Downtown Alliance forming to increase communication, creativity

by Eric Ginsburg

Simmone McClinton, Brian Higgins, Katie Southard and Eric Robert cofounded the Downtown Alliance. (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

The Downtown Alliance Greensboro is still in the process of forming, but they’ve already created a buzz. With over 200 “likes” on Facebook, postcard-sized flyers and a letter to City Council, the word is spreading quickly. For now, the four founding members are the only people who officially compose Downtown Alliance, but the number is expected to grow at their meet and greet June 15 at 6 p.m. at the Green Bean.

The four founders felt compelled to start a new downtown organization to increase communication at a grassroots level and to incorporate the voices of everyone who has a stake in the center city. Discussions about forming an organization began three months ago in response to a number of different specific issues as well as building frustrations and feeling of exclusion.

Business and property owners Katie Southard of the Green Bean, Eric Robert of the mill on Elm Street south of Lee and McCoul’s owner Simonne McClinton joined with downtown patron Brian Higgins to advocate for and “embrace a new course for Downtown Greensboro that is more progressive, proactive, and inclusive.”

They say that often it seems decisions are made that affect their lives and businesses without their input or knowledge, and they want to proactively address it. Some of their main focuses are building a sense of community through the exchange of ideas and information, supporting business and communication downtown, and helping create an identity for the city center.

“When you realize that your neighbors feel the same way you do it’s hard to ignore,” McClinton said.

The organization is largely business/property owners for now, but they are adamant that all voices will be equal in the organization, point ing out that they are patrons too.

“Without you, I wouldn’t be here,” Southard said. “We play different roles as well — we are customers all over downtown.”

The group may be new, but they aren’t short on ideas. McClinton said they see themselves as an emerging neighborhood association of sorts, which could not only advocate for specific changes but also help each other and newcomers.

“It’s a matter of benefiting the city overall,” Robert said. “For this town to have a flavor you have to have an opinion. There are a lot of different needs. We haven’t even identified all of them.”

Southard said they want to help foster creative energy downtown, whether for new businesses, art projects or an array of other possibilities. A number of things she was excited to see downtown, such as a letterpress and music venue Legitimate Business, chose to set up in more affordable areas, a great loss to downtown in Southard’s eyes.

“It kills me, those missed opportunities,” she said. They are excited about a number of recent developments, including the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and the Snack Bar. And they have new ideas they want to discuss too, ranging from food trucks to looking at how other cities are rejuvenating downtown.

The Downtown Alliance wants to create opportunities for college students and recent graduates so people don’t leave. Southard said if she didn’t have a job at the Green Bean when she graduated from UNCG she would have been part of the exodus.

They are also motivated by their concerns. The group easily rattles off a list of things they feel need to be addressed, such as noise ordinances that affected this year’s St. Paddy’s Day celebrations, police presence and the curfew.

Christina Brown, owner of Just Be, said she is interested in joining the alliance primarily because of safety concerns.

“We’ve had things stolen from employees’ purses in our store,” Brown said. “I have thought about moving my business out of downtown because of not feeling safe sometimes. I called [the police two weeks ago], and the police never came.”

Just Be has been downtown for five years. Brown said it is important to have a voice because otherwise people won’t know your needs. She hopes the new alliance can provide that.

By working together, the Downtown Alliance hopes to eliminate some of the barriers to bringing more business to the empty storefronts, whether by working on tax issues or by being a resource to entrepreneurs.

“Doing business downtown is not easy,” said Robert, who has been sinking his own money into renovating the mill on South Elm to hopefully house a number of businesses.

“It’s really f*cking hard.”

In some ways, there is an overlap with Downtown Greensboro Inc. who does some of this work, but the Downtown Alliance see themselves filling a slightly different role.

“We want to be on the ground level,” said Southard. “I think we appeal more to a younger crowd.”

She said some of them have sat through meetings or been asked for their opinions before, but they haven’t always felt listened to. In turn, a large aim of the alliance is to be approachable and inclusive so all voices are valued.

“Our voice isn’t being consistently heard as decisions are made that affect each and every one of us,” they wrote in their letter to city council and the city manager.

The Downtown Alliance resists efforts to paint them as opposed to Downtown Greensboro Inc, saying instead that DGI does important work but that there is still more to be done to include the voices of everyone with a stake in downtown.

“We don’t want to do the huge projects that DGI does,” Southard said. “We don’t want them to shut down and we don’t want their jobs. I think we can work together on this.”

Ed Wolverton, president of Downtown Greensboro, Inc. said he was excited about the formation of the Downtown Alliance.

“I think we understand some of the issues their raising,” Wolverton said. “We do have a lot of common goals. They are bringing new energy to the discussions.”

Downtown Greensboro, Inc. has worked on a variety of projects over the years, including working with the United Arts Council to turn First Fridays into their current incarnation. Soon after beginning in 1997, the organization was able to change restrictions blocking nightclubs from downtown and another disallowing sidewalk dining as well as increasing parking spaces and making nighttime parking free.

“I’ll be the first to admit, communication is hard,” Wolverton said in reference to one of the alliance’s core concerns. “We’re really reaching as far as we can to communicate. If we can figure out different ways to communicate, we’ll certainly do that.”

The alliance’s letter to council has received some criticism from people who said it came across as opposed to DGI. A response letter by DGI board chair Tom Taylor accuses them of complaining and said it was “most disappointing” before saying they wished to learn about the alliance’s concerns and address them.

“We were just writing our elected officials. It was necessary,” said Robert. “It’s a wake-up call.”

The meet and greet on June 15 will be the first of many regular, public meetings the alliance plans to hold. The structure of the organization is still taking shape and they don’t have official positions yet. It is a lot to balance on top of running a business, but they are excited to affect change and try to build a “downtown for everyone.”

“It’s not bad to aspire to be a world class city,” McClinton said. “It’s important that we try things as a city too. We’re quick to say no to things, but let’s give it a try.”