Bridget Chisholm answers her critics

by Jordan Green

Weeks before the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Greensboro’s longstanding racial distrust is playing out in a heated public debate over the fate of a black-led initiative to build a luxury hotel in the center city.

Exacerbating skepticism towards the project is a hostile stirring across the nation towards government involvement in the economy just as federal stimulus financing is kicking in at the local level.

Into this maelstrom steps Bridget Chisholm.

A financial consultant who was born in Fayetteville, educated at Wake Forest University and recently in residence in Memphis, Tenn., Chisholm leads an investor group awaiting the Greensboro City Council’s decision on Jan. 19 on whether to approve $19 million in recovery zone facility bonds backed by the federal government. As part of the deal to build a luxury hotel at February 1 Place and Davie Street, Chisholm is also asking the city to approve $4 million in local economic development bonds to pay for a parking garage and retail shell. Like the original location, the new location lies in one of the city’s urban recovery zones, qualifying the project for the low-interest federal loans.

The county is also being asked to approve $9 million in facility bonds and $4 million in economic development bonds to finance the project.

“I have expertise in structured finance,” said Chisholm during an interview at her office in east Greensboro. “A lot of people don’t understand it. Those who don’t know, think it’s illegal. It’s not illegal. How do I know about it? I read about it. To get dinged for it here in a city that has so much higher education… to have people pooh-pooh on you has been the most disappointing thing.”

Since Chisholm went public with her plan last summer, she has met with suspicion from a significant swath of the community that views her as a wily, out-of-town developer; a politi cally connected con artist intent on sinking public money into a project doomed to failure; and a sophisticated huckster exploiting a local neighborhood association to line her own pockets. The characterizations are wide of the mark, she insists.

Occasionally, the criticism has risen to the level of outright racism, as in a comment left at the bottom of a recent News & Record story about the project that posited, “Why is Africa a 3 rd -rate continent, and almost all industrial development, inventions, etc. have come out of Europe and its colonies? Next time someone wants to blame whitey, they might want to appreciate that they live in one of the most developed, technology advanced countries [SIC] in the world for a reason.”

Chisholm and her partners have been particularly irked by questions about why the Ole Asheboro Neighborhood Association remains a partner after the development group moved the location of the proposed hotel after determining that the $1.1 million price tag on a parcel of property slated for redevelopment by the city south of Lee Street on South Elm Street was too high.

In addition to family connections, Chisholm said part of the reason she came to Greensboro was because of her longstanding friendship with Deena Hayes, a member of the Ole Asheboro Neighborhood Association and a member of the Guilford County School Board. Joining forces with a neighborhood association aligns with a notion Chisholm calls “urban community economic development.”

“This is something that I really believe in,” Chisholm said. “This is something that I practice with my day-to-day life, my dollars and cents. Why wouldn’t I include the neighborhood association? The project is the enterprise. It’s not dependent on a location.”

Chisholm said the fact that the neighborhood association continues to hold a stake in the project should be considered evidence of her integrity rather than stoking further suspicion.

The two women said the neighborhood association is not being asked to raise any capital and bears no liability in the investment. When and how the investment would pay out to the neighborhood association remains unclear.

“That is so paternalistic to think we don’t have the intelligence and competence to look out for our own interests,” Hayes said. “I’m very educated.

Our president works in healthcare. [Longtime neighborhood leader] Nettie [Coad] has community leadership and political experience.”

Asked what value the neighborhood association was contributing to the project, Chisholm responded, “What they bring to the table is a spirit and a connectivity of how we model what is in the best interest of this community.”

Chisholm and Hayes said they believe the project is misunderstood partly because the public is unused to the idea of collective enterprise.

“African Americans are tremendous consumers, but the way you build wealth is ownership,” Chisholm said. “Homeownership builds equity that can be leveraged into other kinds of ownership. There has been a tremendous loss. That’s what we’ve seen with the collapse of the housing market. This is about wealth creation at the community level, not just at the individual level.”

Hayesadded that dividends from the project could give Ole Asheboro, apredominantly black community, more leverage to chart its own course.

“Whatif we had our own economic resources and said, ‘What are we going to dofor our youth, our seniors and for all the social ideas and socialchallenges that any neighborhood has?’ We can’t eliminate poverty andwe can’t go back and address multigenerational employment and educationgaps, but we can create a sense of community.”

Notwithstandingher emphasis on black community empowerment, Chisholm acknowledged thata successful downtown hotel would have “global” impact in terms ofexpanding the tax base, creating jobs and enhancing center city’svitality.

Yet questions about the hotel’s viability remain, even after the move from south of Lee Street to February 1 Place.

GreensboroEconomic Development Program Manager John Shoffner wrote in an internalmemo last month that average daily room and occupancy rates for anupscale downtown hotel were likely lower than those projected byChisholm’s group.

“Thereis a material risk that the new downtown hotel project would havedifficulty meeting its debt service obligation with the currentproposed capital structure,” Shoffner wrote.

Unlikeother mid-sized Southern cities such as Memphis and New Orleans,Greensboro possesses neither a waterfront nor a rich musical history.It does boast a seminal place in the region’s civil rights history,which will be made tangible with the imminent opening of the museum.

“WhatGreensboro has is 12 higher education institutions that are demanddrivers: Bennett, A&T, UNCG, Elon Law School and the futurepharmacy school,” Chisholm said. “You’ve got the breadth and depth ofintellectual capacity that is used to staying at a higher-caliberfacility.”

Chisholm’strack record for hotel development has also come under scrutiny. She iscurrently involved in a luxury hotel project in Memphis called thePhoenix Hotel at Patterson Landing. She said she is also part of aneffort to build a Candlewood Suites hotel and IHOP restaurant inCumberland County.

Chisholmacknowledged that the Memphis hotel project has proceeded less rapidlythan she had hoped. In retrospect, she said the development groupshould have finalized a franchise agreement earlier, but she expectsthat to happen in the next couple weeks, and believes the hotel willopen in late 2011.

Chisholmserved on the Shelby County Commission in Memphis in 2001 and 2002. Theexperience gave her an ability to appreciate how political realitiescan create economic opportunities. The key political reality at playnow is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed by PresidentObama in his second month in office. Chisholm and Hayes said they thinkcity staff moved too slowly and failed to effectively engage communitygroups that could leverage financing for the benefit of the city.

“Atthis point in history with the global financial crisis and all thesedollars coming down to municipalities it is the time you need to makesure there are professionals in bureaucracies, and our electedofficials are awake,” Chisholm said. “This legislation came out inJanuary. If there’s some money coming to our community we need to knowabout it.”

Inconversation, Chisholm speaks with ease about the business and financeconcepts that ground her professional area of expertise, but she alsodoesn’t hesitate to discuss the sense of struggle bequeathed to her byher parents, who were Tuskegee University students and civil rightsmarchers. She also doesn’t shy away from taking the conversation tospiritual realms.

Shetakes a serene view of whether the council will green-light theproject, averring that her integrity will be rewarded in spiritualdividends.

“For my principles and the things that are important to me, I would never sell my soul for a buck,” she said.

BridgetChisholm (left), a Fayetteville native with ties to Memphis, Tenn.,leads an investor group proposing to build a luxury hotel in downtownGreensboro. Her friend, Deena Hayes, is a member of the Ole AsheboroNeighborhood Association and the Guilford County School Board. (photoby Jordan Green)