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.

Monday
Jan022017

* * 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.”

Monday
Jan022017

* * 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.

Monday
Jan022017

* * We have visitors from Colombia. South America.

 

I’ve written in this space before about some of the visitors we have hosted at casa Abraham, linked to us by various internet based hosting services like Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. Just this morning, two lovely ladies, Liliam Karine Marin and Nataly Londono Ramirez from Colombia, South America, departed after three days with us. It feels so lonely in the house already.

Nataly and Liliam are in the states to promote an international program to American universities that has students traveling and working abroad for several months. Their job is to drive the organization’s vehicle thousands of miles to place posters on the walls in academic buildings. They’ve been doing this for four months already with two more to go. When they arrived at the organization’s headquarters in Dowagiac, Michigan, neither of them could speak any English!

Nataly is 30 years old and Liliam is 25. Nataly has learned her new language more fluently and spoke with me about their experience. She said, “We are volunteers with the organization, One World Center.”

According to its website, it is a “non-profit research organization with a mission to inspire and empower ordinary people to take action against worldwide poverty and climate change.” Their programs offer academic credits to college students.

She continued, “The organization’s propose is empower people and reduce poverty in Africa, Brazil, and Central America, to make change and education for the people. Liliam and I work in the promotion of the program. I had a friend who participated in Africa, in Mozambique. He told me about this opportunity.

“I am an occupational therapist. But I quit my job to be a volunteer for this. The organization pays a small stipend for food and the car. They’ve been staying with Couchsurfing hosts the entire time, and even in some cases sleeping in their cars. Both women were beautiful, enough as Mick Jagger said, “to make a grown man cry.” Both were thin and had dark skin and black hair. Liliam had more of a classic Latina look, with full cheeks, a wide nose, and thick eyebrows. Nataly, although older, looked like a teenager, with a soft, gentle face and demeanor.

“The organization defined our schedule for us. We have been in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, then Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. All the time, we stay with hosts.”

I asked what surprised her about America.

“Back in Colombia before I came, I thought American people were angry, very fast, and very crazy – not crazy good but crazy bad. Many dangerous, I think. But I came anyway. I found many people nice.

“This is the first time I have been in the United States. I had only been to Peru and Equator before. This is the first time in North America. This is the first time I have ever been in winter!”

Colombia is a tropical country, near the Equator. From place to place, the weather is different due to elevation and location. Lower cities are hot and wet and higher cities are drier and more comfortable. Her city of Santiago de Cali, or just “Cali” for short, is at 3300 feet of elevation and has an estimated 2,300,000 people. It is nicknamed “The Salsa capital of the world” (for dancing, not the sauce), and the “Capital of Happiness.” It is a center for sports in Colombia and has hosted several international competitions.

The weather never changes by time of year – there are no “seasons” as we think about them. It never gets cold and she has never seen snow. “All year, every day, is always the same.” Both women wore tight, fashionable, frankly sexy jeans with holes in the knees, which of course were totally inappropriate for our cold, soon to be frigid season. Liliam had a good coat but we gave Nataly a spare winter jacket. We were afraid they’re freeze to death!

“It is different for us when it gets dark very early. It is the first time I have ever been cold.

“When I get back to Cali, I will tell people that America is very good. The experience is good. I love this place. I will do it again.

“People from America visit Colombia for drugs. For sexual business. But other people really know Colombia. We have many nice, beautiful places and beautiful people. Great food. People think Colombia is dangerous but it’s not. I love Colombia. Colombian people are nice, warm, and friendly. Welcome to Colombia.”

Consider opening your door to strangers. They will enrich your life.

Friday
Dec092016

* * Michael St. Jean loves running our airport 

The Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport is one of our area’s economic drivers, a critical element of our infrastructure that supports tourism, economic development, and recreation. Its executive director, Rhode Island native Michael St. Jean, is a happy man.

The airport is undergoing construction to lengthen the runway and make it available to larger airplanes. He’s delighted by the multi-organizational cooperation he’s seeing.

“I’ve been in Virginia for 35 years now, but when I go home to Rhode Island, people think I have a Virginia accent. Here, people say, ‘You’re not from around here.’ My daughter, who was born here, still makes fun of my accent,” he joked.

Michael began his career as an air traffic controller in the Army. His last service station was Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. When he finished his eight years, he transitioned to civilian life. “I absolutely loved military life. My family history is one based upon serving this country in uniform. We believe it is an obligation and a duty.

“There were options for me to stay in the Army. I decided to leave the military an be in a business environment.” He worked in a multi-franchise car dealership in Newport News. He did this for 14 years. When he got a degree in business administration from Christopher Newport University and sought a change. He got a job managing a small airport in New Kent County. He worked there for three years before interviewing for the job at the Tech airport. “I’ve been here ever since.”

I asked about daily life in his job as executive director. He said, “Like a water authority or a solid waste authority, my board is made up of representatives of all the stake-holders: Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Montgomery County, and one ‘at large’ member. I respond to their direction. The Authority is an independent government has entity created by the Virginia Legislature which is then made up of the four entities.

My job is different every day. I have regular plans that have to be submitted on schedules. I oversee all financial aspects of the airport. I communicate with tenants who park their airplanes here. I spend time outside the fence talking with the community about their concerns about our operations. I talk about the value of this airport to the community.”

The airport has no commercial service. At the federal level, it is a general aviation regional airport, recently rising from a community to a regional airport.

“We now service more executive and corporate types of jets. I have a staff skilled in operations such as maintaining runway lighting, approach lighting, penetrations to the airspace, and people who wish to fly drones.

