassure them, but I asked if they’d walk with me for a few minutes to see if I still had my balance. Presumably my motorcycle was being picked up outside.

Riding a motorcycle in traffic is not for the faint of heart. But I’ve been doing it since my teen years, with few incidents, none seriously since my early 20s. Still, a rider must be on his or her game, and I wanted to feel secure that I could manage safely.

The lady cop called me over to her car and asked me my version of what happened. Simple. I came to a stop. I looked left to prepare to turn right. Somebody smacked the rear of my motorcycle. The impact wrenched my hands off the bars as the bike lurched forward and fell over, pitching me off it. Was I hurt? A bit sore, but fine. No, I didn’t want to go to the emergency room. I just wanted to ride home. And have my motorcycle fixed. An apology would be nice, but I didn’t hold any hope. Yes, I was sure I was okay. She gave me a copy of the police report.

I suspect people figure if a 60+ year old man gets thrown onto the pavement, something must hurt. But they let me go. I rode home, gingerly, fearful whenever in proximity of any car, as if I had a target painted on my back. I made it home without incident, but still freaked out. I took some ibuprofen and went to bed early.

The next day, I posted about my mishap on Facebook, asking if anybody else had been a victim of an accident in which they’d not been at fault in any way. I was astounded and horrified by the quantity and severity of the responses. Some brought me to tears.

I don’t ascribe to the “It could have been worse,” meme, as things just happen as they happen. It couldn’t have been worse and it couldn’t have been better. It just happened. But hearing stories of people killed or lives ruined by other drivers’ inattention and carelessness was a hard reminder of the stakes we all face behind the wheel (or in my case, the handlebar) of a motor vehicle.

Please, if you’re driving, hang up the phone. Don’t touch that drink. Pay attention.