Renaissance Center vote upsets grocery cooperative supporters

by Eric Ginsburg

The Greensboro City Council’s decision to sell the Renaissance Shopping Center on Phillips Avenue last week angered members and supporters of a cooperative grocery initiative that hope to move into the strip in northeast Greensboro. Co-op supporters “” who wanted the city to retain ownership and allow the coop to move in “” raised concerns about the developers’ history, a new nonprofit that will be formed to manage 40 percent of the space and the transparency of the decision.

In a 5-4 vote, council approved a $2 million, 10-year forgivable loan to the Renaissance Center Group, or RCG, to renovate the property. In addition to investing $2.1 million into the center, broker and former Guilford County Commission Chair Skip Alston said, RCG will buy the property for $490,000. City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan the city was still working out the details of the loan. Council specifically stated that the new nonprofit needs to agree to lease 10,000 square feet to the community co-op, the same amount of space the co-op wanted.

Renaissance Community Cooperative President Leo Steward said he “couldn’t believe” that council voted to give RCG control of the strip but said he is hopeful that the co-op will be a part of the center.

“This entity that is going to get all that money,” Steward said. “None of them live in the community. [They] haven’t had community meetings. How does that work?” Steward spoke against the decision at the council meeting, criticizing RCG and its investors.

“After we began work on our co-op we learned that another group wanted to control the shopping center,” Steward said at the meeting. “Our initial inquiry about possibly working together and sharing the space was flatly rejected. They told us, simply, that they wanted the whole thing.”

Co-op steering committee member and Claremont Courts Residents’ Council President Ernestine Surgeon also criticized the developers at the council meeting, saying that a nearby business the investors own, Kim’s Food Mart, was a community hazard that illegally cashed third-party checks, tolerated drug dealers and didn’t respect residents.

“This is a place that takes advantage of the fact that many of us have limited transportation and therefore they don’t bother to compete for our patronage by giving good service, offering affordable prices or selling high-quality merchandise,” she told council. “We need less of these types of businesses, not more. Knowing that they own Kim’s makes us afraid of what these businesses [in the shopping center] would be.”

Alston confirmed Kim’s is owned by one of RCG’s investors, but said he doesn’t own the building and has been proactively trying to improve the location. If residents are truly concerned, Alston said, and not just trying to discredit the proposal, critiques of Kim’s and efforts to improve it would predate the council meeting and would continue after the vote. Noting that he is a member of the cooperative, Alston said coop leaders have a lot of questions to answer about its finances and need to be more transparent about its status and intentions.

Mayor Robbie Perkins, who voted in favor of the motion, said the critique of the developers was unfair.

“They got hit with some cheap shots, and they were pretty upset about it,” Perkins said Perkins said their hands were somewhat tied because they didn’t own the building Kim’s is in, but said RCG investors also completely redeveloped the Clarion Hotel and did an excellent job.

“It’s been totally renovated,” he said.

“It’s beautiful.”

Perkins and Alston both said they saw the decision as a “win-win,” because the city could unload the property, it would be redeveloped, the community would have added resources and the co-op would still be incorporated in the plans. Perkins said the co-op would have the chance to be involved but would have to be ready in the short term.

“Starting from scratch [is a] huge undertaking,” he said. “We don’t have three or four or five years to wait out there.”

Alston said the cooperative would “definitely” be a part of it.

“They’re getting everything that they asked for at the rate that they asked for.” Alston said. “If the co-op does not… raise the money that it’s expected to raise, my investors are ready, willing and able to put a grocery store in there. The community, one way or another, will have a grocery store.”

Sadie Blue, who served as the co-op’s assistant treasurer and is now helping with outreach, said the decision would force them to look at things differently.

“I am disappointed in the integrity of some of our city councilmen,” Blue said, adding that she felt some were scheming and being deceitful. “The hurdles that we face now are different than the ones we maybe expected to come up. At the end of the day we’re a co-op and if we pull together we can conquer anything.”

Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan, one of the four council members who voted against the motion, also took issue with the decision.

