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Editorial: Jim Sears and Center in the Square’s Legacy of Improving Life | editorial staff | Pro Club Bd

Jim Sears has previously retired as manager of the Center in the Square in Roanoke.

That retirement on the last day of 2013 ended 20 years at the helm of a cornerstone of arts and culture and economic development — but it didn’t last. Sears’ replacement turned out to be on short-time work, and within six months Sears was back at the helm for what could be imagined as an encore or even a full third act.

However, the truth is that even when Sears briefly retired nine years ago, he didn’t Yes, really retire Although relieved of his managerial duties, he continued to hold office hours at the center, working on and attending to tasks such as completing the tax credit agreement that paid for most of the center’s $28 million renovation in the early 2010s even watched the koi in the roof pond. As he put it at the time, “There’s so much to do when you have a 200,000-square-foot building.”

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Given that news of his first resignation from the center turned out to be “major exaggeration,” one might reasonably wonder if Sears, 76, really means it when he says he’s really excited about his role as president now and general manager resigns.

The answer is yes, he means business most of the time. “You have to be real at some point,” he joked. “There is no other choice.”

Yet he will remain involved and available to help with the transition as Tara Marciniak, the Center’s director of institutional advancement for the past four and a half years, takes his place. “I think her management approach is better than mine and she will do a better job than me,” he said.

Beyond that, he will remain involved as a member of the center’s board of directors and serve on a fundraising committee for the next three years.

For Sears, that’s still a path to retirement. “Sometimes it just takes time to retire.”

“Deceptively Complex”

When Sears joined the Center in 1993 to become its fourth director, he had already had a full 25-year career as a scientist behind him. He ended that quarter century as President of Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave.

The chief executive who oversaw Sears’ hiring, retired bank executive and philanthropist Warner Dalhouse, once described running the center as “a deceptively difficult task and deceptively complex because of the nature of artistic directors.”

Sears “recognized the nature of the challenge early on and was successful at it,” Dalhouse said.

When Sears arrived, the center had been open for 10 years to provide rent-free housing to cultural institutions including the Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts, the Mill Mountain Theater, the Science Museum of Western Virginia, and the Roanoke Valley History Museum.

To offset building maintenance costs, Center also took on paying tenants. The most enduring and well-known of these, the Roanoke Weiner booth, still occupies a first-floor tract of Center’s McGuire Building at 1 Market Square SE — the largest of five buildings Center now manages.

The tenant structure has changed over the decades. The Harrison Museum of African American Culture moved into the second floor. The art museum, now the Taubman Museum of Art, moved out.

The combined History Museum of Western Virginia and the O. Winston Link Museum is now located in the former Norfolk and Western passenger terminal at 101 Shenandoah Avenue NE, another building owned by the Center. The Opera Roanoke has offices in the Center on Church building at 20 Church Ave SE. Mill Mountain Theater hosts actors in the old Shenandoah Hotel on Salem Avenue SE. The Roanoke Ballet Theater rehearses in a building on Grandin Road SW that the center leases.

Since its debut in 1983, the center has been credited with transforming the Roanoke market area from an unsafe place into a hub of thriving business. Still, for the first two decades of its existence as a federal agency, the multi-story main atrium in the McGuire Building was plain and barren, as Dalhouse once put it.

The renovation that served as the capstone of Sears’ “first term” changed that, introducing screens with seating, an 8,000-gallon live coral reef aquarium, rooftop gardens and more.

“A Better Society”

During Sears’ “second term,” he took a new direction as Center stopped being just a landlord to other nonprofit organizations and began increasingly ambitious forays into creating attractions and offering original programming. The center’s main building is home to the Roanoke Pinball Museum, the Starcade, which features vintage arcade games, and the largest of them all, the Don and Barbara Smith Children’s Museum, better known as Kids Square.

Outside the building, this includes working with Roanoke County’s Explore Park to create new draws for ticket holders, such as at the Roanoke Industrial Center, like Blue Ridge Nightmares, and other ventures that Sears hopes will help create more To draw attention to economic development in the south-east quadrant of the city.

“We realized that in order to have the income needed to keep all the space available for the other museums, we had to be an active programmer,” Sears said.

He insists that despite the shift to creating attractions rather than just hosting them, there has been no shift in mission on the part of the center. Any revenue that pushes the center’s attractions beyond what is required for their own budgets goes into a cash pool that supports the non-profit tenants, he said. “All the money we have goes towards supporting arts and culture.”

He’s proud that the center has never laid off employees during the COVID-19 shutdowns. The Center received no federal funding when Jim Gilmore was Governor, so the $150,000 included in the new state budget for the Center’s Get Schooled program at the urging of Rep. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, is a welcome change . Get Schooled, a pun on the center’s aquarium inhabitants, teaches science, math, and agriculture to public school students.

Sears said his background as college president prepared him for the decade-long center because the jobs are similar. “You deal with different personalities and people and try to maximize everyone’s productivity and efficiency. You educate people.” But most importantly, “We are building a better society. We change lives.”

This changing of the guard comes just before the center’s 40th anniversary. We look forward to the next four decades as the center changes lives for the better.

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