“We are in the midst of a runway expansion. Virginia Tech, a few years ago when it was in control, did a strategic master plan. They determined the airport needed to extend the runway from 4500 feet to 5500 feet. We acquired more land and improved the facilities and apron. It took six years to do the environmental assessment, much like a major road project. There were 26 federal and state agencies involved. Water issues. Species impact. Historical site impacts. Architectural. Sociological. We hired consultants to do that work.”

Michael has an annual budget of $1.1-1.2 million and a staff of 11. I asked about his best and worst days.

“When an aircraft is in trouble or crashes, we need to take care of those aboard. Operationally we need to function at design standards. We were a staging location for the April 16 disaster team and the Morva shooting response. On one football game day, we had 80 aircraft arriving and leaving and the weather was so bad they closed the Roanoke airport. I’m proud of how we responded. We were amazed by the challenges that day presented. We learned what we were capable of. When we have a lot of airplanes out there, it’s hard, but it’s fun.

He gushed about the multi-agency cooperation he was seeing in this expansion. “We have many moving pieces working together. We’re half-way through a three-year project. It’s working better than we ever expected. There are minor and major hiccups. But the planning has been so good that it’s moving along very smoothly. There is openness in communication. People here are open-minded. I think it’s working so well here because everybody seems to be going in the same direction. This is a fun job.”

 

Friday
Dec092016

* * Bill Roth is back at Virginia Tech

“Touchdown Tech!!!”

You may not know the face, but you know the voice of Bill Roth, who for 27 years teamed with Mike Burnop as the radio voices of the Virginia Tech Hokies football and basketball teams. Bill left Tech and Blacksburg for the city lights, taking the same job with UCLA in Los Angeles in April, 2015. He worked there for a year. Then he moved back. He moved home.

He was kind enough to join my daughter Whitney and me at a local restaurant to talk about that experience.

“Tech asked me to come back,” he said. “I wasn’t happy in L.A. The university asked me to come back and join a new Sports Multimedia Journalism Program that Tech wanted to put together. We always thought Tech would be a great place to do that. The university had made the commitment to build an incredible studio.”

“But Bill,” I pleaded, “it’s UCLA! It’s Pauley Pavilion and the Rose Bowl!”

“Sure, it’s one of the truly iconic jobs in sports,” he admitted. “UCLA recruited me. They wanted me. They are the winningest athletic program in sports. It’s a great city. They have a great media presence. To give you an idea, in the Olympics, the USA has the most medals all-time. Russia/Soviet Union is second. Germany is third. China is fourth. And UCLA students and alums are fifth.

“Their greatest player in every sport, you would recognize. In baseball, Jackie Robinson played there. In basketball, Kareem (Abdul Jabbar). Bill Walton. Flo-Jo (Joyner) and Jackie Joyner Kersey in track. Women’s soccer. Lisa Fernandez in softball. You’d know them. Arthur Ashe in tennis.

“The difference for me at Tech was that I knew people. I knew (former presidents) Jim McComas, Marshall Hahn, and Paul Torgerson. (Coach) Frank Beamer. They were friends of mine. The athletic department uses the line, ‘This is home,’ but for me it really is. Don’t get me wrong; it was a great job at UCLA. The grass was definitely green. They have 113 national championship trophies (in all sports). Tech is still trying to achieve its first. But culturally it wasn’t what I wanted.

“We have a feeling of community (at Tech). Ut Prosim. You can’t snap your fingers and get that. What Virginia Tech is institutionally permeates this entire state.”

He explained how important UCLA is to its region, with highly ranked medical and law schools. They get tens of thousands of applications every year. “It is top-five in everything. It seems crazy to say, but I didn’t like LA. It surprised me. I like cities. I like palm trees and beaches. I had family there. But it wasn’t for me.”

I asked when he knew he belonged back here instead.

He said, “It didn’t happen overnight. But looking back, I called a basketball game at Pauley where UCLA beat Kentucky. Kentucky was number one in the country. It was the first time the teams had ever played on campus. UCLA and Kentucky are perhaps the two most storied teams in the history of collegiate basketball. It was a great game. UCLA won. But it didn’t do for me emotionally what Tech beating Duke or Carolina when they were number one did here.

“Not only did it not resonate with me, but it didn’t resonate for the fans either. (The sentiment was,) ‘That’s what we’re supposed to do.’ They can recruit any player they want. Great weather. Unbelievable traditions. Great academics.

“I think my lack of emotion affected my work. No, I wasn’t doing the best work I could. I remember driving through downtown LA at night after some games. The skyline, the massive freeway; it was cool! I was listening to the radio station replay the highlights. I had a sense of professional pride and an ego-jolt for a second. It was great. And that lasted about twenty seconds. I missed the relationships here.”

“That’s a great story, Bill,” I said, getting moist eyes.

“Thank you. There are a lot of great people in LA. But people here are genuine, generous, and sincere. Here, the relationship between the players, the fans, and the university at large is unique. It can’t be duplicated or engineered or bought. I needed to leave to fully understand how much that meant to me.

 “It’s different here, it really is. If you’re a Hokie, you know what that is. That’s not an indictment of UCLA. What brought us together after April 16 is unique. That was the worst day in the lives of so many, of those kids and their families and our campus and state and county. But over 20 of the kids shot that day survived. Not one of them transferred. Not one student who took a bullet in their body transferred. There is a reason for that. I hope and pray that no university anywhere will ever go through that again, but the fact that everybody hung in there and stuck together says a lot about this place. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this. I knew this. But I didn’t know how much that meant to me. It’s what lures people back here. If you’re a Hokie, you know that.

“People here are saying to me over and over, ‘Bill, we really missed you.’ This is a FACT: I missed you all more than you missed me. I missed Mike Burnop; I love the guy. Working with him was the best 27 years of my life. Period.

“Everything that we want at Virginia Tech, they have at UCLA. But everything they want, we have here.”