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Developer and real estate beneficiary vie for mayor

by Jordan Green

The contest to replace Keith Holliday, who steps down as mayor of Greensboro in December, features two seasoned leaders – one in government and one in business and development – whose even temperament and moderate politics do not suggest a starkly defined choice for voters at first blush. Yvonne Johnson, who heads a local alternative sentencing nonprofit, has served on the city council since 1993. The 64-year-old Bennett College graduate would be Greensboro’s first African-American mayor. Her opponent, Milton Kern, is a 63-year-old developer credited with much of the revitalization of downtown Greensboro. Their professional roles – non-profit mediator and developer – may be an unreliable indicator of their respective approaches on matters of land-use and economic development. Over the 14 years Johnson has served on city council she has gained strong support from the city’s real estate and development bloc. A YES! Weekly investigation found that at least 45 percent of campaign contributions made to Johnson in a single election cycle came from individuals employed by real estate and development companies, and that she sided with political benefactors on rezoning votes 94 percent of the time. Among Johnson’s supporters is Henry Isaacson, a lawyer who frequently argues rezoning cases before the city council, and who chairs the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority Board. “The whole point of my candidacy is I’m not running against anybody,” Kern said. “I’m not owned by any [political action committee] or little clique. I’m running for everybody in Greensboro. I’m not going to go with any preconceived notion. The decisions I make are going to be based on the information I receive, and I’m going to make them in the best interest of everybody in Greensboro.” Johnson stresses her record of public service. “I love serving the people,” she said. “I think it’s my gift.” Kern expressed support for controlled development in a recent interview. “If you don’t keep growing you’re going to stagnate,” he said. “The point is that we need to do infill development, taking areas like downtown and the High Point Road area that are not very nice now. The city needs to be the leader in the drive to get High Point Road cleaned up. We don’t need to pay for it. We need to find independent developers to come in and fix those areas of the city, not the city.” Kern added that when developers buy infill property it saves the city from having to extend water and sewer service. He suggested that the city might, in turn, consider extending some kind of incentives to the developers for choosing less costly building within the urban core over green-field development at the fringe. Johnson’s economic development platform is relatively basic. “I really want to grow and sustain the small and mid-sized businesses,” Johnson said. “There are ways we can do that. One way is having a one-stop place downtown where they can pick up all their forms.” Johnson has also been a reliable supporter of incentives to enhance industrial recruitment, much of it clustered around the airport. “HondaJet’s already expanded,” she said. “I think it’s going to motivate more – they don’t call them ‘distribution centers’ anymore – the term is ‘flow-through centers.’ You’re already seeing some warehouses being built. The [Greensboro] Partnership is probably looking for middle- and large-size businesses.” Both candidates say they support preserving the environment. “The more you develop the more trees you have to plant,” Kern said. “I’m a tree hugger. As we keep developing more areas we need to start planting more trees. Sometimes the property owner and sometimes the city [should pay for it].” For her part, Johnson pledges continued support for a proposed greenway around downtown, the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and the city’s public transit system. While Kern often stresses his receptivity to new ideas, Johnson has begun to articulate some policy initiatives. One is to enlist the city’s five colleges and its law school in forming focus groups to address public safety and gang violence problems. As a political newcomer, Kern is cautiously wading into the waters of Greensboro’s roiling human relations undercurrent, which often turns along lines of race. “I really don’t have a good answer for that,” he said. “From a political standpoint, when it comes to human relations, I’m a liberal. When it comes to spending money, I’m a conservative.” As a purely symbolic indicator, Kern’s MySpace page shows him hugging the Greensboro Grasshoppers mascot and features a sound clip of John Mayer’s “Waiting On the World to Change.” Johnson, also a cautious operative but a leader with more developed interpersonal experience, suggested Greensboro needs to engage ethnic groups in governance beyond the traditional white-black axis. “With all the groups we have in Greensboro we need to find a way to be more inclusive on boards and committees,” she said. “When people feel they are part of something their whole attitude changes.” Among Johnson’s bolder campaign platforms is her pledged support for a citywide minimum-wage increase to $9.36 per hour. “It’s like a prevention program,” she said. “People say, ‘We can’t pay this.’ But you pay for them to go to prison. You pay handily for them to go to juvenile detention. If I make more money I may not have to work a second job. Maybe I can go to a PTA meeting. Maybe I can spend two to three nights a week with my kids.” Though hers would be only one vote on the nine-member council Johnson said she believes the minimum-wage ordinance has a chance of passage. “It’s sort of a wave,” she said. “More people are changing their attitude. With the incentive program, we have incorporated a requirement that the companies pay livable wages. All the companies that have received incentives from us pay well over minimum wage.” Kern also expressed sympathy for the city’s lesser compensated citizens while stopping short of endorsing any specific program. “The ones who come in at four in the morning on the buses to open the restaurants, those are the people who make our city run,” he said. “The electricians, plumbers, the ones who make the buildings and the systems work, we need to see what we can do to help them, whether it’s with affordable housing or public transportation.”

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

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