Editor's Note, 2/22/17: Chris Morrill has announced he will step down as city manager after 7 years. He has accepted a job in Chicago as director of the Government Finance Officers Association. We wish him the best of luck and thank him for his years of service, leadership and enthusiasm he brought to the region.
The story below is a preview from our July / August 2016 issue. For the full story Subscribe today, view our FREE interactive digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Chris Morrill isn’t a native Roanoker, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another person so passionate about his city.
For one, he frequents the local restaurants on the regular. He chose Leonore Restaurant on Campbell for our lunch, a spot with excellent service and a menu that’ll have me going back for more than a tasty Caesar salad next time.
Morrill is from Southbridge, Massachusetts, a small mill town of about 18,000 residents. His father was involved as the town council’s chairman; his grandfather, one of the early Irish immigrants to serve in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
While politics was considered somewhat of a “sport” up north, Morrill knew he didn’t want to be a politician. Instead, he went down to Chapel Hill for his Master’s in Public Administration, focusing on local government management. From there he worked most of his early career in Savannah, Georgia as a management analyst, eventually working his way up to assistant city manager.
“I wasn’t looking to leave Savannah, but a recruiter called about the open city manager position in Roanoke. He urged me to check it out. My wife found Roanoke online and immediately came upon RoanokeOutside.com. She said I had to go check it out.”
Morrill started his new job as Roanoke’s city manager in 2010, and admits that the years have flown by. He is proud of the national attention Roanoke’s been getting as of late. He lists several worthy reasons for the media, such as the relationship with Virginia Tech and Carilion (“the biggest economic development potential we have”) and the investment of broadband. “We’re really going from ‘Train City’ to ‘Brain City’ with all of these exciting endeavors!”
Perhaps what excites Morrill most was the neighborhood library investments. “When I got here, there was one library project on the books...I said maybe we take that $15 million and make a bigger impact. Libraries are community centers and we can redo a library very affordably. We work with the neighborhoods so as not to compete with local businesses. Each library has a different feel.”
Morrill and his wife Kimberly have now lived in Roanoke for about six years. Their older son Daniel is in his first year at UVA (the higher education counting as another great draw to the area). Their younger son Declan is a sixth grader at James Madison; he plays viola and is heavily involved with his soccer team. Spare time is a rare commodity, but Morrill and his family have a few favorite things to do around Roanoke.
“We love the theater at Hollins,” Morrill says. “They’re doing some amazing stuff. We try to hit up all their student performances and playwright labs in the summer.”
The family also frequents Grandin Theatre and often visit the Farmers Market and festivals downtown. As they live in South Roanoke, they enjoy being able to hop on their bikes and cruise down the greenway to downtown or Pop’s ice cream shop.
“We spend a lot of time outdoors, taking advantage of hiking, too. The kids are happy here. We feel comfortable with our 12-year-old hanging out downtown. Just the other week we dropped him and a friend off at the Pinball Museum; they walked down to Texas Tavern for a cheesy Western and heard stories from the server there. They thought it was so cool.”
Morrill and his wife sometimes frequent the Hotel Roanoke on Saturday nights for a drink. “We’ll see a couple of wedding parties, followed by a muddy kayaker returning from outdoor adventures. It’s great to see the variety!”
Morrill welcomes open dialogue about the city and its future. He clearly enjoys local government--just ask to see the Parks & Rec TV show sticker on his iPad that reads, “I like local government as much as Leslie Knope loves waffles!” (Maybe our next lunch involves breakfast.)