by Jeff Sykes @jeffreysykes

What’s been an eyesore in one of Greensboro’s most densely populated areas could soon see signs of new life as Self-Help Ventures Fund moves closer to beginning rehabilitation of the former Bessemer Center on Phillips Avenue.

Self-Help completed the purchase of the 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.

In addition to the much publicized effort to bring a for profit, community-owned grocery store to the center, Greensboro officials said recently that the city is considering leasing about 5,000 square feet of space at the Renaissance Shops in order to bring a set of community services closer to the public.

Self-Help is working with DevCon Resources and East Market Street Development Corporation on property management and leasing for the Renaissance Shops. DevCon Resources will be the site’s property manager, responsible for leasing and marketing, and will partner with EMSDC to provide additional marketing and maintenance services.

Kim Cameron, director of real estate for Self-Help, said project managers are in the process of selecting a contractor to oversee the work. The list has been narrowed to two finalists, and a selection should be made in the next 30 days.

“They are really close and really neck and neck,” Cameron said. “We’re trying to narrow it down.”

Cameron said she hoped to see construction beginning this summer. Once a contractor is selected and plans finalized, the permitting process will be the last step before physical signs of improvement are seen. Self-Help is working with Gravely Architects of Greensboro to renovate the exterior of the site. The work will include roof and facade improvements, utility work and a remodeled parking lot.

The facade of the building will be removed and replaced with a brick panel or EIFS. First steps will include removing a metal overhang.

“It’s outdated and rusted,” Cameron said. “We’re going to come back with a new front and then a new roof that’s going on.”

Cameron estimated that the roof work would happen first, in order to stabilize the building and prevent any future water damage. Bringing utilities back to the site would be a second major step. Electricity, water and gas service have been cut off for years, she said, and most facilities cut and capped. New utility service would also bring the infrastructure up to code, since it’s been mostly vacant for about 15 years.

The Renaissance Community Co-Op is the most talked about potential tenant for the site. Project backers have raised two-thirds of the money needed to open a grocery store along Phillips Avenue for the first time in nearly 20 years. Co-Op board president, John Jones, said Tuesday that the group met with officials from the Guilford County Health Department recently in an effort to begin a conversation with county leaders about finding the last $600,000 needed to make the store a reality.

City officials have discussed a $250,000 challenge grant, with the hopes that Guilford County will fund an equal amount, leaving project boosters to raise the last $80,000 toward the estimated $1.8 million needed to open the store and hire staff. The co-op has secured about $1.2 million toward the project.

Jones said the meeting with county officials went well.

“Nothing has been decided as of yet, but it looks fortunate,” Jones said. “There are several avenues that we are exploring. We never stop negotiating, even when we ask the city we are still looking at grants and other avenues that might be able to help us.”

A second major tenant at the Renaissance Shops could well be the City of Greensboro. Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson said the city was looking at bundling community services from different departments in about 5,000 square feet of space at the site. Wilson called the idea “a grassroots, neighborhood approach to helping people get the things they need.”

During his 22 years in government, Wilson said he often hears residents asking for more direct access to human relations and neighborhood development services, in addition to things like childcare and employment services.

“The Renaissance presents a great opportunity,” Wilson said. “We have a presence there with a new library and a community recreation center. We believe we have an opportunity to demonstrate the neighborhood-based model better by presenting some of the things we’ve heard … during the redevelopment process.”

Many of those needs were identified during a community meeting in January 2014 that more than 200 people attended. Since then, Self-Help has used a community advisory board of 19 people to guide the redevelopment process. Wilson is looking t about $79,000 a year in rent expense. No target number of employees has been identified, but Wilson said potential staff would be relocated from current locations and bundled together in a storefront opportunity.

“If we can do it, we believe that we can come up with a combination that can help with some of those needs,” Wilson said. “This would help us establish that model for being amidst the community and within easy access so that they can get the services they need.”

Both Wilson and Cameron said that a community meeting space would likely be included. Other possible tenants Cameron listed include a restaurant, health clinic, an independent pharmacy, and perhaps a credit union. Self-Help will begin looking for an interior architect to help layout the retail space next month.

The Renaissance Shops will have about 45,000 sqf of retail space, with a current Family Dollar (9,000 sqf) and the Co-Op (11,000 sqf) taking up just less than half. Cameron said they would try to strike a balance between space that attracts community retail, but also allows for the best use of the available space.

“We’re not going to chop it up, but we want to be able to use the existing building shell as effectively and efficiently as possible,” Cameron said. “We will keep in mind that this is a retail location, and everybody wants forward facing space in the shopping center.”

A potential announcement with a local health care provider is close, Cameron said.

“We’re really close to inking something with them,” she said. “They feel that (Renaissance Community Co-Op) is important … and that they will come there. They feel that healthy food really would tie in with them being there.”

District 2 city council member Jamal Fox said recently that he was encouraged at the partnerships being created to make both the co-op and the Renaissance Shops at Phillips Avenue a success.

“I call this a movement,” Fox said.

“This is a greater movement because it’s impacting our community and the entire city. When you look at the selfreliance and coming together that’s huge. The impact of the city leaders and staff putting together a commitment … that’s a true partnership.”

Fox said that if the city occupies space at the site, that the total amount of investment in the redevelopment of the long-vacant plaza could top $5 million.

“I’m just glad that we’re finally moving forward and seeing that this thing is close to fruition,” Fox said. “We have to get the entire city behind this effort. It’s much bigger than northeast in the grand scheme of things.” !