Renaissance Center plan moves forward

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

Residents packed a Greensboro recreation center last week to hear two proposals for the desolate Renaissance Shopping Center at a city-organized forum.

The folding chairs set up on the gym floor filled quickly on Jan. 23, and little room was left on several rows of bleachers stretching the length of the gym as a couple hundred people arrived at the Peeler Recreation Center despite the biting cold temperature. The meeting, designed to present proposals from Self Help Ventures Fund to buy and renovate the shopping center and from the Renaissance Community Cooperative to create a full-service grocery store on the site, also gathered community feedback on what residents would like to see as well as their questions or concerns.

The meeting didn’t just draw a strong showing from community members “” seven of the nine city council members, including Mayor Nancy Vaughan, attended the meeting, as well as state Rep. Pricey Harrison and state Sen. Gladys Robinson. Several council members said afterwards that they were impressed with the turnout and planned to move quickly on the issue.

“To me it was pretty exciting to see the community wanted to stay engaged,” Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said. “That shows the community really wants something to move forward.

We’ve got to do something like, yesterday really.”

The Renaissance Shopping Center in northeast Greensboro is owned by the city and has been vacant for more than a decade. In the last year, the city council solicited requests for proposal to redevelop the site twice after a first round of negotiations with developers represented by former Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston fell through. By the early November deadline for the latest process, only Self Help Ventures Fund had submitted a proposal, the city said.

Newly appointed City Manager Jim Westmoreland said the tentative plan is for council to consider the Self Help proposal for the center at its Feb. 13 work session and vote on the deal as early as Feb. 18. The city currently intends to sell the property for $490,000 and set aside $685,000 for the redevelopment project, Westmoreland said. Self Help plans to spend more than $2 million renovating the inside of the buildings in the shopping center and fixing the parking lot, he said, and it is possible the city will consider a $2 million forgivable loan towards improving the center as well. Self Help initially requested a $2 million grant from the city in its proposal.

Self Help, which was created with the goal of bringing the civil rights struggle into the economic realm by helping low-income people and communities create wealth, first became aware of the Renaissance Center thanks to the grocery cooperative initiative, Executive Vice President Tucker Bartlett told the crowd on Jan. 23. Co-op supporters, who began organizing to fill a void in access to fresh food in the community about a year and a half ago, approached Self Help about its “Healthy Foods” initiative designed to address food deserts, Bartlett said.

While co-op supporters initially sought a loan from Self Help and hoped the city would retain ownership of the center, co-op spokesperson Lamar Gibson told attendees that the co-op is supportive of the current plan. It would mean a higher cost of rent, he said, but would ultimately cost the Renaissance Community Co-op less because Self Help would take care of the building renovations.

The contract with Self Help wouldn’t explicitly state that the cooperative will open in part of the space, but the proposal talks about a relationship and commitment to the co-op, Westmoreland said, and it pledges to make a good-faith effort to negotiate an agreeable lease agreement giving the cooperative 10,000 square feet “” the amount organizers want.

Self Help Director of Real Estate Kim Cameron reiterated that commitment at the community meeting.

“Of course we want a grocery store there,” she said. “RCC is our first choice.”

Cameron’s presentation outlined a project Self Help is involved with at Kent Corner in Durham that also includes a 10,000-square foot cooperative grocery store, she said.

Though the two items are technically separate issues “” the city deciding on a deal with Self Help first followed by negotiations between the financial institution and the Renaissance Community Cooperative “” it is unclear that there are any immediate alternatives. City council members aren’t interested in retaining ownership of the center, several said. Presenters said several preexisting grocery chains have already looked at the site and passed on it.

Council members who are supportive of the cooperative, including Jamal Fox who represents the area, said they want to see the co-op be a part of the Renaissance Center development.

“I don’t want to see any more delays,” Fox said. “We’re going to have to negotiate. There’s going to have to be some level of compromise. It’s time to bring action. I’m not a man that makes many promises, but I’m confident in the level of work that the community has done with the community co-op”¦ and that Self Help and the co-op will figure out sustainable partnership.”

Vaughan, who encouraged friends to ‘like’ the co-op on Facebook last week, said that she is hopeful the cooperative will be a part of the center but emphasized the Self Help vote was a separate issue. Abuzuaiter said that all parties appeared to be on the same page about including the cooperative.

“With an organization like Self Help, I feel secure that they will definitely listen to the community,” Abuzuaiter said, adding that it was uncommon to see an entity that emphasized community input as part of its mission. “I’ve been very excited about the co-op since day one. I believe everyone has the goal of making sure the co-op is a part of this.”

Councilman Tony Wilkins, who also attended the meeting, said the city is “headed in the right direction” but that that he wants the city’s offer to Self Help to be in line with its expectations about investment, timeline and the order of operations that were in place in negotiations with previous investors. While Wilkins said he is headed into discussions with the idea that Self Help is a strong “” and the best “” option for the Renaissance Center, he has some questions about the plan and about the cooperative.

“What stands out to me on the coop’s presentation is their unrealistic expectations on sales for the first year,” he said before the community meeting. “I like the idea of a co-op, and I’m open-minded about discussions about the co-op.”

In the Renaissance Community Cooperative’s presentation at the meeting last week, Gibson said it would need less than 5 percent of the current grocery expenses in the surrounding community to be financially viable, according to a consultant that studied the area. The lack of access to nearby fresh food, a partnership with NC A&T University and affordable food prices would help the co-op reach its goal of being profitable in five years, he told the audience.

Wilkins said his questions don’t mean he’s hesitant to support the cooperative’s involvement. Given Self Help’s proposal to try and incorporate the cooperative, if council approves the proposal next month it may not matter whether the majority of council supports the cooperative.

The real question that Self Help representatives, Fox and other meeting facilitators emphasized is what other entities community members would like to see in the center. The goal is to find the intersection of what the community wants and what is feasible, Bartlett said. Self Help didn’t present any potential designs because it would needs to gather input and create a committee with stakeholders to envision it, Cameron said.

There are some things that Self Help typically pursues, Bartlett and Cameron said, including minority- and women-owned business partners for the project and entities that would benefit the community rather than businesses such as a liquor store or a sweepstakes parlor.

In addition to collecting feedback at the end of the meeting last week, Fox said the city wants people to provide ideas or questions at greensboroideas. com or by dropping off physical copies at the Peeler Recreation Center or McGirt-Horton Library before Feb. 7. While numerous questions at the meeting sought to clarify pre-existing plans, a few people suggested the types of tenants they’d like to see, including a job-training center, echoing priorities laid out in a community study from more than a decade ago.

Like Fox, many community members are eager for the project to move forward quickly because the center has already sat vacant for so long. One man, who stood up to suggest the city delay the process to allow more responses to its request for proposals, was quickly drowned out by a sea of booing. !