Racial fault lines emerge in withdrawn $300,000 Wal-Mart incentives request
Developer Don Linder withdrew his request for $300,000 from the city of Greensboro to develop the old Carolina Circle Mall for a new Wal-Mart at a June 7 City Council meeting when it became apparent that support for the taxpayer subsidy had significantly eroded.
The move prompted expressions of disappointment by African-American residents of northeast Greensboro, where the deserted Carolina Circle Mall is located, and bitter string of comments by Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small about the underdevelopment of the black sections of the city. As it happened, the handful of citizens on each side who spoke before the Council mostly broke down along racial lines, with black residents lining up in support of Linder’s request and white residents opposing it.
The question of whether to approve corporate incentives designed to help attract Wal-Mart to an area of Greensboro suffering from a dearth of retail options spurred visceral reactions in the two camps. For opponents, the withdrawn economic incentive request represents a distasteful transfer of wealth from beleaguered taxpayers to one of the world’s most profitable corporations. For supporters, the City Council’s cold feet in the deal represented nothing short of white Greensboro’s neglect of the east side and racist assumptions among whites that economic investment in black neighborhoods is a wasted effort.
Bellamy-Small’s frustration with the turn of events was expressed in the suggestion that a boycott of the thriving retail centers in majority-white west Greensboro might be in order.
‘“If it means you have to stop driving to west Greensboro to shop, to get some economic development, you need to just stop driving there,’” she said, prompting applause from some audience members. Later, outside of City Council chambers, a group of black residents heatedly discussed the Council members’ eroded support for the retail project. One muttered: ‘“It’s nineteen-sixty all over again.’”
Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson stepped out of chambers and tried to reassure them that the city was not abandoning east Greensboro.
‘“I think you’ll find that with this project there was some baggage that you won’t see with other projects,’” she told them.
It was Johnson who moved that the City Council go into closed session on May 17 to discuss Linder’s $300,000 request after the Council approved a new set of guidelines for handing out economic incentives. Weeks later, Council members Sandy Carmany and Tom Phillips disclosed in their blogs that the Council voted 7-2 to bring the issue to public hearing. The two cast the only ‘no’ votes.
By June 7, a seismic shift had occurred.
Before withdrawing his request, Linder called northeast Greensboro an ‘“economically-depressed’” area and alluded to the challenges of attracting retail businesses there. He then defended the idea of spending city money to create low-paying jobs, and told the Council he reserved the right to make the request at a later time.
‘“In a perfect world, there’s no question that we would like to attract hundreds of high-paying white-collar jobs,’” he said, ‘“but for a relatively low cost we will develop new economic activity, tax revenue and jobs, some of which will be low-paying, but others that are middle management in a major corporation.’”
The $300,000 grant would have been spent to buy easement rights from neighboring property owners and would not have been pocketed by either Wal-Mart or himself, he added.
Residents of northeast Greensboro appeared visibly disheartened by the announcement.
‘“When we think about Wal-Mart, we think about more stores, more jobs and more life,’” Goldie Wells, spokeswoman for Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, told the Council. ‘“Please bring equity to Northeast Greensboro. Whatever it takes, please do it.’”
Nancy Cavenaugh, a white resident of Northeast Greensboro, spoke against the scrapped deal in equally strong terms.
‘“There is more than adequate documentation available which shows that this is a corporation which, rather than building communities, does much to unravel community,’” she said. ‘“To pay three hundred thousand dollars to any prospective retailer whose business reputation is one who mercilessly undercuts its suppliers in order to create ‘low prices’ which then results in the failure of existing neighborhood businesses, would seem to be tantamount to fraudulent use of the taxpayer’s monies.’”
The criticism of corporate subsidies to help facilitate a new Wal-Mart store took on an ugly tinge when a white resident John Pugh called northeast Greensboro a ‘“black hole’” and suggested that its residents have never been willing to support retail in their own neighborhoods.
‘“I think history will show that this city really grew up in northeast Greensboro,’” replied Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White. ‘“The rest of Greensboro has been moving west on us. We keep trying to pull it back but unfortunately that has not happened.’”
Carmany suggested in her blog that an outpouring of public opposition caused support among council members for the incentive grant. Council members Don Vaughan and Florence Gatten had publicly stated that they would vote against the deal by June 6, Carmany wrote in her blog. The next day, she reported that two more Council members had defected to the opposition, but declined to disclose their identities.
One of them was Mayor Keith Holliday, who told YES! Weekly on June 10 that he had been leaning against the grant. Holliday said he suggested to Linder that he withdraw his request when it became apparent that it wouldn’t pass.
Bellamy-Small and Robbie Perkins stated their support for the grant at the June 7 meeting, leaving only Johnson, Burroughs-White unaccounted for among members of the Council. The two did not return phone calls from YES! Weekly on June 10.
‘“I feel like you have to give consideration to anything,’” Gatten said June 10. ‘“This was a hard issue because I support development in east Greensboro. But I have grave questions about Wal-Mart’s employment practices, especially their discrimination against women. Giving an economic advantage to Wal-Mart over existing businesses is something I oppose.’”
Gatten said many of her constituents in northwest Greensboro expressed opposition to their tax dollars being spent to support the deal. Carmany, who represents southwest Greensboro, estimates she received 30 to 40 e-mails, faxes, letters and phone calls on the proposed deal from constituents, with opposition running 10 to 1.
Wells, of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, said she had met with Bellamy-Small after the City Council meeting to discuss options for promoting economic development on the city’s east side.
‘“I don’t know what kind of pressure we’ll do,’” she said. ‘“We will not stop pushing. I’m not saying it’s a boycott. All we’re trying to do is get equity.’”
Carmany has continually questioned the use of economic incentives to develop land for Wal-Mart.
‘“Does the city really need to be paying incentives to attract this type of development and its lower salaries?’” she asked in a May 30 post on her blog. ‘“The response our city attorney received from the Institute of Government [in Chapel Hill] when she consulted them about the proposal was, ‘Yes, it’s legal, but why would you want to do it?’ My sentiments exactly!
‘“I can hear the laughter now,’” she added. ‘“Winston/Forsyth gets a Dell. Greensboro gets another Wal-Mart.’”
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