Action Greensboro interested in drawing universities downtown

by Eric Ginsburg

As the stream of Saint Patty’s Day revelers into downtown began to pick up after the workday ended, dozens of business professionals and local leaders milled about in the Empire Room on Elm Street waiting for the Action Greensboro meeting to begin.

It was billed as a forum for the nonprofit to present their projects and gather feedback on Greensboro’s next “big idea.”

In addition to presentations about the downtown greenway project and the public education task force, the meeting included a short overview of the concept of a “downtown university district” and participants were invited to give feedback.

Action Greensboro is exploring the idea of a university district based on groundwork by Opportunity Greensboro and Downtown Greensboro Inc.

“There’s options as to whether or not it would be a cluster or spread throughout the center city,” said Cecelia Thompson, Action Greensboro’s director of projects. “We have looked at a number of sites in the downtown area.”

Overall, she said, the idea is to encourage higher education institutions to collaborate and locate downtown in order to increase the presence of the schools and improve downtown as a whole.

Opportunity Greensboro helped create a list of potential projects that could be located downtown such as graduate schools, a performing arts space, specialized schools, or an international center. According to its website, the organization is a “business and collegiate partnership” collaborating to help Greensboro develop a “competitive advantage for business growth.”

Opportunity Greensboro includes the presidents and chancellors of all seven area colleges and universities, along with business leaders from VF Corp., the Center for Creative Leadership, the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, Volvo Financial Services and others.

In August, Downtown Greensboro Inc. published a “downtown economic development strategy” which included a long-term project to develop “shared college/ university facilities that will bring the knowledge community downtown and encourage collaboration among institutions.” The entire report is available online.

At the March 17 meeting, Ed Kitchen of the Bryan Foundation and Ken Mayer of Moser Mayer Phoenix Associates presented an overview and action steps that was cut short due to the event running over the allotted time and a desire to gather attendee input on the various ideas presented. The audience split into groups based on the tables they were seated at to generate ideas on the  projects and for the city in general.

‘There’s options as to whether or not it would be a cluster or spread throughout the center city…

We have looked at a number of sites in the downtown area.’ —Cecelia Thompson, Action Greensboro’s director of projects

In their presentation and one of the handout flyers available at every table, Kitchen and Mayer displayed maps of potential downtown sites for “university district” projects. One map showed “opportunity sites” that are owned by the city or foundations while another showed sites that are privately held but could still be feasible. Almost all of the locations are within the perimeter of the proposed downtown Greenway, and three out of the four that aren’t inside are directly bordering it.

The concept for a downtown university district is still in the planning phases, and may not go forward at all.

“Some of this is really dependent on what happens on a state level,” Thompson said, referring to potential massive budget cuts planned for UNCG and NC A&T University.

To some extent, the Gateway University Research Park, a partnership between the schools, serves as a model and offers hope to planners with Action Greensboro. The research park has a north and south campus, with a number of joint ventures including the School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering on Lee Street near Interstate 40.

Representatives from the A&T and UNCG university relations departments were not available for comment for this story.

It is unclear to what extent schools will be interested in either relocating programs or offices downtown or creating new ones. The development model has been implemented by a number of other cities throughout the country, and planners cite Spokane, Wash. and Denver as examples.

Part of the idea is to develop a specific brand or image used to sell Greensboro to interested businesses or young professionals.

According to a handout from the Action Greensboro meeting, “an increased presence of colleges and universities downtown would help brand Greensboro and drive economic development, while also addressing institutional space needs and marketing goals.” The flyer also notes that widespread financial support will be necessary.

The meeting and other publicly available material do not address any potential negative impacts, such as a possible increase in rent prices, of the development plan that has been in the works for at least seven months.

Thompson said there currently is not a timeline for the project, but that hopefully within the next few months one could be created as Action Greensboro, Downtown Greensboro Inc., Opportunity Greensboro and their allies move forward.