by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

A festive atmosphere dominated the groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for the Renaissance Shops on Phillips Avenue. Despite the mid-morning temperature already pushing into the low 90s, the crowd was all smiles as a long line of project managers and city officials gave thanks to heavenly and earthbound forces alike for making the dream held by so many residents of northeast Greensboro a reality.

Self-Help Ventures Fund completed the purchase of the former Bessemer Center, now known as Renaissance Shops at Phillips Avenue, on Jan. 30. The community development organization paid the City of Greensboro $490,000 for the center, which has been mostly vacant for the last 15 years.

Tuesday’s groundbreaking was the culmination of so much work by government and community advocates who never tired in their drive to revitalize the shopping center, which sits mostly abandoned behind a new public library surrounded by homes for more than 9,600 people in a onemile radius.

Kim Cameron, director of real estate for Self- Help, commented on the appearance of the shopping center in noting that a new chapter was about to unfold.

“At last we are here to celebrate a renaissance of the old Bessemer Shopping Center,” Cameron said. “I know by the looks of this building behind me that it does not look like the shopping center has had any interest or popularity in a long time, but we all know that’s not quite true. Many residents of this neighborhood have fought tirelessly for almost 20 years to gain outside interest for this project.”

Cameron said she looked up the definition of the word “renaissance” and liked its second definition, which is “a movement of vigorous intellectual activity.”

“That is what happened and it’s finally coming to fruition,” Cameron said, noting that the Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro and the Citizens for Economic and Environmental Justice spearheaded the drive to create what would become the Renaissance Co-Op, a communityowned grocery store that will anchor the new shopping center.

“This led to the creation of RCC way before Self-Help came into the picture,” she said.

Community feedback expressed a desire to see very specific businesses at the center, Cameron said, including a grocery store, financial institution, restaurant, pharmacy, health clinic, clothing store, and a police station.

The grocery store and a police office are solidified, Cameron said. Other negotiations are nearing completion.

“A very well known local health care provider has committed verbally to us for 3,700 square feet,” Cameron said. “In addition to that, we have another verbal commitment to take another 1,500 square feet for an independent pharmacy. When those deals are inked, we will be able to reveal the exact name of the health clinic and pharmacy.”

Most assume that Cone Health is the entity behind the clinic, although none of the parties involved will comment on the negotiations.

Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland said he too looked up the definition of the work ‘renaissance’ and learned that the French root meant ‘rebirth’.

“I couldn’t think of a more appropriate word for today than rebirth of this community center here in northeast Greensboro,” Westmoreland said. “When I think about those who have stood up and helped out to get us to this point today, I can’t think of a more terrific example of a public-private partnership than what you are seeing in front of us today.”

Westmoreland said Self-Help took the responsibility for financing and revitalizing the center, and that the Renaissance steering committee provided guidance along the way.

“What we are really talking about here today is an investment in the lives of people and this community,” he said.

Westmoreland introduced former city council member Goldie Wells, who founded CEEJ to fight the proposed reopening of the White Street Landfill. Wells gave a riveting prayer and thanked God for hearing her prayers regarding the Renaissance Shops and the community co-op.

Wells quoted a Bible verse about vision that reads, “though it tarries, wait for it, because it will surely come.”

“We have waited for a long time and now the vision is becoming a reality,” Wells said. She thanked the Fund for Democratic Communities and Self- Help for their financial support of the initiative.

“May it be the beginning of a new life and hope for northeast Greensboro,” Wells said. “We say thank you lord, let this ground be free of thieves and any criminal activity.”

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan noted the spiritual songs that had been referenced by previous speakers, and noted that she woke up with the song “O Happy Day” on her mind.

“I wish that I could sing because I think that it really commemorates what today is all about,” Vaughan said. “I think this is a model for what can happen throughout the City of Greensboro and throughout the state of North Carolina.”

District 2 city council member Jamal Fox thanked the residents of the district who worked so hard to bring the revitalization project into being.

“Together we did it,” Fox said. “It was not an easy task and many counted us out, but you stuck to the plan and you stayed the course, determined never to give up. This project is a catalyst and more will come to our community.”

Fox singled out Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson as his “right hand” in making sure the project went through. The councilman noted that this was one of his highest priorities, and that he’d heard over and over “get the project done.”

Fox noted that other important projects happening that would ensure a bright future for the area. He mentioned the Nealtown-Cone connector, Keely Park Phase 2, and the eastern loop of the urban bypass currently being built from US 70 up toward US 29.

“Never count a community out,” Fox said. “There have been trials and errors, and growing pains that provide opportunity. I’ve seen this throughout the project.”

Fox said people often don’t know the struggles that go on behind the scene of a project, the struggle of community members fighting for prosperity.

“We don’t know their struggles as they’ve fought and continued to fight to free themselves from hopelessness and giving up,” Fox said. “Tired of being tired in this community, promises after promises, but on to a greater pasture, to an installation of hope and inspiration through the resources that will uplift and bring the true renais- sance that we stand to see here today.”