New Work for the Roanoker’s 40th Anniversary Issue: What $82 Million Can (And Didn’t) Do for Roanoke’s $14 Million Poff Building

The $14 million Richard H. Poff Federal Building was heralded as part of Roanoke’s “new era” in the inaugural issue of The Roanoker in the fall of 1974.

A photo of the under-construction, 14-story tower ran alongside a cover-story essay by Founder/Publisher Richard Wells that cited the new federal building as part of downtown Roanoke’s reinvention.

No longer.

Today, the structure has become a different kind of symbol: One of governmental waste, malpractice and bureaucracy.

“It’s a slap in the face of the taxpayers,” says 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte.

The Poff Federal Building was selected for a $51 million renovation project funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the federal stimulus.

But through a mix of mind-bogglingly bad (and allegedly illegal) bid management, cost overruns and all-around poor planning, the project cost has escalated to more than $80 million.

Read more at the story’s home on the Roanoker website, or find the full digital version here.

A new EPL season starts. Here’s how I got sucked in last year.

In Great Britain fans don’t pick their soccer clubs; the club picks them, usually before birth.

As a proud Virginian, however, I successfully avoided the English Premier League until 2013.

European football brushed against my life through friends and co-workers who fervently followed the ups and downs of EPL, La Liga and Champions League. It never piqued my interest until last August, when my family stayed in Boulder at the house of Johnny Jyemo, a roving percussionist and session player in a series of bands. He played with three different bands over the course of our couple-day stay, and he always wore soccer jerseys to gigs. I asked Johnny where the world’s best football is played, and he thought a bit before saying the EPL.

When an NBC Sports link about how to choose a side showed up in my Twitter feed soon after, I checked it out. Three teams that caught my interest: Everton, Newcastle and Stoke City. I liked the sound of Everton’s style of scrappy overachievement, Newcastle’s edginess (the fan who punched a police horse!) and the comparison between Stoke City and my beloved Chicago Football Bears.

Of those three, I chose Everton based on the fact its style appealed to me and general gut feeling (meaning: This is the team I would have chosen as a 6-year-old based on its uniform colors of royal blue and white).

Chuck Culpepper wrote in his 2008 book “Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer” about his first season cheering for Portsmouth, a scrappy underachieving team that challenged that year for European football (though since publication of Culpepper’s book it’s twice been relegated down to play in League 2). My situation paralleled his, except that while he attended games home and away in person, I followed Everton through the magic of the Internet.

I followed Everton’s Twitter account, as well as those of reporters who covered it. I subscribed on iTunes to the RadioCity Everton Matchbook, which essentially functioned like the NFL Red Zone channel in that it boiled each 90-minute game plus pre- and post-match manager comments down to a lean 23 minutes or so. I started to learn the team through broadcasters Alan Irving and Graeme Sharp.

As the season progressed I purchased a used, inexpensively-priced copy of James Corbett’s “Everton: School of Science,” which traced the team’s history season by season from its founding in 1878 up through the 2002-2003 season. (When I tweeted about approaching the end of the book, Mr. Corbett generously emailed me a PDF of a new chapter appended to later editions that went through 2010-2011.)

I experimented with the ESPNFC podcast in the early weeks of the season but found its tendency to focus mostly on the biggest games left me with insufficient Everton material. I often looked to the football knowledge of roller derby friend Kitten Scarentino, and here she pointed me to Men in Blazers, an EPL-focused podcast. I found Men in Blazers at the ideal moment as a first-year fan, when I had enough knowledge to appreciate their banter, even if I didn’t understand every bit of it. Even better, one of the hosts, Roger Bennett, was an Everton fan.

To the season: I had little sense of continuity as longtime Everton manager David Moyes left for Manchester United, replaced by Roberto Martinez. Early on, I had no idea who Everton should be beating or beaten by, so I listened to draws with Norwich, West Brom and Cardiff, and a win over Chelsea without truly understanding what I was hearing.

I started to recognize player names slowly. Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman jumped out early as goal scorers. I jeered Kitten when Moyes made a bid for both Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, and I felt better when Everton made it through the transfer window selling Fellaini for only a bit less than the initial bid for the two players together. Better yet I soon learned that new transfer and loanee James McCarthy and Romelu Lukaku were formidable, as Lukaku scored a series of key goals while McCarthy and Manchester City loanee Gareth Barry were color commentator Graeme Sharp’s most frequent choices for “Motor Range Man of the Match.”

As the season progressed I discovered the TuneIn app and TalkSport.com as ways to livestream games. I thrilled to Everton’s win against Manchester United at Old Trafford, and I learned that TalkSport lagged realtime when I had the Boxing Day loss at home versus Sunderland spoiled via Twitter.

In January, I ran the Frozen Toe 10K—the worst race I’ve run in my life. I blame my lack of exercise the month before, a weeks-long chest cold, but most of all, the fact I save the Goodison Park edition of the Everton derby versus Liverpool until my drive down the mountain. Though a 3-3 draw, the match broadcast (which featured Everton commentators Irving and Sharpe working with Liverpool commentators X and X) saw ups and downs that — although I knew the result beforehand (all of the Radio City podcasts display the final score in the episode title)—still depleted all my adrenalin before the race.

