Hightower and Bellamy-Small ready for round two

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

Voters decided the last election in District 1 by a mere 12 votes. Given the commitment both incumbent Sharon Hightower and former council member T. Dianne Bellamy-Small have for improving the quality of life for residents in the city’s southeast quadrant, the looming second round could be just as close.

Both candidates are quick witted and focused African-American women who’ve lived in the district for decades. Bellamy-Small served as District 1’s representative on the Greensboro City Council from 2003 to 2013, before she lost a squeaker of an election in 2013 to Hightower.

Hightower came on to council with an aggressive voice that demanded a larger share of the pie for residents and small businesses in East Greensboro. She’s championed a revitalized Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise program, which requires companies wanting to do business with the City of Greensboro to show a good-faith effort to include minority businesses as subcontractors in major projects.

In interviews with both candidates last week, it was clear that the stigma of poverty and crime that often diminishes the reputation of East Greensboro in the minds of outsiders is unwarranted. But as multimillion dollar projects rise from the ground in Downtown Greensboro, both women made it clear that economic development leaders must put more effort into revitalizing a part of the city many feel has been intentionally overlooked for years.

Bellamy-Small, 63, moved to Greensboro in 1976. She’d graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and came to Greensboro after she married an NC A&T State University graduate. A singer, Bellamy-Small said she likes to tell stories in song, focusing on traditional Negro spirituals. A mother and a grandmother, Bellamy-Small, in person at least, comes across as a woman with a big heart and a sharp wit, which stands in contrast to her divisive reputation portrayed in the media from her time on council.

She served as an election official for 24 years and was the chief judge at two precincts. Bellamy-Small said that working with the public to help them understand election procedure and policies was very rewarding. People encouraged her to run for office over the years, but she wasn’t ready until the early part of the last decade. She needed to gain more wisdom and make sure her children were grown before jumping in to electoral politics.

“This is a demanding occupation, if that’s what you call it, because it just requires so much of you all the time,” Bellamy-Small said. “You do this 24/7, whether you want to or not. Unlike some of the things said about me by my opponent the last time, and even this time, I have never been unapproachable.”

Bellamy-Small said she decided to run the first time, in part, to discover the truth about how the city’s status quo viewed citizens in East Greensboro.

“There were so many people who perceived that the City of Greensboro did not do equally for East Greensboro, or for southeast Greensboro,” she said. “I started trying to figure out is this perception real or is it partially real or is it just misunderstanding? A lot of what I found was just the lack of communication, of understanding how the City of Greensboro does business.”

Initially, she found a dismissive culture at city hall toward residents of the district. She would reiterate that those were taxpaying citizens that deserved good customer service. Bellamy-Small began taking department heads out into the community so that they could see the reality of the streets and better understand how their decisions affected real people.

One of her first goals was to get city staffers more intimately familiar with the district, street by street.

“If you look now, the level of community meetings has gone up exponentially from prior to when I came on board to now,” Bellamy-Small said. “The input of the folk … is now being taken into consideration.”

Over the years, Bellamy-Small said she viewed herself as a teacher responsible to explain to residents how government works.

“I’m not a politician, I am a servant leader,” she said. “There is a difference. Sometimes people don’t understand that.”

Over the years she served on council, Bellamy-Small listed three accomplishments she feels represent her body of work. Those include a parity study showing the strengths and weaknesses for potential economic development in East Greensboro. The study concluded that East Greensboro had the fourth highest potential for retail activity in the city, trailing Bridford Parkway, Battleground/Friendly, and New Garden.

“Even the developers who saw the study were surprised,” Bellamy-Small said. “Part of it is that even though the median income is half of what it is in west Greensboro, people spend 99 percent of what they do make and they are paying higher prices for the goods and services. They can’t get out of that area.”

The study identified five economic activity areas, including the Phillips Avenue/Renaissance Center spot in District 2 at number one.

Bellamy-Small seemed to tear up a bit when she discussed her second accomplishment, creating a homeless day center that’s now known as the Interactive Resource Center. Bellamy- Small worked on the project beginning in 2008 and it became reality in 2012.

She said this past winter when the IRC was used as a staging place and warming center for the homeless during extreme cold spells, she felt a sense of joy knowing that it was in place.

“I don’t know how many lives we’ve saved since we did that,” Bellamy- Small said. “It just meant a lot to me. It’s had some challenges, but that’s been because of folks having self-interest. Hopefully under new leadership it is doing what it was designed to do.”

Working on the Family Justice Center initiative beginning in 2005 and casting the deciding vote for the Greensboro Aquatic Center round out her list of highlighted accomplishments. The Family Justice Center opened this past summer as a one-stop resource for victims of domestic and family violence.

The center is a joint effort between the city and Guilford County.

Bellamy-Small said that she worked hard to see a Learn to Swim program included in the GAC. Once she saw that the status quo was determined to make the GAC a reality, Bellamy- Small worked to have a voice at the table for residents of the city’s east side. She’s since volunteered there, and the program had seen 450 second graders graduate. It’s helped reduce the number of drowning deaths among minority children, she said.

In 2013, Bellamy-Small opposed both the funding for the Tanger Performing Arts Center and the $1.5 million loan to prop up the struggling International Civil Rights Center and Museum. She felt the TPAC should be built near the Greensboro Coliseum, both to save money and to make use of existing infrastructure such as roads and parking.

As for the ICRCM, she felt that the folks running the museum did not have a good track record of financial management.

“If we believe that February 1, 1960 was a pivotal turning point for civil rights in this country then dollars should be coming in from all over the world because it is the model,” Bellamy-Small said. “They should not have any problem with getting monies.”

