College’s plans create new uncertainty for Warnersville

by Eric Ginsburg

When long-time community activist and photographer Otis Hairston Jr. passed away, he left a void in his Warnersville neighborhood and in the pushback against Greensboro College’s expansion into the historic black community. Hairston, whose father was active in the Civil Rights movement and a pastor at the nearby Shiloh Baptist Church, led a community coalition fighting the school’s proposed sportsplex.

Hairston passed away in October, and since then communication between residents in the coalition and Greensboro College has broken down. Last month the college announced it is on accreditation probation for the second year in a row because of its finances, and said it is planning to sell land to help pay off debt. After selling several properties, the school is talking to prospective buyers for its Warnersville property.

Greensboro College President Larry Czarda said he doesn’t know who will succeed Hairston. Even if he did, Czarda said it would be up to a buyer how the land was used and to what extent the community was involved or notified, adding that the school has held numerous neighborhood meetings over the years but that following up with the coalition is still on his to-do list.

The property, that the school refers to as a “sports park” and neighbors identify with the JC Price School, is mostly unused except as part-time practice field for athletic teams. It has been on the market since June and about six buyers have expressed interest, some more seriously than others, Czarda said.

The Warnersville Community Coalition battled with Greensboro College in 2008 over the property, proposing a “life enrichment and cultural center” for youth and senior citizens in November of that year, YES! Weekly reported at the time. The coalition found support in former Guilford County Commission Chair Skip Alston and was headed by Hairston.

Warnersville is located to the east of Freeman Mill Road and south of Lee Street. Freed slaves founded the neighborhood shortly after the Civil War. Several public housing projects dot the landscape near the community, and while the neighborhood was not uniformly against the college’s initial plans, a survey by the coalition found that residents overwhelmingly opposed the sportsplex, YES! Weekly reported.

Margaret Pinnix, who lives across the road from the old JC Price School and has actively opposed the college’s expansion for years, said the college should keep neighborhood residents and the coalition abreast of any changes.

“They should really keep in touch with the community to let them know what they are planning to do because they are coming into our neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t think they should just walk over us and not let us know what to expect. They should let us voice our opinions because we have rights too. In fact, I don’t think I have seen the dean since Mr. Hairston’s funeral.”

JC Price graduate Fannie Thompson, who was active in the neighborhood campaign in 2008 and still lives in Greensboro, said she was frustrated with what she feels has been an unfair and underhanded process.

“The community surrounding JC Price is a black community and I care about what happens to black people,” she said, explaining why she initially got involved. “I don’t think its fair what people seem to do to people of color. I just have a problem with our history not being honored and not being respected for wanting to maintain something that represents a good part of our history.”

Thompson hasn’t been involved lately due to her mother’s poor health. She was concerned to hear the property was being sold, and said she hopes it can be preserved, possibly as a school again.

“JC Price holds fond memories,” Thompson said. “I know as a businessperson you can’t operate on that, but I would think someway, somehow maybe someone would step forward and not tear down some of our history.”

William Huff, who lives in Whitsett, said he and his wife have expressed interest in turning the JC Price School into a private Christian academy — a change Pinnix welcomed. Huff said it is possible they will propose a boarding charter school depending on funding, but said both plans preserve most of the old school and would be aimed at underserved youth of color.

“We’re highly, highly still interested in pursuing the JC Price School because there’s a lot of history behind that school and tied into the Warnersville community as well,” Huff said, adding that Hairston supported their plans. “We took somewhat of a blow when he passed in October but we’re still behind the scenes. We’re still pursuing it. It’s been a minute since we’ve actually talked to President Czarda because we’re still working out the kinks.”

Pinnix said community members were working with Huff before Hairston passed away unexpectedly, and said she hasn’t heard from Huff recently.

The college has already unloaded several other pieces of non-essential real estate, including the former president’s home by the Irving Park County Club and a motel converted into student housing on Mendenhall Street, which the school is currently leasing. The school had undergone a period of expansion in the late 1990s and 2000s, Czarda said, adding graduate programs, a football team and marching band, purchasing the former YMCA site for a student center and several other parcels.

Greensboro College took a big hit as enrollment decreased alongside a national trend, and publicly struggled with a “fiscal crisis” in 2009, Czarda said. Selling noncritical real estate assets was quickly identified as a way to pay off some of the school’s debt, and the Warnersville property, including the former JC Price School and about 30 acres of land, is part of the equation.

“We are in a position where we cannot keep the property long term,” Czarda said.

The college already deeded a northern strip of the property to the city for the downtown greenway, Czarda said. [Read more about the greenway on page 10]. The school is currently looking for a buyer for the “sports park” property in the neighborhood that would allow it to continue using two full practice fields for football and men and women’s lacrosse, as well as a locker room annex.

Greensboro College owns other off-campus property, including a building the school is holding onto for the theater department and an outdoor performance venue adjacent to the future downtown greenway in the Westerwood neighborhood. Czarda said the school received several gift properties recently — including one out of state — that it plans to sell but are much smaller than the Warnersville property.

The Salvation Army previously expressed interest in the Warnersville site, even holding community meetings. Czarda said he could only speak for the college, but said that a deal with the Salvation Army wasn’t out of the question. Huff said community support of his proposal could be a reason it would succeed, but that without it, attempts by the Salvation Army and others would fail.

“It may not technically, paper-wise belong to Warnersville,” Huff said, “but if Warnersville is not happy with what is being done with that property, it’s going to be very difficult for a company to come in.”

A tribute to Hairston will be held Thursday at the Vance Chavis library branch, but even in his absence, it’s clear some community members will push on.

“We fought Pharaoh’s army to keep that sports thing [from] going in there,” Pinnix said. “We fought like crazy. I think we should have a right to say what goes up there. Don’t just push anything off on us.”