The governmental matrix

by Sam Hieb

Last week I wrote about how it’s a good thing when local governing boards handle business in a timely and efficient manner.

Unfortunately the last Greensboro City Council meeting was not one of those times. At issue was the redevelopment of the rundown Bessemer Center shopping center. The most telling moment during discussion and debate came when Council Member Dianne Bellamy-Small asked the project’s point man — Assistant City Manager Andy Scott — whether or not he’d ever seen such “an animal as this.”

“No ma’am,” Scott replied bluntly, a response that drew laughter from members of the audience.

Scott would eventually elaborate, but in the process he emphasized that the issue confronting the council “doesn’t make sense within the standard real estate decision-making matrix.” That speaks volumes.

The discussion and debate seemed to take a toll on Mayor Robbie Perkins. Whatever you want think about Perkins’ fitness to serve as mayor in light of his bankruptcy and personal problems, he’s always been knowledgeable and confident regarding the complicated issues the council routinely faces.

But Perkins seemed unsure where to go after four hours of debate, discussion, motions, seconds, substitute motions and rulings from City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan.

At one point, a speaker from the floor asked a question about design standards to which Perkins simply replied, “I don’t know.”

Council member Nancy Vaughan — who has announced her plans to challenge Perkins for the mayor’s seat in this year’s election, spoke up and gave a definitive yes.

That could very well be a telling moment come November.

The city purchased the Bessemer Center site using $1.2 million from funds earmarked for the McGirt-Horton Library, ostensibly the first step in redeveloping the entire property. The question is what to do with the rest of the property, and the council had two choices in front of them, both of which involved taxpayer funding.

One bid is spearheaded by the Renaissance Community Co-Op, which is asking for help from the city to help establish a community-owned grocery store. At some point, hopefully, the coop would purchase the building from the city.

The other bid came from a development group represented by former Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Skip Alston, who was requesting $2.6 million in loans and grants — including the land — to renovate the shopping center and supply tenants, supplementing his group’s $3 million private investment.

Complicating matters is the fact that the two bids are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Alston told the council he supports the co-op — he was wearing the same “Co-Op Rocks” placard as co-op supporters, and said his development would be willing to give the co-op a sweetheart deal on rent: $1.60 per square foot.

But co-op supporters, led by former council member Goldie Wells, don’t trust Alston’s development team and are lobbying the city to maintain owner ship of the shopping center and serve as the co-op’s landlords until it not only becomes self-sufficient but successful enough to purchase the property from the city.

As much as I hate to see so much effort, discussion and debate come to no resolution, the council probably did the wisest thing and tabled the issue until its June 4 meeting.

At that time, the council will supposedly have a clearer understanding of the proposals by each group. I don’t know that the decision will be any easier at that time. Co-op proponents say that’s what the community wants, while Alston’s development group said they would guarantee the shopping would be completely redeveloped and occupied.

In this economy, both proposals should be viewed with skepticism. But there’s a bigger issue at play here.

During the discussion, Councilmanm Zack Matheny bemoaned the millions of dollars being batted around. As much as I appreciate Matheny’s sentiment on the issue, I couldn’t help but think how many times I’ve seen all forms of local government “bat around” millions of dollars.

Interestingly enough, later in the meeting the council authorized a city initiative to offer a $1 million loan for developers to prep so-called “shovel-ready” sites, because — you guessed it — banks are still hesitant to lend in this still-sluggish economy. Remember, “shovel ready” was the stimulus buzzword, and we see how that’s working out.

Then there’s the city’s $1 million “economic development challenge.” The funding is coming from a US Department of Commerce grant, but it’s taxpayers’ money nonetheless. I can’t help but be skeptical about awarding such an amount of money based on the subjectivity of the “evaluation panel” that will name the winner.

But this is what government does:

make decisions without regard to the “standard decision-making matrix.” Mind you I realize the value of thinking outside the matrix, but in my opinion it’s best to leave that to the private sector, where it’s their money that’s getting “batted around.”

Sam Hieb maintains the P{iedmont Publius blog for the John Locke Foundation at