Follow the Money: A developer running for council challenges the developers

by Jordan Green

After Zack Matheny, the second most successful fundraiser among the crop of political newcomers is Joe Wilson, a commercial realtor employed by the local powerhouse real-estate firm Yost & Little.

Wilson’s campaign income for the reporting period that ended on Aug. 28 outstripped that of mayoral candidate and developer Milton Kern. Among the incumbents, only at-large candidate Sandra Anderson Groat, a homebuilder, and mayoral candidate Yvonne Johnson raised more.

Most of Wilson’s campaign revenue comes from a $4,000 loan the candidate made to himself. Wilson returned $3,220 out of $4,560 raised in individual contributions after a planned fundraising event featuring a raffle for a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle fell short of the campaign’s goal. The remainder of $1,800 has been raised primarily from real estate and development interests. A $500 check from Colonial Vending Co. owner Fred Ayers made vending the second-ranking sector. Landscaping, skilled trades and sales were also represented with relatively small $200 contributions.

As a candidate for the open District 3 seat, Wilson would seem to have more in common with two candidates who serve on the zoning commission – Matheny and Cyndy Hayworth – than Berkley Blanks, who was galvanized to run by a rezoning decision that went against residential neighbors opposed to the expansion of Rice Toyota near Battleground Avenue. After all, Wilson prominently lists his memberships in the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition and four other real estate-related associations on his campaign blog. But Wilson has staked out campaign positions against his own industry on a variety of fronts.

“I will vote to protect neighborhoods,” said the 45-year-old Wilson, who has lived in Greensboro most of his life. “I’m totally against nonconforming infill development. When you come visit this city you see these beautiful neighborhoods because of our tree canopy. I think that’s one of the strengths of our city.”

He added that he opposes annexation, also indicating that he takes a dim view of fringe development.

“There’s probably a million square feet of retail space that can be revamped,” Wilson said. “What I’m not in favor of is increasing our concrete footprint. Our city’s getting larger and our tax base is shrinking. When your city size grows and you have these derelict buildings lying around then your need for services increases.”

Most pointedly, Wilson has criticized rezoning decisions that allow developers to put up apartment buildings, which he notes fetch a relatively low tax valuation per unit.

“Take a look at the zoning commission meeting video on the website; you will notice that everyone’s talking about RM zoning; that means ‘residential multi-family,'” he wrote in a recent post on his campaign blog. “It is the biggest bang for the developer’s buck, so you can’t blame them; they are just trying to maximize their profits. You can, however blame the stewards we elect and appoint to safeguard our infrastructure, tax base and water supply.”

He added, perhaps somewhat hyperbolically: “The members of the zoning commission and the city council are rezoning us into the poorhouse. When the bill for this finally comes due, Greensboro will be bankrupt.”

Hayworth said in her case the charge is unwarranted.

“Each issue that comes before us is separate and looked at on an individual basis,” she said. “I go out and walk the site and view the site. There are several tools. The comprehensive plan is a tool, but it’s not the gospel, so to speak. Then I look at the surrounding areas. If I’m looking at something to be rezoned, I go three or four streets away. [I ask myself:]’If there’s a four-story something here, how will it impact this neighborhood?’ I am very adamant about protection for existing neighborhoods in rezoning matters. It has to be compatible.”

Matheny cited two cases decided by the zoning commission on Sept. 10 as an illustration of how he believes his approach to multi-family residential building has been appropriate.

“One was a dilapidated site right beside a railroad track that was built for student housing,” he said. “They are taking a piece of land that is not being used, and building student housing on it, thus significantly increasing the tax base. Near North Carolina A&T, Sebastian village is building student housing….

It’s just meant as a scare tactic and is not reality. Building student housing beside two of our largest universities in North Carolina – that makes sense.”

Wilson suggested that his campaign finance report illustrates his distance from his fellow developers.

“Look at my campaign contributions,” he said. “As a developer, that money didn’t come to me. Here’s what I am: I’m offering the people a chance to vote for a candidate who doesn’t have any debt to special interests and [political action committee] money. I’m not seeking any endorsements. It will be interesting to see if people go for that. I’m running as a regular citizen. I’ve purposefully kept that away from it.”

Asked how he would balance the public interest against the specific commercial interests of Yost & Little, Wilson responded that he would represent the people of Greensboro equally and without favor.

“I’ve had very limited conversations with the principals of my company about my campaign,” he said.

“Check my record with TREBIC,” he added, referring to the influential real estate and builders association. “I didn’t seek their endorsement. I don’t see any conflict with anything.”

Lest anyone get the notion that Wilson’s broadsides against the types of development cleared by the zoning commission and city council suggest that his industry should close up shop, the candidate-developer said he thinks there’s a right and a wrong way to proceed.

“I try to practice responsible development,” he said. “I hold a neighborhood meeting, and I will reach way out beyond what the city requirements are. I want as many people there as possible. I’m living right beside a development that I feel is nonconforming, so I know how they feel.

When told that this story would be published under the brand “follow the money” – a phrase also deployed by Wilson on his blog – the candidate quipped, “If you follow my money, you’ll probably follow it to a tavern or a baseball game.”

In fact, a third of Wilson’s campaign funds – not counting the loan he made to himself – lead back to individuals involved in real estate and development, although the rest of his contributions are spread relatively evenly across a variety of industries and professions.

Contributors who agreed to be interviewed for this story offered a variety of reasons for their support for Wilson.

“I think we need to have change on council,” said Willis McKoy, a Raleigh realtor and $200 donor who has handled properties in Greensboro. “He keeps an open mind and doesn’t see color.”

For Brad Mills, a mechanic employed by Murray Imports, personal reputation comes before policy in his decision to write a $200 check.

One contributor, landscaper Richard Coleman, acknowledged that his check was written, at least in part, to advance his commercial interests.

“He’s into real estate and I think that would be good in my industry,” Coleman said. “We’re in real estate and construction. I don’t know [any other candidates] in real estate. He would help the growth of Greensboro. I hope he wins.”

Ayers, the owner of Colonial Vending, indicated that both personal reputation and political philosophy matter.

“I think he’s a good man,” he said. “He’s my realtor. He’s my friend. He’s got the same views I’ve got. He’s got common sense. I think we need that on city council.”

Wilson, who favors streamlining the city’s engineering and inspection bureaucracy to expedite business and development plans, said his approach to governing would help business and citizens alike.

“Greensboro is perfectly poised to grow, and we’ve got to make sure that a few special interests don’t get too concerned with lining their own pockets than helping us become a business friendly city and a growing city.”

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