DGI and city move forward, for the time being

by Eric Ginsburg

After a public clash over Greensboro City Council’s displeasure with Downtown Greensboro Inc., representatives from both sides agreed to sit down and try to hammer out a relationship last week.

Some opponents decried the move as backtracking on the council’s 9-0 vote to explore all options for some of the funds spent annually with the nonprofit, but council members said city staff would still go forward with researching alternatives.

In a press release, the city said it would form a working group to discuss and improve the relationship between the agency and the city over the next three months. The group, which met behind closed doors on Monday, will recommend “changes and improvements” and define the partnership between the city and Downtown Greensboro Inc.

At-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan, who has been a vocal critic of the nonprofit, said that establishing the committee did not nullify council’s unanimous decision to explore other options for its marketing and economic development contracts with Downtown Greensboro Inc, totaling $203,000.

“It was a 9-0 vote so I would think that that is still on the table as well,” Vaughan said. “At this point we’ve agreed to sit down with DGI to see what common ground we can find but I think we should also look at other alternatives as well.”

The decision to form a working group was reached at a meeting between four council members —Vaughan, Mayor Robbie Perkins, Zack Matheny and Yvonne Johnson — the city manager and several representatives from the nonprofit’s board. District 5 Councilman Tony Wilkins, who was not at the meeting, said he plans to bring up the fact that a subset of council made a decision without the full body.

“I do think the entire council should vote on that decision,” Wilkins said, adding that he hadn’t “been on council long enough to be involved in any beef with DGI” but that he was open to all options for how the city spent the money.

Perkins said he was fine with the full council approving the decision to form a working group and said it was necessary to act swiftly to repair the relationship between the two entities to move forward.

“Nobody on council has called me to say anything different,” Perkins said, adding that he was unaware that any council member’s took issue with the approach. “Tony’s got my number. There’s nothing secret here. We needed to move and move as quickly as possible and I think we did the right thing.”

Perkins agreed with Vaughan that council’s request that staff look at all options had not changed.

Almost all of the money for Downtown Greensboro Inc. and its parallel organization Downtown Greensboro Improvement Corp. comes from public funds, including $523,000 generated from a special tax levied on the downtown business improvement district, or BID. The groups, which share a president and a board, also receive nearly $200,000 indirectly from the city to maintain Center City Park on behalf of Action Greensboro. A majority of the BID funds are spent on beautifying downtown and the improvement corporation’s “clean & green” team.

Like Vaughan, who called the two entities “shadow organizations,” downtown business and property owners do not draw distinctions between the improvement corporation and Downtown Greensboro, Inc., which have slightly different legal statuses but still share a mission and purpose Some stakeholders commended the nonprofit’s work but requested smaller changes, while others called for the group’s disbanding.

Ben Roberts, owner of Undercurrent restaurant, said he has seen the clean and green staff go above and beyond picking up trash downtown but other times has seen staff ignore cigarette butts outside his restaurant. In general, he said he was pleased with the organization’s work.

“One of the improvements I’ve seen [DGIC] make is the ‘clean & green’ team,” Roberts said. “I’ve seen them do really well and I’ve seen them do poorly. I think [DGI makes] every effort to get information and give it out. Whenever I need help, they’re there for me.”

Roberts commended the city’s decision to try and work things out with Downtown Greensboro Inc., saying it is easier to retrain than replace. While he said he has seen the benefits of his BID tax dollars at work, Roberts said the group needed to be “refocused.”

“I would like to see a long-term vision, and a short-term vision for that matter,” he said. “What would be great… would be just to have a vision of what things need to be accomplished and where it needs to be accomplished. If the city’s going to give money to DGI and there’s going to be strings attached, DGI needs to know what’s on the other end of the line to meet their objectives.”

Cindy Hayden, who owns Martin’s Frame & Art on Greene Street, said she hasn’t seen the benefits from the BID but said Downtown Greensboro Inc. had been “pretty good” for downtown and that she thinks the city and the agency should work things out. Still, she thinks the group’s work hasn’t encompassed the entire downtown.

“I just wish that we could get some of the plants and things that they’re doing [on Elm Street],” Hayden said. “We are not included in the downtown and I think as a result of that we’ve lost more businesses.

“The block that I am on has been almost vacant for about the last two years,” she added. “I feel like we’re the stepchild here. It’s like a different city over here. I am happy for the retailers on Elm Street but I wish they could concentrate a little more on spreading the love.”

Other downtown property owners such as Eric Robert are more critical, calling on council to cut funding for the group and change course. One of Robert’s criticisms is a lack of transparency on Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s part, and Vaughan said she will push quickly for the organization’s board meetings to be public.

