by Jeff Sykes @jeffreysykes

Members of the city’s East Greensboro Study Committee received an update last week on focus groups staff convened in the fall, in addition to receiving a draft copy of the recommendations for improving the quality of life for an area that includes one-third of the city’s population.

It was the first meeting of the council subcommittee since August 2014, but during the interim period city planners held six community workshops designed to identify areas of concerns in East Greensboro. Assistant City Manager David Parrish told committee members that 91 people attended the sessions.

East Greensboro is an historically rich, but often undeveloped part of the city, defined roughly as the area east of Church Street or Elm-Eugene Street. Statistics show that much of the area lags in economic prosperity, and a variety of other socio-economic factors, but city officials and comments from residents, made it clear that there is an abundance of opportunity.

The committee is chaired by city council member Sharon Hightower, and includes Jamal Fox, Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Yvonne Johnson, who did not attend last week’s meeting.

Parrish went over the community feedback, which included an attempt to define the study area by asking people to mark on a map what they considered to be East Greensboro. Staff combined the responses into a “heat map” with the most identified areas shaded darker than others. Residents were then asked to identify strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results.

The most identified areas were defined roughly by Phillips Avenue, Summit Avenue, Elm-Eugene Street and then back east along Business 85/40. Secondary areas extended north to East Cone or south of the interstate toward the city limits.

The discussion of boundaries is important, committee members agreed, because any future investment incentives would be dependent on location. Hightower said after the staff presentation that jobs were the most important goal, and she mentioned the availability of economic incentives for companies to locate in the area. Connecting the community’s priorities to economic incentive agreements should be examined, she said.

“Some of this could be incorporated and required for companies who are looking for incentives from us,” Hightower said. “We could frame that in there as an incentive to be in East Greensboro.”

Mayor Vaughan sought clarification. “You mean in order to give the incentives, to set the bar higher?” she asked.

Hightower agreed, and Vaughan expanded on the idea.

“What we might have to do is actually give more to make it more attractive for people to want to locate in East Greensboro as opposed to West Greensboro,” Vaughan said.

One example she offered was to offer job training or worker retraining so that investors know there are employees ready for their company.

“We may have to make that investment to make the area more attractive,” Vaughan said.

Data included in the reports show that the unemployment rate is 4.4 percent higher in East Greensboro than the city as a whole. Median household income is 27 percent lower in the study area. Median incomes in the city as a whole are $40,221, and in East Greensboro it is $29,286.

Two plans in the works to improve economic prosperity in East Greensboro could begin to turn that around. Vaughan and City Manager Jim Westmoreland discussed plans for an 8/80 economic incentive zone. Companies that receive city economic incentives to invest in the zone would have eight years to pay back 80 percent of the benefit received.

“It’s some additional incentive in terms of the prospective return on the investment to the business that would locate in this yet to be defined zone,” Westmoreland said.

Parrish explained that the East Greensboro study involved work similar to that done by city staff on a recent federal Promise Zone application.

President Obama announced in 2013 that he would designate 20 Promise Zones across the country that would receive federal attention to create jobs and economic activity while increasing educational opportunities and reducing violent crime.

The first round winners were announced last January, and a second round of applications closed in November 2014. The city submitted its application with an extensive narrative description of the challenges and opportunities faced in Greensboro.

The city identified large sections of east and south Greensboro as its Promise Zone. The area has a poverty rate of 41.2 percent, which is 23 percent higher than the citywide average of 18.8 percent. The area also has unemployment and violent crime rates much higher than the city as a whole. About 26 percent of the city’s 279,639 residents live in the identified zone.

“These statistics represent both the root causes and effects of a range of negative circumstances impacting the City and in particular, the communities located within the proposed Promise Zone,” the application’s narrative states. “These data points highlight the interrelated array of challenges the City and its partners face in revitalizing theses communities: limited private investment, anemic economic activity, poor educational outcomes, high crime, and clusters of vacant and underutilized properties that create and reinforce negative perceptions of these neighborhoods.”

Parrish noted that the East Greensboro study boundaries would exclude a couple of neighborhoods represented in the promise zone, most notably the Glenwood area, which has a high concentration of minimum housing code violations.

Council member Fox thanked Parrish and staff for the report but urged action.

“We’ve done so many reports in East Greensboro,” Fox said. “I’m not concerned about the level of investment, I’m concerned about the quality. How can we take some of this and turn it into action?” Fox noted that the report solidified many things he already knew, but he wanted to gain momentum.

Parrish asked for committee members to provide final feedback so the committee could meet once more in late February before moving the study forward to city council. The next steps, he said, were to identify priorities and timelines for each initiative and to determine what resources and partners could be brought to the table.

To view a copy of the East Greensboro Study Committee preliminary report please click here. !