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Council blocks commercial reinvestment

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro City Council voted in a 5-3 decision on Nov. 20 to rein in a local business owner’s commercial development plans along the Summit Avenue corridor in an area shadowed by disinvestment, heeding concerns about worsening traffic by elderly residents and merchants. The denial is likely to force Y Nen Nie to scale back plans for a complex consisting of a pool hall, Laundromat, convenience store and gas station.

The vacant lot owned by Nie at the corner of Summit Avenue and McKnight Mill Road currently contains an antique Chevrolet pickup advertised for sale and a flattened Sandra Anderson Groat campaign sign. Lloyd Shaw, who owns a furniture store and residential rental properties nearby, along with Jack Zimmerman, a local resident who patronizes an area barbershop, spoke in opposition. Marylou Zimmerman, his wife, recently stepped down as chairwoman of the Greensboro Transit Authority board of directors.

“This has been a residential area since the early 1970s,” said Councilwoman Goldie Wells, who represents District 2. “Thinking about having gas pumps, a Laundromat, a pool hall and a convenient store – I know the neighbors don’t want a pool hall.”

Councilman Tom Phillips locked horns with Mayor Keith Holliday over whether rezoning the parcel, which lies on McKnight Road next to the corner lot, would constrain Nie from following through with his plans. The site plans show only a small part of the proposed building lying in the parcel considered for rezoning.

“By the time you move the uppermost corner and meet the requirements for setbacks you’ve reduced the size of the building significantly,” Phillips said. “It would possibly restrict what he could do there. If you approve it, you have more parking for possible undesirable uses.”

Councilman Mike Barber, who joined Holliday and Councilwoman Sandra Anderson Groat in voting against denial of the rezoning, argued, “We do talk about “business friendly’ and “neighborhood friendly,’ but somehow this has morphed into a [discussion about a] pool hall. This is going to be a bright shining building. We’ve talked about doing things to reduce the tax burden. I think we talked a good game but I don’t think we back up our comments.”

Groat, who has reported $42,303 amount in campaign receipts in the recent municipal election, argued that council tends to give large developers favorable treatment over small business owners.

“We’ve rezoned for banks that were adjacent to residential areas,” she said. “If it is a bigger rezoning request, we work with them. I just think that the small individual has trouble getting things done.”

Council steers federal money to civil rights museum

In another 5-3 decision, the council approved using $750,000 from the federal Community Development Block Grant to help complete the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in the old Woolworth’s building. The vote highlighted a project heavy with symbolism as the city approaches its bicentennial celebration, along with Greensboro’s persistent racial distrust and questions about funding priorities.

“I can’t support this,” Phillips said. “That money that we’re taking out of CDBG was for Willow Oaks. The Ole Asheboro neighborhood has never been finished…. We ought to be spending the money on projects we started, and not just bailing this organization out because they failed to raise the money.”

Barber issued pointed criticism of the project’s cofounders, Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston and NC Rep. Earl Jones, without mentioning them by name.

“The city’s voted twice not to fund this project,” he said. “The tough thing we tiptoe around – many people in our city do not have faith and confidence in the people who founded this project and maintain the money…. Since 1993, there have been no less than eight locations opened east of the Mississippi to honor civil rights, and here we sit.”

The District 4 councilman also questioned the merits of the museum, which has been cursed by delays and a ballooning price tag.

“We are 47 years past the sit-ins, a real act of courage,” he said. “If it mattered nationally, we would have found the money nationally. If it mattered statewide, we would have found the money statewide. If it mattered locally, local private investors would have stepped up.” He added later: “This is not an issue of race; it’s an issue of incompetence, ineptitude and insincere purposes.”

While acknowledging that the price tag has climbed from $12 million to $17 million and that an engineer was replaced at one point during the building’s rehabilitation, Holliday defended the project, saying plenty of documentation is available to justify the rising cost estimate and council members have always had access to the museum’s audits.

“It needs to be finished because it is one piece of history in the United States of America and the world that happened here,” said mayor-elect Yvonne Johnson, an at-large council member, “and because people will be coming here on tour buses and buying meals, just like I did when I visited the civil rights museum in Memphis.”

Council stands behind its man

The eight council members present – Dianne Bellamy-Small was absent – demonstrated slightly greater unity in approving a raise for City Manager Mitchell Johnson. Excluding Barber and Groat, all voted to approve a 3 percent raise for Johnson, bumping the 2-year manager up to $177,478. The city’s average raise falls at 2.5 percent, so Johnson’s salary increase rates him as a “high performer.”