“Since DGI is funded with 90 percent taxpayer funds, those meetings must be open to the public,” she said. “I believe they should have speakers from the floor and that is an issue I will not bend on. I think DGI must show greater transparency and I don’t think there’s any compromise on that. I think we should be able to walk away with that agreement immediately.”

Carolina Bank President Bob Braswell resigned from the nonprofit’s board and wrote a letter explaining his reasons, citing the actions of Vaughan and Perkins specifically.

Perkins called Braswell’s letter “totally inappropriate” given that it cited information in a closed-door meeting Feb. 21 between the city and the board’s executive committee. Perkins criticized Braswell’s assertion that the city’s stance was “both unexpected, was shocking, and more importantly disturbing.”

“The city of Greensboro and DGI have had off and on discussions for months,” Perkins said. “Saying that it was a surprise and without warning is not factual. We did what we were supposed to do.”

Braswell, who did not return calls for comment, claimed in his letter that Perkins said the agency President Ed Wolverton should have been fired months ago.

Wolverton and the rest of the staff were asked to leave the Feb. 21 board meeting. Wolverton declined to comment for this story.

Roberts, who was a chef in Winston-Salem before opening Undercurrent, didn’t comment directly on controversy surrounding Wolverton but said Wolverton convinced him to come to Greensboro in the first place and to locate his business downtown. Roberts also said he had a positive relationship with several board members and characterized the organization as responsive.

District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, who represents downtown, said Braswell’s letter was “contradictory and disappointing” because Braswell didn’t want Downtown Greensboro Inc. to be beholden to the city but still wanted to operate with 90 percent public funds. Matheny said the city’s unanimous vote to explore alternatives to the nonprofit may have been borne out of a disconnect between the two entities, and said now they were trying to get on the same page.

“I think the concerns are there and so we’re going to see how the conversations go over the next few weeks and hopefully they’ll go well,” Matheny said. “I think council kept challenging it to be visionary but its statute was not to be visionary. I certainly want our downtown to be on the forefront of economic development. Y’all might have been good picking up trash and hanging baskets, but let’s take it to the next level of DGI.”

Vaughan said the executive board was certainly aware that the city had “grave” concerns about the organization’s work and council’s desire for change. She questioned Braswell’s decision to walk away from the conversation.

“I completely disagree with Bob [Braswell]’s assessment,” Vaughan said. “There have been formal discussions with the executive board since November. There may have been a failure to communicate between their executive board and the larger board. If I really feel strongly about an issue, I’m not going to throw the towel in. I’m going to work to make it better. I certainly wouldn’t quit.”

The working group established between the city and the board does not include Wolverton or any of the group’s staff, but board chair Dawn Chaney said it was “certainly an option” that he would be part of the working group once it is more established. Chaney declined to comment on the recent history between Downtown Greensboro Inc. and the city, instead saying it was important to focus on the relationship going forward.

Chaney, who owns Chaney Properties and became the board chair at the beginning of 2013, said she was “hopeful and optimistic.”

“This has to be a group venture,” she said, adding that it needed to be a partnership rather than the nonprofit working under the city. “We can’t get out there philosophizing. We need to come together as we’re doing. We’ve got this. We’ve got to make some decisions on where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.”

Past board chair Michael Schiftan and future chair Sam Simpson will join Chaney to represent the group in the working group alongside Matheny, Perkins, Vaughan and a designee from City Manager Denise Turner-Roth. Like Chaney, Schiftan said he is hopeful.

“I am disappointed at the way this has evolved initially but I am excited about the opportunities to work closer together with city leadership and elected officials to try and focus on what we need to do to grow and enhance the downtown,” he said. “What I hope for is that Downtown Greensboro Inc. will retool to I guess better focus its resources for an advancement of the downtown and I’m also hoping that out of this we’ll get firm commitments from the city to support and fund projects as needed for the downtown. I think it’s an effort by all parties to do what’s best for our community.”

Part of Vaughan and Perkins’ critique has been that the agency lacked visionary leadership and ideas to take downtown forward. Schiftan, who owns DevCon Resources and is part of a group that owns several downtown properties, said Downtown Greensboro Inc. has taken a leadership role but had to balance being visionary with being inclusive.

“You have to remember that downtown Greensboro represents a very diverse group of stakeholders,” he said. “It’s a very awkward and difficult process at times. We have hundreds of stakeholders in the downtown. It’s a combination of being visionary and building consensus between stakeholders to move in a direction.”