Pickett, Fox offer competing visions for District 2

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

Greensboro’s District 2 encompasses much about what makes the Gate City unique. From the block where the Union Square Campus is rising from former brownfields downtown to the city’s northern limits near Bryan Park and Reedy Fork, the district is one of the most active in terms of development projects and transformation.

But the core of the district remains in economic stagnation, home to the city’s largest food desert and persistent poverty and unemployment. Development teases the district’s edge””as developers see potential once the eastern leg of the Greensboro Urban Loop is complete””while city-backed projects along Phillips Avenue bring green shoots to an abandoned commercial strip. The $100 million Revolution Mill redevelopment project along Yanceyville Street is part of a vision of future mixed-use splendor that could pull more wealth into the district.

First-term council member Jamal Fox beat an incumbent in 2013 to take over as District 2’s representative on council based largely on a campaign that promised new vision and action on a list of aging projects. Fox feels new energy in the community as he’s “moved the ball” on many fronts, but challenger Thessa Pickett, herself a grassroots community activist, feels much more commitment needs to be present in order for the community to prosper.

Pickett, 35, is a committed grassroots activist involved in several community groups and who serves on a handful of boards and committees. She’s known for her work as a homeless advocate from the time she spent working on the Housing First initiative as a caseworker. Pickett worked to provide housing vouchers and service referrals to the city’s homeless population during that time.

She feels that experience is representative of how she would attack the challenges facing residents of the city’s northeast section.

“I feel it’s critical to not just take part in committee meetings but to be extremely active with those who are oppressed and often go overlooked,” Pickett said.

She came to Greensboro as a child with her mother as the two fled a domestic violence situation. Pickett said she’s lived in the city off and on since that time, living in Greensboro permanently for the last 14 years. Pickett, who is married, has four children.

During the last year she’s attended numerous police accountability meetings, either with the Greensboro Police Accountability Community Safety and Healing Initiative (PACSHI) or those led by the Beloved Community Center. Both groups advocate for a citizen-led police review board that is external of city authority. The groups want to have subpoena power and the ability to review personnel files of police officers facing citizen complaints. Both goals are currently not possible under existing state law.

Pickett said her own children are aware of the current atmosphere of police misconduct at the national level and are watching the Black Lives Matter movement with interest.

“It’s part of my drive to protect my children and the community’s children as I protect my own,” Pickett said.

“We would like to see laws and legislation in place. That’s only right when serving a community, or the state and nation as a whole. These laws need to spill over … that protect our children.”

It was while speaking out at several city council meetings during the last year””on the police accountability topic and the drive to bring a community grocery store to Phillips Avenue””that Pickett said she was approached by District 2 residents to run for the seat.

In taking bold positions on city funding for the Renaissance Community Co-Op and the drive to increase the number of minority-owned firms gaining work under city contracts, Pickett said she attracted the attention of civil rights leaders, Black Lives Matter activists, and a wide-range of area residents.

Pickett said that with so many needs present in District 2, her biggest criticism of the status quo is the need to prioritize. Being involved in so many community groups, in addition to being a wife and a mother, helps her build relationships and assess needs.

“I understand the direct challenges facing families in this district,” Pickett said. “It allows me to see first hand the challenges we face.”

Eradicating the stubborn food deserts in residential areas of the district would be her top priority. She advocated for full funding of the community co-op planned for the Renaissance Shops on Phillips Avenue, something the city council committed $250,000 toward during the last year.

Pickett said more needs to be done to improve the situation, including educating the public on healthy habits and lifestyles. With a major agricultural university in the district in NC A&T State University, Pickett believes there is room for improvement that could bridge the gap between the community and institutions that could create more opportunities for entrepreneurs to address food deserts.

Opportunities and relationships are central to her campaign, and a key part of her vision for economic development. Workforce development is important, Pickett said, as is addressing chronic homelessness and poverty.

“It all kind of ties in to each other. I want to be able to bring comprehensive solutions that serve the district,” Pickett said.

Focusing on persistent root causes of social ills could alleviate crime patterns, which in turn could improve police and community relations, Pickett said.

“You can’t help but link those issues back to the economic development and jobs,” she said. “I feel like if you get to the root of the issue, we are lacking the material resources to meet the needs of the people in this district.”

Business owners express frustration at their lack of capital resources, Pickett said, and would like to be able to improve the appeal of commercial areas. Support for the struggling Bessemer Curb Market should be a priority for the community, she said.

“I want what the community wants, that’s not to be left behind west Greensboro,” Pickett said. “We want to take that same pride in our neighborhood retail and shopping centers, just like any other person would. Increasing that appeal, not dropping the ball on redevelopment projects, that will give us something to be proud of.”

Fox said he ran in 2013 because he felt the city needed a new face and new vision.

“I believed that I could provide it at that time and I feel equally enthused about being reelected to continue that path,” Fox said. “We built the campaign in ’13 off of opportunities and we haven’t shied away from that.”

His goals for his first term were to finish existing projects, provide resources to the community and give them the opportunity to tap into those resources. Fox, who is 27, said he also wanted to bring a youthful perspective to the city council.

But his primary goal was to “fight and get things done for District 2 and northeast Greensboro.” Fox said he wanted to see tangible results quickly because many in the district had lost hope.

“The needs are so great there that there are a lot of plans and things like that on the shelf. How could we take them off the shelf and get them done?” Fox listed the progress made on the Renaissance Shops on Phillips Avenue as his top accomplishment during his first term on council.

“It’s on its way. If you go out there now you can see gates and construction. They are moving forward,” Fox said. He estimates a soft opening date could occur in April or May. The center recently sealed a commitment from a major health care provider to operate a health clinic.

Changing the scope of the project was a major accomplishment as well, Fox said. The previous plan council worked with needed major changes, he said, and that was accomplished by including community members on an advisory board that shaped the path forward. In addition to the co-op grocery and health clinic, the city is working out details of what city services will be present.

“We wanted the right resources there in that center, especially when you consider that other 40-year project, the Cone- Nealtown connector, will be officially open,” Fox said. “We will build that bridge next year, officially open in 2017. You will be opening that area up to folks to be able to shop and get over to Cone, and then be able to get to the shopping center.”

Fox calls the $100 million redevelopment of the Revolution Mill a “game changer” that could bring 1,200 jobs to the district. Tackling food deserts, and the city’s commitment to the Renaissance Community Co-Op, round out his list of top accomplishments in the district. Other accomplishments include working to get Proctor and Gamble to create about 200 new jobs by bringing a product line back from overseas, transferring ownership of War Memorial Stadium to NC A&T, and the groundbreaking for the Union Square Campus nurse training program.

Fox also worked to create a College Commission that’s focused on giving collegiate leaders a voice in city affairs, in addition to grooming future community leaders. He also led the drive to create a standing city council committee structure that’s replaced monthly work sessions.

The previous work session structure often bogged down in argument and chasing details that were not at hand. The new committee structure is more efficient and brings department heads and elected officials together so they all work from the same page.

“It’s awesome because you have a council structure and you have the result areas””the city manager and department heads,” Fox said. “Now the department heads can hear first hand what the city council wants and what the expectation is.”

Fox said the progress made in the last two years is but a beginning.

“We’re still scratching the surface,” Fox said. “We moved the ball on many agenda items that needed to be moved, but we’re by no means where we need to be as a district to be more competitive. There’s progress being made, but I’m not pleased with where we are right now. I will say that probably many in the community will say the same thing. When you have projects that take 20,30,40 years and have just been sitting there, people lose hope, they lose confidence, in not only the leadership but the city as a whole. Now that progress is starting to move, you can feel the instillation of hope back into the community.” !