Moving forward, if elected back to council Bellamy-Small said she would focus on jobs and economic development, infrastructure and building collaborations with non-city entities.

Economic development is on the tip of every candidate’s tongue, she said, and for good reasons. She supports a combined city-county economic development model. One talented staff in one location could provide the most efficient economic development services in the area, Bellamy-Small said.

Specific to the district, she’d like to bring the parity study back to the table and focus on the activity centers such as the Gateway University Research Park and East Market Street. She pushed hard for the Florida Street extension across the NC A&T research farm, something Hightower opposed.

If returned to council, Bellamy-Small said she would look for more community collaborations like what resulted in LeBauer Park. Returning to results-oriented public service would also be important for her.

“I believe that I bring experience. I understand the role that the city council is supposed to have,” Bellamy-Small said. “If the people will have me back, I think they will see that my style of leadership is the more gentler, kinder and engaging in a positive way.”

Hightower moved to Greensboro 30 years ago and settled in District 1 in the mid-1990s. A single mother, her 29-year-old daughter is a Dudley High School graduate who now works at a community hospital in Raleigh. Hightower said she learned community service from her father, often watching him work with a men’s group from their church to deliver food and household items to those in need.

Prior to winning the District 1 council seat in 2013, Hightower served as president of her College Forest neighborhood group, on the board of the Evans-Blount Health Center, as a member of the East Market Street Merchants Association and on the advisory board for Gateway University Research Park.

The Gateway project was moving forward unknown to the community until a zoning hearing was planned, Hightower said. She decided then to get more deeply involved in community affairs. Neighbors rallied to force NC A&T to halt the process, engage the community, and make sure their voices were at the table.

This lead to the creation of the Gateway University Advisory Board, which she served on as the project moved forward in 2007.

Leading up to 2013, Hightower said she’d become frustrated with the lack of significant development in the district.

“I just saw things being stagnant,” Hightower said. “We kept hearing conversations about ‘well, you can only go east’ but nobody was saying why they weren’t coming east. Something was happening, there was some stagnation, no conversation or good dialogue. I felt like as a constituent of this area that we were being overlooked.”

The misperception of safety in East Greensboro, lack of progress on housing and the Heritage House fiasco, were also issues that factored into her decision to run for council in 2013.

“We really have to promote who we are and I didn’t see that happening,” Hightower said.

Hightower said she was a bit surprised to win the last round, but that she had worked hard to earn the victory over Bellamy-Small. Once sworn in, Hightower began to piece together the MWBE policy the city had let fall by the wayside.

As one piece of a jobs and economic development program, Hightower felt it was important for small businesses to get more opportunity to compete for city contracts.

“For me, this is a segment of our community that needs to work as well,” Hightower said. “I also saw that Greensboro was doing business with a lot of out of town folk and huge amounts of money, which meant that money was leaving our city and going to other cites. We had people right here hurting. They just need an opportunity. So for me, MWBE became one of the things I wanted to champion.”

Other accomplishments during her first term include resolving the Heritage House situation on West Meadowview Road, reaching out to the city’s youth via the Teen Summit in 2014, and completing an East Greensboro study to answer questions for developers looking to invest in that part of the city.

Hightower said the Heritage House situation had a band-aid placed on it in 2012 and that once the problem was out of control the city responded to save people from squalor. The collaborative approach across departments and with other government entities from Guilford County and the state was unique, Hightower said, and created models for responding to future crisis.

From that process came a housing reclamation program, in which the city tries to save affordable housing stock from the demolition list. The city now has a list of investors willing to rehabilitate substandard housing and return it to viable usage.

“Even in the midst of a mess, we did a miracle,” Hightower said. “I think it’s something to be proud of. We saved people from squalor and hopefully we’ve impacted their lives.”

The Teen Summit held in the summer of 2014 helped prevent a teen curfew that year and created relationships with almost 100 community partners, Hightower said. Those relationships helped connect those with new ideas for youth programs with existing facilities and services. It helped people know where to go to make their ideas a reality.

Hightower said she’s also focused on a Youth Courier Apprenticeship, where teens interested in government can shadow staff at city council meetings.

“We have to start engaging young people at a young age,” Hightower said. “That’s how we can retain and grow young people interested in serving.”

From the East Greensboro Study Committee sprang the housing reclamation program, a plan to look at impact zones that could qualify for federal funding, and an incentives program known as 8/80 wherein qualifying companies can get 80 percent of their local tax bill written off for eight years if they invest in needed areas.

Hightower has opposed funding agreements for the Tanger Performing Arts Center since she’s been on the council, but believes that since the project is a reality, it is her job to ensure local minority firms are included in the contract opportunities.

“They have committed to 20 percent (MWBE), which is not a lot, but it’s probably better than it would have been,” Hightower said. “I am here to make sure that that money is spent in this community in every way possible. As long as you partner with the City of Greensboro, you are going to go by the MWBE policy.”

She’s supported the loan to the ICRCM, Hightower said, because the city can’t afford to lose it. In her view, once the complex tax credits are paid off next year, the museum will have a better chance to attract additional funding.

Hightower also supports the spending $22 million to run city water infrastructure to the Randolph Megasite Project. The route will follow the US 421 corridor, which is in District 1.

“We’re going to get our return back on that $22 million, in both the money paid back and in the people,” Hightower said about the project’s potential to create jobs for her constituents. “I wanted to invest in the people in Greensboro, particularly in District 1, and that’s where I saw that $22 million going.” !