Greensboro mayoral candidates sound different notes on economic development

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

A few minutes before the NC A&T University baseball team started warming up, George Hartzman slipped off his sandals along the first-base line and paced in the grass at the decaying War Memorial Stadium. The diamond conjures memories for Hartzman — the outsider candidate in the Greensboro mayoral race — of his days coaching the “Killer Tofu” softball team.

For eight years, the council critic coached barefoot, and with his help and his daughter’s arm, the tie-dyewearing Killer Tofu team became the city’s 2008 fast-pitch champions. Years later, Hartzman carried a photo of his daughter embracing him on the field, but he asked to meet at the forlorn stadium to talk about its future. He sees a hotel behind left field and a cheap land deal for a private developer to turn the historic site “essentially [into] littleleague Disneyland.”

It’s one of Hartzman’s big ideas for economic development — he also envisions an automobile factory sourced with local components that he claims would create 10,000 jobs and a charter school in east Greensboro for single mothers who didn’t graduate high school and their kids designed to break the cycle of poverty. City council doesn’t fund schools — that falls to the Guilford County Commission— but Hartzman said that’s no excuse for the city to avoid dealing with economic inequality head on.

Some of Hartzman’s ideas sound like pie-in-the-sky grandstanding to Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan, the other challenger hoping to unseat Mayor Robbie Perkins. Vaughan questions where the money for Hartzman’s baseball wonderland will come from, but like Perkins, her campaign is focused on economic development ideas of her own.

Unlike Hartzman, who ran for council in 2009 but hasn’t held elected office, Vaughan and Perkins are campaigning on their long histories of public service and pointing out their different leadership styles.

Perkins, who beat incumbent Bill Knight in the 2011 mayoral race after serving at large and in District 3, sums up his campaign with a question and a slogan. Opening and closing the League of Women Voters’ mayoral candidate forum last week, he said: “The question we need to ask ourselves is, are we better off today than we were two years ago?” Perkins also unveiled his new campaign acronym — invented by his former fraternity brother for the reelection bid — PAINT: Positive Action Instead of Negative Talk. His campaign palm cards still reference his “One city, one vision” tagline from his last bid for office, meaning a focus on economic development and job creation.

Greensboro needs to focus on its strategic advantages, he said, namely the airport, downtown and nanotechnology. The downtown performing-arts center, the centerpiece project of Perkins’ term as mayor, is a major component of that development.

An increased dedication to helping students and young professionals become entrepreneurs — in nanotechnology and other areas — could be a crucial way to increase the number of local, small businesses, he said. Perkins said the airport is already a major hub — mentioning his leadership on the city’s decision to hire a federal lobbyist who successfully pushed for $1.5 million for a new taxiway — and added that the land and transportation infrastructure nearby makes it ideal for more growth.

In some ways, Perkins’ vision for downtown — including the performing arts center — is lifted directly from a city numerous council members and High Point, and Winston-Salem seem envious of: Greenville, SC.

“We don’t have to figure out what we want to be; we just need to copy that,” he said, adding that Greenville scores a “10 out of 10” for cool.

Perkins summarizes a lot of his work as connecting people with ideas and needs to create solutions. Part of that requires keeping council focused, encouraging the creation of council subcommittees, traveling and communicating with mayors in other cities to keep new ideas coming in and the city moving forward.

Sitting at the head of a conference room table at his commercial real estate company’s office on State Street, Perkins rattled off a list of meetings on his schedule for the day and other ways he’s supported economic development. There’s a potential mega-site in conjunction with Randolph County; three lobbying trips in Washington, DC; communicating with college presidents here and working with the county commissioners to extend water and sewer lines for development in east Greensboro.

“It’s hard to have economic development if you can’t flush a toilet,” Perkins said.

Vaughan distinguishes herself from Perkins, at the candidate forum and in an interview, by emphasizing her attention to detail, follow-through and ability to build consensus. The performing arts center probably wouldn’t have passed in its original formation, Vaughan said, but she worked hard alongside Councilman Zack Matheny to create a financing plan that wouldn’t require a bond. Perkins was largely absent from the details of the project, Vaughan said, but she helped carry it to the finish line.

The mayor needs to lead economic development and in some ways Perkins has failed to do that, Vaughan said. The city already has $4 million in an economic-development bond fund that’s ready to be spent, but without leadership from the top, council took no action, Vaughan said. And the mayor may talk about unity with his “One city” message, Vaughan said, but there’s a disconnect with east Greensboro that he ignored until he was “called to the carpet” at an east Greensboro summit.

