Flushing money down the drain

by Eric Ginsburg

Young people in Greensboro are constantly confronted with the idea that this is a boring city, and my response has always been that you have to dig and know where to look to find the heart of what makes the city great.

I pride myself on being a good tour guide, an ambassador and booster for Greensboro — I try to convince every-one to move here. But as I walk past empty storefronts, or notice the absence of certain cultural offerings and well-paying jobs, I wonder if even the affordability can’t compete.

Our current development model is part of what got us into this mess. A very small number of people seem to receive our public money for projects with a lot of overhead or a wide profit margin that don’t seem to measurably improve things for most of us.

We’re supposed to accept this model because we’re told some day the jobs will trickle down to us. The tax revenue from these new commercial and residential properties, the story goes, will eventually mean more operating money for the city.

There are certainly some cases where the interests of profit and people align, or where local governments have put people first. People are clamoring for a downtown grocery store, and council responded by trying to help Deep Roots Market move. Center City Park and the baseball stadium, and hopefully the Downtown Greenway, are other good examples.

Our spending priorities seem to have little to do with what people need and want, except for the abstract idea of job creation where we hope that creating “shovel-ready sites” will pave the way for jobs to rain out of the sky.

Yet most of the exciting things happening in town, in terms of development and culture, aren’t the large multimillion dollar projects receiving an exorbitant amount of incentives. It’s the places like Elsewhere or Eric Robert’s renovated mill on South Elm Street that make Greensboro unique. It’s the people performing at open mics, the ones who spend their free time at meetings or use their savings to try and create the city they want.

Our spending priorities seem to have little to do with what people need and want, except for the abstract idea of job creation where we hope that creating “shovel-ready sites” will pave the way for jobs to rain out of the sky. While lip service is paid to some locally based companies and a few local developers are able to suck up a lot of public money, we’re still stuck on this idea that jobs have to move here rather than being created and sustained here.

Part of the problem is that we want different things.

Maybe we are two cities. I can’t speak for my entire generation — and I don’t need to because many of them are speaking for themselves at council and everywhere else in town — but as a young person in the Gate City, I often wonder if the path we’re charting has people like me in mind.

There is incredible potential in Greensboro:

It’s affordable, there is so much empty space and there are people full of ideas. I used to drive around with friends and talk about where we could put a café and bookstore. I recently stood on top of a parking deck downtown and imagined what the empty surface lots and buildings could hold.

I hear rumors of a beer garden, and new things are cropping up like the South Elm Urban Market and Sessions. There’s still lots to discover — just a few days ago I heard about a Mongolian buffet, I’ve never tried Café Europa’s Sunday brunch and I still haven’t been into Empire Books’ new location.

I barely go to the clubs and I don’t have any tattoos, but I want those clubs and the tattoo studios that moved downtown to be there. I purposely avoided St. Patrick’s Day downtown, but I want M’Coul’s to have a blowout party. The Blind Tiger’s shows are usually out of my price range, but I want them to thrive. It’s all part of the larger picture of a city that is alive, where there’s a lot to do and where everything isn’t tailored to one person or one demographic.

If we follow the money, whether it is coming from the city or Downtown Greensboro, Inc., it’s hard to believe things couldn’t be done differently. Instead of passing a bond to fund a new jail, or to create an economic development fund for commercial projects in the county, it’s time to seriously focus on infill and creating a city for all, letting people who will pour everything they have into a project take the wheel.