The ends vs. the means

by YES! Staff

It started out as a good idea: Bring a grocery store to a food desert in east Greensboro so the neighborhood residents have access to fresh food. And because no private business seemed willing to take the chance on opening a store in this low-income part of town, the city needed to get involved, specifically councilmember Jim Kee, in whose district the proposed grocery store resides.

It made sense: The city owns the former Renaissance Center, a perfect location for the concern. And because the deal was a public project, the grocery could be a co-op, giving the residents a stake.

It was a solid plan, one Kee has been talking about to his constituents for a year. And as the plan came to fruition, a name surfaced that had heretofore not been attached to the project in any way, a name familiar to those who follow Guilford County politics as one that often surfaces when there’s government money in the offering, particularly when an election looms near.

Alston hasn’t made a Moral Mondays appearance as of yet. But if he did, we’d imagine he’d be handing out business cards.

Melvin “Skip” Alston, former chair of the Guilford County Commission , came late to the game, first appearing in news  stories about the Renaissance Center in March. But last week, in a controversial 5-4 vote, city council chose to sell the property to Skip Alston’s group, Renaissance Center Group — not to be confused with the co-op, named Renaissance Community Co-op, that has been working on the store for a year — for about half a million dollars and throw in a forgivable loan of $2 million for renovations to the center.

Alston, who brokered the deal for the RCG, says he didn’t even know there was a co-op in the works until his investors had already laid plans for the shopping center, but that his group will accommodate the co-op as long as they can keep up their end of the deal.

“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,” he told YES! Weekly. “The community, one way or another, will have a grocery store.”

It’s important to note that the non-profit to which the city has awarded this boon, unlike the co-op’s non-profit, does not yet to exist.

And it’s equally interesting to note which councilmembers voted for this very generous contract — Mayor Robbie Perkins, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, Zack Matheny from District 3, Tony Wilkins from District 5 and Kee.

All are up for re-election in November in contested races, and could use the support of the Simkins PAC, which has had influence in the city’s African-American community since Dr. George Simkins founded it in the 1960s.

Alston, who is a voting member of the PAC, has something else in common with Simkins: Both were elected president of the local NAACP chapter. Alston was even state president of the NAACP, though he was bested by the Rev. William Barber in 2005. Barber, still in office, has been a conspicuous presence at the Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh against the Republican-led General Assembly with a couple of civil-disobedience arrests under his belt already.

Alston, who currently holds no elected office, hasn’t made a Moral Mondays appearance as of yet. But if he did, we’d imagine instead of getting handcuffed on the capital steps, he’d be handing out business cards.