“I found it frustrating because I don’t think the motion that was ultimately passed was vetted enough,” she said.

At a previous meeting, council members asked staff to calculate how much it would cost for the city to redevelop the strip. A few days before the vote, Vaughan said she was told the city could save $300,000 to 350,000, but staff didn’t present its findings in the meeting.

“I was very upset with staff,” she said. “I was sitting in the meeting and that number seemed to have evaporated. That may have swayed some people.”

Andy Scott, the assistant city manager for economic development, took the blame and called it a miscommunication, adding that he apologized to the council members. Scott provided a different account of the estimated savings of the city doing the redevelopment internally.

“Our response was, ‘Yes, we can do this, but we can’t save any money,'” he said.

Before the meeting, Vaughan said that she preferred that the city retain ownership of the shopping center as co-op supporters advocated, saying that the city owns a lot of property around town that aren’t directly used for government services and that by boldly standing behind the cooperative, council could empower the neighborhood to solve its own problems.

“They have come with one of the most professional business plans we’ve seen,” Vaughan said, adding that the cooperative got momentum rolling on the center and then the discussion shifted.

Alston refuted the idea that his developers hopped on the cooperative’s idea and the claim that they were uncooperative.

“We didn’t hear about the co-op until I brought the idea about the investors putting the grocery store in,” Alston said. “When I presented it to the community about putting a full-scale grocery store in there they said, ‘Well that’s fine, but we’ve been working about the possibility of organizing a co-op.’ My investor said okay. They were trying to do the community a favor.”

The cooperative grocery store’s space, and an additional 10,000 square feet for community space and retail, will be managed by a new nonprofit entity, Alston said.

The group hasn’t been formed, but it met the night before council’s vote and will consist of representatives from about eight neighborhood organizations, Alston said.

Shah-Khan, the city attorney, said he was under the impression that the nonprofit entity was Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, which helped get the cooperative initiative off the ground and successfully pushed to keep the White Street landfill from being reopened to municipal solid waste.

Ralph Johnson, who helped spearhead the fight against the landfill, is one of the community leaders working to create the nonprofit.

“The idea is to really empower the neighborhoods,” he said. “We talked about it but we didn’t know which way it was going to go. This came together [the day after the vote] actually so that’s one of the things we’re working on now.”

The nonprofit could help turn rent from the co-op and the other space into a community resource, funding things like scholarships, sports jerseys or whatever the community decides it needs, Johnson said. He said he is skeptical of the cooperative’s financing, but added that he wants it to work out.

“We need a grocery store, at the end of the day,” Johnson said. “I hope and pray that somehow they can be a part of this but we don’t want to be in the situation a year down the road where we’re still waiting on the co-op.”

Johnson said he expects 11 nearby neighborhoods will end up helping to form the nonprofit, but Blue questioned who was approached to form it, saying that area community leaders that she knows “haven’t been notified.”

“That’s a new group,” Blue said. “We don’t know anything about them.”

Cooperative supporter Mo Kessler agreed and said the decision wasn’t transparent. She said council lacked sufficient information about the Renaissance Center Group or the nonprofit that will manage 43 percent of the center.

“It was the grossest display of non-democratic processes that I’ve ever seen our council do,” she said. “It became very clear that Skip [Alston] and the developers were not held to the same requirements. [Council] basically voted to give it to a nonprofit that doesn’t even exist yet, with no name.”

Perkins said council would likely want approval of the nonprofit before putting any money into the deal. He added that limited liability corporations can be formed in a few hours, and said if council had to work out every small detail at its meetings, progress would be impossible.

Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, who voted against the motion, said the cooperative had done everything right and she wanted to support their grassroots initiative and “rational and analytical approach” by retaining the property.

While she disagreed with the decision, she said it was informed by an adequate amount of public discussion and added that the city would pay attention to the center, including the nonprofit’s formation and management of the property.

“There are still questions that remain, and hopefully the details of this will get worked out in a final document,” she said. “I think the city will be very specific and very diligent in terms of drawing up a document that will protect the city and protect the community in [regards to the nonprofit].”