by Ben Holder

Controversy continues to surround Greensboro’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) challenge after documents revealed that a judge for the economic development contest is involved in helping one of the contestants.

After city officials on Dec. 17 released the names of the six finalists for the challenge, YES! Weekly staff discovered that contest judge Wayne Szafranski, an assistant vice-chancellor for outreach and economic development at NC A&T State University, is listed as someone that is working with Gig-G. Gig-G had the highest score among the six finalists and was awarded $55,000 for winning the first phase of the competition.

Among the documents released at the Dec. 17 press conference was an executive summary for each contest finalist. Gig-G’s five-page executive summary includes a list of existing projects their team is working with, or they believe would be enhanced by their collaboration model.

Item 10 in the list states that Gig-G is “”¦. already working with A&T and UNCG with Wayne Szafranski, Bryan Toney and Staton Noel on several key large projects listed in the Gig-G plan (this is just the beginning).”

According to NC A&T’s website, Szafranski manages the university’s intellectual property portfolio, negotiates contracts and relationships with commercial partners and federal agencies, and represents the university in economic development activities at the local and state-wide level.

Before joining the university, Szafranski directed technology outreach at Nussbaum, a collaboration between A&T, UNCG and the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship that focused on business development.

Gig G is described in contest materials as “a proposal based on the design and development of a publicly-owned gigabit speed Fiber Optic network for use in the Greensboro community.” The proposal garnered 59.8 points in judge’s scoring, besting second place winner, Gateway University Research Park’s Testing Center by one-tenth of a point. Gateway University Research Park is itself a collaboration between A&T and UNCG.

The SC2 challenge is an economic development contest operated by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The purpose of the contest is to generate ideas from the public on how to stimulate local economic develop and enhance job growth.

In the fall of 2012, Greensboro was one of three cities chosen to participate in the contest along with Las Vegas, Nevada and Hartford, Connecticut. Originally, the grand prize was $1 million. However, that was changed to $500,000. Now, the rest of the prize money will be split between the top five finalists.

The controversy about the challenge has mainly been about months of delays, judge changes, prize money changes and poor communication. The biggest delay came in October 2013 when the contest was essentially started over for several reasons including the federal government shutdown, according to city officials.

The original date to release the six finalists was changed after the contest was started over and a finalist announcement date was set for November 20. However, on the day the finalists were supposed to be released, the city announced that the finalists would be announced on Dec. 15. The announcement of the finalists was delayed once again in December.

Now that the delays are over and the finalists have been announced, a seemingly bigger controversy is underway.

When Mayor Nancy Vaughan was asked about Szafransky being a judge and being listed as someone working with Gig-G she said, “In my opinion, if a judge had contact with one of the submitting teams he should have recused himself from the entire process.”

Councilman Tony Wilkins also reported concern about the contest.

“I have had many questions about this program since the beginning,” Wilkins said during a telephone interview. He further reported that

he was contacting the city manager’s office immediately to discuss the issue of Szafransky being a judge as well as being listed as someone working with a contestant.

Councilman Zack Matheny echoed Wilkins feelings in a recent interview.

“The whole thing has been under turmoil from the get go,” Matheny said. Matheny went on to say that he didn’t think that Gig-G did anything illegal by involving Szafransky in their plan. “The perception of the situation is what causes me to have concern,” Matheny said.

The city hired Prince John Gaither- Eli to be the project manager of the SC2 challenge and he has been unavailable for comment.

The six finalists are now competing for the top prize, with a winner expected in May 2015. A five-member selection committee headed by Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland and Bennett College President Rosalind Fuse-Hall will determine the SC2 winner. !