The former Melrose library, across from the Landsdowne housing project, will become a community center, among other things, Virginia Western Community College will offer classes. Photo by Ralph Berrier Jr.

It takes a little imagination to envision what the Roanoke EnVision Center will look like.

Jasey Roberts, the public relations, marketing and social media manager for the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority, walked through the old Melrose Library on Salem Turnpike, which is being renovated into a community center that will offer a range of public services. He nodded toward new offices and pointed to where computers, counseling spaces and other services will soon be available.

“We’re waiting for the chairs and desks,” he said as he guided a brief tour past the tools, shop vacs, electrical parts, step ladders and other signs of construction work that took up space once occupied by shelves of library books, magazines and newspapers.

“Our community partners will be here,” he said, pointing to a row of office doors. “There’s the Virginia Western [Community College] room, there’s Carilion Clinic. Here’s the computer lab … we’ll have a color printer. No wi-fi, yet.”

None of it’s there, yet. Soon, though, the housing authority, along with the help of multiple community agencies and partners, will offer more than 6,700 square feet of services that range from financial planning assistance to college classes to healthcare, with much of the services geared toward helping Roanokers living in poverty.

Friday, Roanoke’s housing authority opens the doors to the EnVision Center, the culmination of a three-year project that started when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development chose Roanoke as one of the first 18 sites in the country for its EnVision program.

Developed during the tenure of then-HUD secretary Ben Carson, EnVision programs focus on four “pillars” of economic empowerment, educational advancement, health and wellness, and character and leadership. The programs are offered at centralized hubs to provide accessible resources for people — especially low-income individuals — to improve their lives. (https://www.hud.gov/envisioncenters)

Just over 20 percent of Roanoke’s population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about double the state poverty rate. The percentage of Roanokers under age 65 who don’t have health insurance is 13.2, also double the state rate of uninsured people.

Roanoke was chosen as an EnVision site in late 2019, due partly to those high-poverty numbers, but also because the housing authority’s pre-existing emphasis on those four pillars of empowering people, according to news reports at the time.

Even then, the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority had plans to convert the old library property, which was closed when a new Melrose Branch Library opened a block away in the summer of 2019. The City of Roanoke agreed to sell the 3-acre property and its circa-1976 brick building to the authority for $10 in the fall of 2020. The pandemic delayed renovations, which cost the housing authority about $1.25 million; and the building won’t be fully ready to house all the EnVision programs for a few more weeks.

Standing across Salem Turnpike from the housing authority’s headquarters and Lansdowne Park, the city’s largest public housing complex, the EnVision Center will eventually be convenient to hundreds of potential visitors who have difficulty accessing community services because of transportation, costs or other issues.

“This is an opportunity to eliminate barriers,” said Greg Goodman, the housing authority’s director of community support services. “We’re bringing the resources to folks. We’ll eliminate the transportation issues, provide childcare … We can eliminate the barriers and help people reach career goals and better themselves.”

Virginia Western will be one of the chief collaborators with the housing authority on the new site. The community college will operate a satellite program inside the building, which will include career advising, financial aid assistance, job training and other classes. The satellite programs are the first in Virginia to be physically located on public housing property, according to the college.

Milan Hayward (from left), Virginia Western Community College’s Vice President of School of Career and Corporate Training, and Greg Goodman, Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s Director Community Support Services, listen as RRHA’s Public Relations, Marketing and Social Media manager Jasey Roberts describes the computer lab that will become part of the EnVision Center in the old Melrose Branch Library in Roanoke. Photo by Ralph Berrier Jr.

Providing easy access was a main reason for joining the EnVision Center, said Milan Hayward, Virginia Western’s vice president for career and corporate training.

“Virginia Western’s prerogative is community engagement,” Hayward said. “We want the college to be more accessible to the people in Lansdowne specifically, and Northwest Roanoke in general.”

Hayward said that the college will offer a variety of courses at the center, which could include everything from math and English to workforce training in data analytics, information technology, for pharmacy technicians and other fields. He said that Virginia Western already teaches precision machining courses at a nearby facility on Melrose Avenue, which could eventually include machining classes in the EnVision Center. Those classes could begin within a few weeks, he said.

The college also plans to hold an information session on Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m. about the Community College Access Program (commonly called “C-Cap”) that provides free tuition for qualifying students from the Roanoke Valley. Virginia Western’s Frank Tyree, whose title is Roanoke City CCAP Success Coach, will be at the center every Wednesday from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. during the school year.

Virginia Western has made efforts in recent years to make going to college easier for low-income Roanokers and people who live in public housing and lack personal transportation. The college offers free bus passes on Valley Metro, the Roanoke Valley’s public bus system, but that didn’t always make getting to the college’s Colonial Avenue campus considerably easier. Bus schedules, long routes and lengthy waits at bus stops were often incompatible with a person’s college schedule.

“The bus passes are very helpful, but they don’t overcome travel time or waiting for the bus,” Hayward said. “Now, we can bring to the people in the Lansdowne community the chance to walk to advising opportunities, financial support, training and classes. It’s the next level of accessibility.”

As Roberts put it: “It’s a one-stop resource.”

Hayward was part of the small group that took a brief tour of the center earlier this week. The building’s interior, once an open space lined with books, maintains some features of its 1970s Modern architecture past, which include some original wood paneling and an old, numberless clock built into a wall near where the front desk used stand. Improvements include a row of offices, a large community meeting room and class spaces. G & H Contracting, Inc. of Salem has led the project’s renovation.

The housing authority has been offering EnVision services since the program’s inception three years ago, but the old library provides considerably more space than two previous locations. The program was originally housed at the Villages at Lincoln complex before moving to the authority’s headquarters.

“To be candid, we just did not have the space,” Goodman said. “Then this fell into our lap. The Melrose Branch Library “moved into a beautiful new location. So, we could repurpose this once-popular space into something people can be proud of.”

The EnVision Center will be open in its new building weekdays from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Although services are tailored to help lower-income individuals and families, the center is open to the public. Additional partners include Family Service of Roanoke Valley, which will provide mental health services and counseling, and the Roanoke Financial Empowerment Center, which will offer financial advising.

The Harvest Collective, a Roanoke-based co-op that promotes sustainable agriculture practices and composting, teamed with Virginia Cooperative Extension to create a community garden on the center’s property. Local children and volunteers have planted arugula and other fall crops in the garden along Salem Turnpike. New landscaping touches that include maple and redbud trees have sprouted around the building.

By bringing resources closer to low-income people who need them, Goodman said he believes more people will receive job training, financial advice, healthcare and education to become independent enough to leave public housing complexes such as Lansdowne.

Goodman hopes one day there won’t be a need for people who work in public housing.

“We want to work our way out of a job,” he said.

Ralph Berrier Jr.

Ralph Berrier Jr. is a writer who lives in Roanoke. Contact him at ralph.berrier@gmail.com.