South of the (Virginia) border, VCU alum Keith Rogers Jr., '10 M.P.A., takes the lead as city manager
by James Shea
College was a package deal of sorts for Keith Rogers Jr. He picked Virginia Commonwealth University, but his mom got to choose his major.
“She picked political science for me,” Rogers said. “She told me, ‘I am picking this for you because you can do absolutely anything you want or nothing. It’s up to you to figure it out.’”
He figured it out just fine. Broadening his career in public administration, Rogers was recently named city manager of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The city is about 50 miles south of the Virginia line, so he’s not far from where family and education helped forge his path.
Rogers grew up in Hampton and decided to attend VCU after touring the campus in high school. He knew that former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was associated with the university, and as a young Black man in Virginia, he had deep respect for Wilder.
“He has always been an inspirational leader to me growing up,” Rogers said. “When I found out that not only was the school” — the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs — “named after him, but he was mayor at the time, I said, Richmond must be where I need to be.”
Rogers developed an early interest in politics, government and public policy, joining his parents in watching news programs and the “Today” show. His mother’s career was influential, too: As a social worker, she had firsthand perspective on local government.
“She really exposed me and encouraged me to go into government. She told me there were careers in government that were not elected offices,” Rogers said. “She really opened my eyes to public administration as a career path.”
“(Governor Wilder) has always been an inspirational leader to me growing up,” Rogers said. “When I found out that not only was the school” — the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs — “named after him, but he was mayor at the time, I said, Richmond must be where I need to be.” – Keith Rogers Jr.
Taking root in Richmond
Rogers earned his political science degree from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2008 and considered law school before pursuing government service. He earned a Master of Public Administration from VCU’s Wilder School and worked as a legislative aide in the Virginia House of Delegates before taking a job with the city of Richmond. Over nearly a decade, he rose to become a senior policy adviser.
At the same time, he served as an adjunct professor at VCU, teaching in the Wilder School and sharing his perspective as both a professional and an alum.
“One of the unique benefits of being in local government while working at VCU was that I was able to offer my expertise to the next generation,” Rogers said.
But he faced a career crossroads. He had long thought about serving as a city manager, but that would mean leaving Richmond.
He saw a job posting for town manager in Dumfries, home to about 5,000 people in Northern Virginia. He did not know much about the locality, but after chatting with the town mayor, Rogers saw the potential and began his work there in early 2019.
“Going from Richmond to Dumfries wasn’t really the plan,” he said. “It was the opportunity, and it presented itself. It got to the point in Richmond where I was not sure that I would be promoted.”
Taking the next step
Rogers was nearing the four-year mark in Dumfries when a recruiter for Rocky Mount contacted him about the city manager position. Rocky Mount has 4,000 employees and a population of 60,000, and Rogers said the move to a larger, more resourced community was a great opportunity. The region also is experiencing significant growth, and he could help manage it. He started there this past March.
“In Rocky Mount, we are at a pivotal time in the city’s history, in my opinion,” Rogers said. “We have the potential for explosive growth. The Research Triangle in North Carolina has been one of the fastest-growing areas of the entire country, and Rocky Mount is uniquely positioned for growth outside the Research Triangle.”
He is working with city staff and the City Council on a master plan and a housing plan. Amid the growth, he wants to maintain an economically and socially diverse community that avoids major gentrification.
Rogers said he relishes how his role connects him closely to the community, which is the core of local government service. Such work includes many demands, of course: Politics and personalities play a role – a city manager serves at the discretion of the elected City Council, and that means managing a diverse set of interests.
“Anytime you have a job where you have seven or eight bosses, it’s a challenge,” Rogers said. “Not everybody signs up for that, but it is a rare opportunity that I never take for granted.”
Nor does he forget his formative time in Richmond. Between college and work in government, Rogers spent 15 years in the city, which he said was an ideal place to learn and grow amid the presence of local, state and federal governments.
But he is also glad he left so that he could run a city. “There are millions of people who work for local government who never get the opportunity to be in the top spot,” Rogers said.
He looks back fondly on his time at VCU – and the choice his mom made for his major. He received a great education and solidified his path to public service.
“VCU was very transformative in my career,” Rogers said. “It provided me such a great opportunity.”