Greensboro council weighs arts center options, information

by Eric Ginsburg

Greensboro City Council members are trying to digest and comprehend all the information they’ve been given about the proposed downtown performing-arts center while simultaneously deliberating if and how to appropriate $40 million in public funds to accompany $20 million in private contributions.

Council voted 7-2 last week to put the performing arts center to a referendum vote, likely in the fall, which would allow residents to cast their ballots for or against a bond to support the center. Mayor Robbie Perkins, a staunch supporter of the project who voted for putting it on the ballot, quickly pointed out after the vote that any member who voted in favor would be allowed to bring the issue up for reconsideration in coming meetings.

“This was an attempt precipitated by Trudy Wade to kill this project and it was done at the last minute without informing me or others that were in favor of the project,” Perkins said in an interview, adding that it was Wade’s last meeting before taking her position in the NC Senate. “Dr. Wade was within her right to do that, but her right to do that has to be asterisked with the realization that she doesn’t like this project and has been trying to kill it from the get-go. She’s tried to kill all other projects from beginning. The decision by council was made in a vacuum, and that’s why I voted the way I voted so it could be revisited.”

Wade, a conservative who represented District 5, was known for stances against increased taxes and for decreased government spending. Her replacement, Tony Wilkins, was appointed later in the meeting to serve out the last year of Wade’s term until the election in the fall.

Perkins said if the council followed the scheduled timeline, which includes two presentations from the performingarts center task force in addition to the one given last week, council would be able to make a more informed decision and many of their questions would be answered. Though the presentation specifically dealing with funding options has not occurred yet, council members’ questions repeatedly returned to economic questions for the task force last week.

At-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan said it would be more expensive to put the bond referendum to a vote for a special May election, and said it would make more financial sense to include it in the fall when all council members are up for reelection.

“I certainly think that [the public] should have a direct voice in this process,” she said in an interview. “We are in very difficult economic times right now and we can’t guarantee that it wont have an impact on the property tax rate.”

Vaughan and other council members were confused by the projected jobcreation numbers related to the project — which they said were not presented clearly to council — and worried that the project could exceed its $60 million price tag.

Vaughan said she would raise the issue of using a “construction manager at risk,” a contractual agreement that was used for the new Guilford County jail that helps ensure a project won’t go over budget and if it does, that the contractor would have to cover the difference.

“My biggest concern right now is that we are kind of at a point right now in our financial history that I am not sure we have ever been before,” Vaughan said. “It certainly behooves us to see what is going to happen. I think for the lay person, myself included, that I have needed a lot of clarity on the financial side of this project.”

Vaughan said budgetary issues in the US Congress and the much-discussed “fiscal cliff” could have significant implications for local and state governments, and that council should wait and see what happens, and should consider the potential negative impact on other parts of the city’s budget and funds if a project of this magnitude moved forward. Vaughan also said she was unsure if it was wise to use money from the Convention & Visitors’ Bureau’s hotel/motel tax fund as the task force has proposed.

District 2 Councilman Jim Kee said in an interview that he wasn’t sure if the county commissioners would support using the hotel/motel tax funds, but he is adamant that the center goes before voters.

“We promised people that we would put it on the ballot,” Kee said. “I don’t want to go back on my word. I don’t have a problem at all if it’s voter approved.”

Kee also said he is “absolutely unclear” on the anticipated job creation numbers.

“If you’re investing $40 million in a project, you should have at least an idea of how many jobs it’s going to create,” he said. “I still am not convinced of the economic impact that it will have on Greensboro. It’s still a project in motion really.”

Perkins said that future task force presentations would clarify confusion on economic questions including jobs, and that putting it before voters would require an expensive voter education campaign and could kill the momentum generated throughout the year.

Perkins said the project’s ability to generate ongoing revenue and revitalize downtown were primary reasons to move ahead with the existing schedule and begin construction sooner rather than later.

“You could take the same $40 million and you could go out into our communities and spend it all and things would be better,” he said, referring to infrastructure projects — particularly in east Greensboro — that some opponents say should be a higher priority. “But would you generate the kind of transformational economic activity? That’s the key to this whole deal. These are tried and true and proven ways to turn your downtown area around.”