by Whitney Kenerly

DGI faces challenges in efforts to make Greensboro Hip

Downtown Greensboro Incorporated is developing a wish list for the City. While updating City Council on plans and projects during a work session on June 12, DGI discussed changes to their work plan along with some of the elements they have identified as being missing from downtown.

The economic development organization is working on streamlining its focus at the request of Council. In 2013 DGI received a mandate from the City of Greensboro to “Refocus on business and economic development.” DGI introduced a Strategic Planning process in February to determine how to shift resources in order to meet the City’s request.

DGI received $1.1 million from the City of Greensboro for the 2013-2014 fiscal year with $269,000 of the funds going toward economic development, $199,000 allotted for park maintenance, $299,000 for marketing and events, $390,000 for public space management and $127,000 for administrative overhead.

This year DGI plans to increase their economic development budget to $439,000 while shifting resources away from other functions.

DGI President and CEO Jason Cannon presented the Strategic Plan process to Council members wherein DGI recognized that it had previously tried to accomplish too many functions. “The organization is in a transitional stage,” said Cannon. “The charge of the organization was about a mile wide and an inch deep. We had so many things going on and we really weren’t able to be great at any of them.”

DGI is in conversation with the City of Greensboro to see if the municipality can take over certain maintenance initiatives such as graffiti removal and sidewalk scraping in winter. This would allow DGI to spend more time and energy recruiting businesses and evaluating how to improve the environment downtown.

They had survey responses from about 1,000 people to assess what people in Greensboro would like to see downtown. Many residents are frustrated that other cities in the state seem to be further along in their urban revitalizations.

“People are constantly comparing Greensboro to other communities, that’s human nature,” said Cannon. “We’re constantly compared to Winston-Salem and constantly compared to Durham.”

Cannon emphasized that it’s important to take into account the economic history of a city when comparing development projects. “Both Durham and Winston-Salem are tobacco empires of yesteryear,” said Cannon.

“Both left large buildings in their downtown core, and when you look at revitalization projects that have happened in those cities, the vast majority of them have been in those large tobacco warehouses.”

Durham and Winston-Salem are also partially funded by privately owned universities with massive endowments. Duke and Wake Forest have invested millions into projects in their cities. While Greensboro has seven universities within its city limits, the financial resources of those schools are not comparable to the wealth of an institution like Wake Forest or Duke.

Revitalizing downtown Greensboro comes with a unique set of challenges. Greensboro experienced much of its growth well after the establishment of the automobile as a primary mode of transportation. Greensboro is therefore very decentralized and surrounded by a wide halo of suburban communities.

A national shift is beginning to occur with young professionals moving back into urban areas. As the price of gas climbs higher, university students and post-grads are ditching their cars for walkable cities. Young families are leaving the gated communities behind in favor of townhouses close to museums and parks for their children.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan noted that this trend can been seen in Greensboro through revenue patterns. “When you look at the tax revenue from across the City the past few years it’s pretty stagnant,” Vaughan said. “Downtown has seen a 15 percent increase.”

“The real estate values in downtown are strong,” said Cannon. “Downtown Greensboro as the heart of the city has an extraordinary opportunity to grow and thrive.”

Keeping downtown alive and attractive to those new urban residents, as well prospective business owners, is a top priority for DGI.

“One of the things that I’ve noticed a lot walking up and down downtown is that all the parking lots are full, and people are in stores, but no one is walking around outside,” said Cannon. “In order to get that cool downtown environment you’ve got to get people outside.”

One idea proposed by DGI is to create more parklets in front of restaurants and cafés downtown. Parklets are small spaces converted from two or three parking spots that extend out from a sidewalk area. DGI hopes that by creating a space for someone to enjoy a cappuccino next to Elm Street, that the environment can encourage people to spend more time on the downtown streetscapes.

This would also be attractive to prospective businesses, which look for downtown activity and crowds when deciding where to locate their restaurants and stores. It is also one of the cheaper options in terms of changing existing infrastructure, because it is generally much more difficult to change a current urban landscape than to build a new one.

Another proposal by DGI to encourage people to spend more time walking around downtown is to have more urban artwork. Cities like Chapel Hill and New Bern have downtown areas covered in murals, sculptures, and urban installations. DGI has partnered with Arts Greensboro to identify cost-effective methods to add artistic elements to the city streets.

“We’re sitting here with schools like UNCG that have incredible art programs,” said Cannon. Students studying studio art might even be willing to paint a giant mural on the side of a building for free. If the project could count for an assignment or bring notoriety to the budding artist then payment negotiations could be more flexible than with an established artist.

While DGI struggles to address the needs of downtown Greensboro with a staff of four and a relatively limited budget, some members of Council would like to see more payoff.

In regards to the budget for DGI, Councilman Jamal Fox said, “If we don’t see results by next year I don’t see myself supporting it.”

Lack of major university resources coupled with a decentralized infrastructure will continue to constrain the work done by DGI, but the organization seems optimistic about a steady, if slow, movement to make downtown Greensboro hip.

“There’s no question that’s it’s difficult to do,” said Cannon. “We wouldn’t be a professional organization if it were easy. But downtown development is one building at a time.” !