Alston warned mayor of consequences of revisiting hotel bond vote

by Jordan Green

During a meeting at the Old Guilford County Courthouse on Jan. 22, county commission Chairman Skip Alston warned Greensboro Mayor Bill Knight and Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan that there could be repercussions if an item about hotel bond financing were to reappear on the city council’s agenda.

“I told them there was some talk in the community [about] a protest as far as Dennis Quaintance and Mike Weaver using their influence to influence the council and the mayor,” Alston recalled. “The community would hold them responsible to do the right thing and not to cave into influence by one of the largest taxpayers in Guilford County.”

Knight and Vaughan said they were stunned by the conversation, which took place after the top two officials from the county and city met to discuss scheduling a joint city-county meeting. Vaughan said the conversation took place after Guilford County Commission Vice- Chair Steve Arnold excused himself, and Alston indicated there was something he wanted to discuss with the mayor and mayor pro tem.

The three elected officials concurred that the point of concern was whether the city council might revisit the council’s decision in a Dec. 15 vote to approve the use of federal recovery zone facility bonds to finance a downtown luxury hotel in which Alston is contracted to handle the real estate transaction.

Knight said that Alston raised the possibility of adverse national publicity during the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, of which Alston is a cofounder, on Feb. 1 if the hotel bond item were on the council’s agenda for the next day. Knight said that Alston directly referenced the names of national civil rights leaders the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

“He said those gentlemen would be here for the dedication and, ‘Mayor Knight, the community will be watching’ — those were pretty close to his words — that there was a possibility of having a march and demonstrations,” Knight said. “He went on to say that with the opening of the museum, it might be such

that the mayor would not be invited to participate.

“I was absolutely stunned,” Knight added. “I’ve never had anyone talk to me that way unexpectedly.”

Alston denied saying that the mayor might be dis-invited from the museum opening.

Knight and Vaughan remember one aspect of the conversation differently.

Vaughan said Alston raised the possibility that a recall initiative might be launched against the mayor, the mayor pro tem and at-large Councilman Danny Thompson. Knight said when he heard the word “recall,” he took it to mean a rescission of the Dec. 15 vote.

“I will swear on a stack of Bibles,” Vaughan said. “He mentioned a possible recall against me, Bill and Danny. He said you all ran citywide and I know you didn’t get a lot of support in the black community. I want to be clear: Skip never said ‘I’ or ‘me.’ He said, ‘I’m a friend and I just want to let you know what I heard.’” Alston also denied mentioning a possible recall initiative.

The city of Greensboro allows for citizens to launch an initiative to recall an elected official on the grounds of “cause, misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance or violation of the oath of office.”

Knight said he found the conversation troubling.

“To have this come up, it seems to be some impropriety in the nature of doing that,” Knight said, without elaborating.

“Obviously, he doesn’t know what impropriety is,” Alston riposted in an interview with YES! Weekly on Tuesday. “I was just having a conversation with him. I wasn’t insinuating any type of threat… and [I] was doing something on behalf of the best interest of the community so we wouldn’t have any division in the community with the opening of the museum.”

Alston said Deena Hayes, a political ally, had considered leading a protest because she thought Weaver and Quaintance’s questioning of the hotel project might be motivated by racism. Alston added that he knows Weaver and Quaintance, the developers responsible for the high-end O. Henry and Proximity hotels in the suburban Green Valley market, are not racists but rather are looking out for their business interests. He said that he talked to Hayes on Monday and she agreed that a protest at the opening of the museum would be inadvisable.

Hayes is a member of the museum’s board of directors. As a member of the Ole Asheboro Neighborhood Association, which holds a stake in the downtown luxury hotel partnership, she has been a vocal proponent of the project. Revenue from the hotel would allow the neighborhood association to pursue community development initiatives. Hayes also stands to receive a direct financial benefit from the building of the hotel.

Lawyer Henry Isaacson introduced JCG & Associates as a principal in the hotel partnership during a city council meeting earlier this month. The construction and general contracting company is owned by John C. Greene. Hayes and Greene own a house together on Gorrell Street and voting records confirm that both are residents.

Vaughan said at the time of her meeting with Alston she had no idea of the relationship between Hayes and Greene.

“Deena was acting on behalf of the neighborhood, that was always my impression,” Vaughan said. “It turns out that she might actually have a substantial financial gain from this project. As elected officials, I would expect that Skip and Deena would appreciate the scrutiny that we have to give this. They know the fiduciary responsibility that we have, and I don’t think it’s out of line to ask questions…. Just because you ask questions doesn’t mean you’re a racist. I voted for affordable housing and I voted to close the White Street Landfill. To be painted as a racist is very hurtful.”

Hayes did not respond to efforts to obtain comment for this story.

Alston said that, contrary to popular perception, it’s not he and Hayes that trying to leverage advantage.

“The community is not asking for any favors,” he said. “We just want them to do the right thing, and make this project rest on its merits, and not on one of the largest taxpayers in Guilford County, Mike Weaver.”

Weaver and Quaintance met the mayor at 5 p.m. on the evening before Knight met with Alston.

“We asked every city council member we talked to, to please reconsider it, get more information, be more accountable and more transparent,” Weaver said on Tuesday. “He said, ‘I’m interested. I’ve got some questions myself, and I’ll consider it.’ But he didn’t say he would do anything.”

Alston said he learned about the meeting from another councilman, and that Knight confirmed it during their conversation. Alston added that the same unnamed councilman told him that Knight planned to put the item back on the agenda in contradiction to what he told Alston.

Knight said on Tuesday that at the time he had no intention of putting the item back on the agenda and still has no intention of doing so.

“Greensboro did not approve spending taxpaying money — no local money, no state money or federal money,” he said. “We were told that under the recovery zone facility bonds we were basically giving permission to go out and seek private borrowing.”

Weaver said that, contrary to speculation, he and Weaver are not interested in building their own downtown hotel. They are in the process of obtaining documents about the hotel project, which Weaver said he hopes will clarify whether the hotel project is feasible. “What we fear is if economic feasibility is not properly vetted that if the new proposed hotel or the Downtown Marriott gets into financial difficulty, it will be a white elephant for downtown,” he said. “It could easily take the other down because the downward spiral of room rates. It’s kind of like two gas stations across the street from each other that get into a pricing war.”

Alston said he believes Weaver holds a direct interest in the new hotel not being built, and that people should be more concerned about Weaver’s influence than his own.

“He who has the gold makes the rules,” Alston said. “You got the most powerful man in the city taking you to dinner and you got a new mayor. And you got an African-American commissioner who doesn’t hold any power over the city council. I don’t want anybody to think I hold more power than Mike Weaver.”

Alston said he sees the effort to open a new downtown hotel as not only economically aligned with the imminent opening of the civil rights museum but tied to its legacy.

“You have an African-American

neighborhood association with some African-American investors coming together with some wealthy whites,” he said. “If you want to put it in the contents of the civil rights museum, [at one time] black people and white people couldn’t even sit down and have a cup of coffee together. Now, you have black people and white people sitting down at a conference table right across the street putting together a $50 million deal. That’s progress. We should be celebrating that on the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins, not stopping it.”