I suffered through Everton’s January, which included a second draw to West Brom and a 4-0 shellacking by Liverpool in the Anfield edition of the derby and a 1-0 loss to Tottenham in a key game.

The season’s apex first (of two) came for me on Feb. 22, when I drove across the state to hear Everton lose to Chelsea in injury time via a John Terry goal off a Frank Lampard penalty kick at Stamford Bridge. I shouted profanities in my car, then called my brother to tell him how bullshit that penalty was (this despite the fact I didn’t see the penalty in question but only heard it through a radio broadcast).

My fandom carried into the 2014 World Cup, where I watched games while working on freelance stories. For the first time, I felt worry watching winger Kevin Mirallas, one of my favorite players for Everton, enter the game as a substitute for Belgium against the United States Men’s National Team, including Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard.

After the World Cup, I kept a close watch on Everton’s dealings in the transfer market and rejoiced as it re-signed key players, as well as locking down 2013-14 loanees Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku as permanent signees.

And now, the 2014-15 EPL season has started. Everton already dropped two points by allowing a late goal to newly promoted Leicester City that turned a win into a draw. I can live with that, so long as the Toffees don’t follow the route of Culpepper’s Pompey and suffer relegation so soon after that first breakout season of fandom.

Add statistics/data to your long list of journalism skills

Former deskmate Katelyn Polantz clued me in today to a story posted on Medium by Clay Shirky which cites changes at the Roanoke Times as another example of the decline of print media.

Shirky talks about the dearth of training at newspapers (not always true——in my experience there were plenty of webinars and training in social media, but few sessions on other topics or refreshers on journalism fundamentals) and encourages young reporters to build their skills, especially when it comes to working with data, social media and other journalists as parts of a team.

My newspaper experience sits at just over 11 years. That’s a cup of coffee compared to lifers who’ve bled ink for decades. Still, I learned a few things from the rapidly changing industry during my stint.

Despite the decline in the newspaper industry, I still believe there’s a future for journalists. Last year I spoke to the staff of Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times during its fall bootcamp.

I told them they should try to build as many of the following skills as possible: Report, interview, use the Freedom of Information Act, shoot photos, edit photos, shoot video, edit video, write code and speak Spanish. From Shirky’s essay, add data work and statistics to the list.

If you’re competent at all of those things, you can find a journalism job. If you’re really good at two or more and competent at the rest, it may be a job you like as well.

Some thoughts on Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”

It’s surprising that outlaw country has yet to experience a full-fledged resurgence by a new wave of musicians.

Or then again, maybe not: As long as Willie Nelson is still alive and performing, do we really need a new generation of musicians to take up the torch?

One listen to Sturgill Simpson’s 2014 album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” provides the listener an answer in the affirmative.

Simpson’s likely to be the herald of a new wave of outlaw-style country musicians. It’s a great candidate for revival, given its solid, funky rhythms, its well-made tropes and the fact it makes for damn good bar music.

Simpson has a solid grasp of outlaw fundamentals: A great voice that all but channels the great Waylon Jennings; catchy melodies; aggressive yet restrained guitar solos.

But he also pushes the boundaries enough to make the music his own. Probably the most publicized twist has been his lyrical content, which balances spiritual questing, complete with mentions of Jesus, the devil, Buddha and of course love on “Turtles All the Way Down,” with explicit drug references: One lyric in the same tune name-drops “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT.” Another song is called “Long White Line” and works both as a road song and ode to cocaine. It’s not like the old outlaws didn’t mention their experiments with various mind-altering substances, but this certainly is kicking it up a notch.

Simpson’s band isn’t afraid to push the edges, either, and this really is where the album shines. The music goes spacey several times, most notably the ostensible album closer (actually the next to last track) “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which uses backwards tracking.

I came upon “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” almost by chance, when a friend asked me via Twitter if I’d heard it. Since that first listen, though, it and Mastodon’s “Once More Round the Sun” have gone a long way toward defining my summer.

New work for Blue Ridge Country: Agriculture’s Industrial Revolution began in the Shenandoah Valley

Compared to the monolithic corn and soybean fields of the Midwest, the rolling hills and valleys of western Virginia feel far removed from large-scale industrial agriculture.

But in the mid-19th century the region contributed heavily to feeding the rapidly growing United States of America, serving as the highest grain-producing region in one of the highest grain-producing states.

The Valley of Virginia also produced in that era a man who would forever leave a mark on American agriculture and business in general: Cyrus McCormick.

McCormick’s invention of the reaper changed food production around the world, and the business practices he and his brothers pioneered are standard today.

Read more about McCormick in the online teaser for my story at Blue Ridge Country. For the full story pick up the Sept./Oct. issue of Blue Ridge Country or read the digital edition here.