“I think our city manager has done the right thing and not the easy thing, and when you do the right thing and not the easy thing you can live with yourself,” said Sandy Carmany, who lost her re-election bid for the District 5 seat to a challenger who criticized her for exercising inadequate oversight of the manager.

Johnson was three months into his job when former police Chief David Wray abruptly resigned. In the ensuing controversy over allegations that Wray allowed racism and mismanagement to fester within his department and went overboard in trying to root out corruption, a public backlash gathered against Johnson and City Attorney Linda Miles.

“Talk about trial by fire,” Holliday said. “He has had trial by fire with hundreds of people out there loading up their guns to take a shot and determine how he was going to act professionally…. When times are good and things are easy, there’s a whole lot of people who can do the job of manager of the city of Greensboro. When times are tough, that is when you find that character and leadership rise to the top.”

Johnson entrenched, Miles out

The morning after council’s meeting, in which Johnson informed the council of City Attorney Linda Miles’ retirement, the city announced her departure. The city attorney, who joined city staff in 1977, has been the object of vitriolic attacks for her role in advising the city in its investigation of the Wray administration. She will work under contract until June while the city undertakes a search for a new head of the legal department.

“Absolutely not,” said Pat Boswell, director of public affairs, in response to a question about whether the furor over the Wray affair precipitated Miles’ exit, adding: “It would be ridiculous to think it hadn’t created some stress for her.”

Boswell said Miles’ contract allows her to stay on to iron out details in a Fair Labor Standards Act agreement the city has signed following the revelation that police recruits were not paid overtime compensation, and to vet large requests for public information. A public records request filed with the city by lawyer Samuel Spagnola, and bloggers Roch Smith Jr. and Dr. Joseph Guarino includes a comprehensive request for extensive documents related to Wray’s resignation as police chief and the imploded Project Homestead nonprofit.

Manifest Destiny, the Greensboro way

By unanimous decision, the council approved several annexations, adding 4,139 acres and more than 9,000 people to the city. About three quarters of the acreage and 96 percent of the new residents come from the affluent Cardinal neighborhood north of Piedmont Triad International Airport.

“I personally am a very vocal believer that if you are living on the edge of an urban area, you should share in the cost of service,” Holliday said. “I believe in annexation. I believe that’s why North Carolina is so strong, unlike some of our neighbors to the north, where you have municipalities getting boxed in.”

The first-year cost of the annexation to the city taxpayers will be $6.7 million, when projected new tax revenues are compared to the cost of extending services. In some cases, annual costs decrease after the first year, and city leaders project that economic growth at the fringe will repay the investment. With the Greensboro Fire Department already providing service in the Cardinal, the city will forfeit $547,000 currently paid annually by residents in fire taxes.

The annexation will require 19,131 feet of new water line to be laid, mainly in the Cardinal. Thanks to contractual agreements with outlying fire departments, the annexations are estimated to require only about two new employees in the fire department. In contrast, the city estimates that to maintain its current ratio of 2.46 sworn police officers per 1,000 residents, it will need to hire 25 new officers, along with a detective and three non-sworn employees for support.

Carousel rides, all-ages show

Council voted unanimously to endorse the concept of a carousel in downtown Greensboro. Councilwoman Florence Gatten said the Rotary clubs in Greensboro have committed to raising some $2 million to cover initial costs, but the resolution passed by the council stipulates that the city “agrees to own and operate and maintain the carousel for the benefit of all of the citizens of Greensboro and visitors to the community.”

Barber balked at the fact that the resolution did not quantify the project’s budgetary impact to the city.

“I hope to have one of the first rides on the carousel,” said Councilwoman Florence Gatten, who is a Rotarian. “I’ll go on a carousel ride anywhere. They know me by name at Central Park because I go on the rides every time I go to New York.”

Following the vote, Holliday quipped, “I can just imagine people coming out of the bars late at night. They’re gonna want to turn that thing on…. Keep barf bags nearby.”

And it’s a wrap

Council also approved an expenditure of $30,000 to cover its share of advertising the Piedmont Triad region with an Airbus aircraft wrap. The total cost will be $120,000, comprised of contributions by the Triad’s three major municipal governments and the airport. The Winston-Salem City Council approved its share on Nov. 19.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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