The City Builder
When Ray Booth drives around Lynchburg, he sees things that are invisible to the rest of us. Like a man with X-ray vision, Ray sees annexation lines, underground pipes, utility lines, hidden infrastructure, and the decades of work it took to come to fruition. Ray truly knows this city because he spent 25 years building it as Lynchburg’s director of public works.
Ray grew up in Campbell County in the 1960s and remembers seeing English Construction build the road by his house and the road to school. As a bright, young student at Rustburg High School, Ray was awarded the English Scholarship to go to Virginia Tech and study civil engineering. William “Curtis” English and Ray would continue to cross paths many times through the years.
After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1970 and working for VDOT his first few years out of school, Ray went to work for the City of Lynchburg as a senior design engineer in 1975. He could not have arrived at a more contentious or pivotal time in the city’s history.
While Ray had been studying and working for the state, the city had been pushing for annexation, which would double the size of the city by changing the boundaries to include a significant portion of Campbell and Bedford counties. Proponents of annexation wanted to expand the city and increase the tax base to be able to provide more city services to more people. Opponents of the plan thought the city-county lines were fine as drawn and didn’t want to be reshuffled into the higher-tax city. This hard-fought battle eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided not to stop the planned annexation. The annexation ultimately went through in 1976 and ended up being the last annexation in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Instead of stepping into a steady government job with the routine responsibility of simply maintaining existing infrastructure, Ray was thrown right into the huge undertaking of expanding infrastructure to a city that had just doubled from 25 square miles to 50. While not everyone was happy about annexation, Ray did not shrink from the challenge it presented. He loved and lived his work with a passion that went beyond just professional duty.
“When I was younger, I thought about going into ministry because of my faith, but I didn’t feel like God was calling me to that. I felt like I was called into public service,” Ray says. “It was a calling for me, not a job. I did it as a calling and still feel that way. That’s why I worked thousands of hours, put it as a priority, and always worked for the common good rather than personal good.”
Moving up quickly to become the director of the public works department, Ray managed 400 people and a $100 million budget. While not partisan by nature, working closely with city council helped Ray realize that he had to be sensitive to political issues if he wanted to get things done. He saw good projects killed by grandstanding council members playing politics, which taught him that one thoughtless decision can have a forever impact on a community. On what qualities make a good city council member, Ray says, “It’s someone that always looks at the big picture and does not have an agenda.”
As public works director, Ray also was passionate about looking back into local history to understand how the city’s infrastructure came to be. One example: Ray knew the city got water from Pedlar Lake, but he finally learned the full story, which started with a cholera epidemic in the early 1890s when the city lost one-third of its population. “The city fathers decided to go into Amherst County and buy 10,000 acres around the Pedlar River. In the early 1900s, the city built a 22-mile, 30-inch redwood stave pipeline that brought pure water from the newly created Pedlar Lake all the way into the city,” Booth explains. “This was the only system in the country where the water flowed by gravity all the way from the source to the city through the treatment system into the collection system without being pumped. The city eventually sold most of the land around the lake to the federal government for the creation of the George Washington National Forest.” Later, Ray created the City Public Works Museum, with funding help from English, so that others could understand and appreciate this piece of Lynchburg history.
In 2000, at the age of 53, Ray left the city. With so much knowledge of how a city works, he started his own company that worked with prominent local businesses such as Hurt & Proffitt, Jamerson, and English Construction. All these years later, he was again working with English, eventually working with them almost exclusively. For several decades at the city, local businesses, brokers, and developers had always come to see Ray to get his perspective on the viability of their development plans, but now he was getting a chance to work on the private side to help bring good projects to fruition.
For the last decade, Ray has been pouring most of his time, treasure, and talent into Park View Community Mission, a local nonprofit that serves the community through a food pantry, food backpacks for kids, and a Wednesday night supper at their Memorial Avenue home. Whether working on water or infrastructure or hunger, Ray’s life has been dedicated to meeting the most basic and essential needs of his neighbors.
The average citizen of Lynchburg will never fathom the amount of unseen infrastructure that makes this city run smoothly. Most of us will never understand all the intricacies of how water gets from the Pedlar to our homes and back into the James River safely treated. However, when you turn on your faucet, just know that generations of Lynchburg citizens like Ray Booth have worked hard to make sure that the water that fills your glass is clean, safe to drink, and readily available when you need it. For this diligent and forward-thinking work, our community should be forever grateful.
Billy Hansen, MAI is a commercial real estate appraiser and broker serving the Lynchburg area. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org