Vaughan voted against the current economic development plan for the Bessemer Shopping Center, a deal that now appears to be falling apart. A constant fixture at Renaissance Community Coop meetings, Vaughan said she is committed to seeing the cooperative grocery store go into the forsaken strip.

“That shopping center is a symbol of what is wrong with the east side,” Vaughan said. “That area could be a model for the city.”

There are other practical economicdevelopment plans Vaughan worked on that she points to, especially a setaside fund from property taxes that doesn’t raise the rate but amounts to $1.2 million annually. The city needs to improve its branding too, she said, which could increase economic development by raising the city’s national profile. It’s one thing to throw around ideas, Vaughan said, referencing the performing arts center or Hartzman’s War Memorial Stadium concept, but it’s another thing to recognize a demand, create a plan and work to see it implemented.

Vaughan and Hartzman agreed that race is a central issues the city needs to address but spoke about solutions differently.

“Greensboro really tortures itself with racial politics and we have to find a way to bridge that,” Vaughan said, adding that she’d be willing to “put it on the front burner” and find new ways to engage people.

Vaughan has attended several community meetings about alleged racial profiling, excessive use of force and a lack of professionalism in the police department, and while she is still gathering information before articulating what she thinks should be done, Vaughan has repeatedly expressed concern about the rift between the department and residents of color.

Hartzman’s three big economic development ideas — the hotel and stadium, school and car factory — are all designed to improve unemployment and prioritizing the city’s residents who are hurting the most. Unless the city teaches people in east Greensboro how to make money, Hartzman said, the playing field will remain uneven.

“We need to figure out a way to live together,” Hartzman said in an interview, adding that dealing with poverty is a top priority for him.

He draws inspiration from his wife who works with teenage parents, he said, describing himself as a reformed former vulture. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi profiled Hartzman as a whistleblower at Wells Fargo, where he used to work. Now he teaches ethics classes and is a fixture at city council meetings, raising allegations about a lack of transparency and unethical deals left and right.

The problem isn’t just a lack of focus on poor areas of the city, he said, but a corrupt inner circle cutting backdoor deals for their friends and business partners.

“There’s a small group of people that have a lot of control,” he said. “We’re a microcosm of a much larger issue.”

While Perkins and Vaughan’s campaign rhetoric mostly sticks to a script about well-known plans for economic development downtown — a university district, for example — Hartzman named a few ideas of his own: an occasional 21+ entertainment district on weekend nights, blocking off Elm Street for a car show and inviting 15 nearby Harley clubs for a motorcycle gathering.

Hartzman claims he could save city employees $500,000 by switching insurance companies and lowering fees, as well as cutting costs from the city’s retirement plan.

Vaughan and Perkins expressed skepticism about Hartzman’s ideas in general, and Vaughan said she was offended by Hartzman’s comments at the candidate forum implying that her dedication to improving the city’s waste and recycling contract was nefarious. Hartzman accused Vaughan of meddling to prevent the city from selling methane created at the White Street landfill because her husband — a lawyer who has performed legal work for Waste Industries — benefits from the contract that is in place with textile giant ITG.

Vaughan said she wasn’t a part of the methane discussions — which, in any case, weren’t fruitful anyway — but played a critical role in a successful push for increased recycling operations and saved the city money on the contract. She was also offended when Hartzman recently suggested her vote could be bought for $100 — referring to a campaign donation in 2009 — even though her record on issues such as Downtown Greensboro Inc. indicates that she does what is right even if it means jeopardizing future financial support, Vaughan said.

While Vaughan stressed her ability to hammer out details of city business, Perkins took a different approach, saying the mayor’s job is to “get out of the weeds and provide strategic vision.” That doesn’t mean he isn’t intimately involved in the nuts and bolts of various projects — Perkins personally reached out to and met with City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan to help recruit him.

Since the last election, the mayor’s finances surfaced in the public eye, as details of a messy divorce and millions in debt because of the nation’s real estate downtown became known. It hasn’t affected his ability to govern, Perkins said, but has actually taught him more about what average citizens go through. He pays attention to his own financial details, cutting his cable service from a $117 plan down to $72, and said he appreciates the “struggles of a good part of the population” better now.

He notes that while he’s taken a few hits due to the performing arts center and his private finances aren’t where they used to be, Greensboro has made significant strides.

“We’ve had a good two years, but you haven’t seen anything yet,” Perkins said.

He’s hoping voters agree, and equate him with that success.