Transportation, waste key in east Greensboro election

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

When Greensboro’s District 2 City Councilman Jim Kee thinks about his long-term legacy, the primary thing that comes to his mind is waste disposal — defeating an attempt to reopen the White Street Landfill in his district to municipal solid waste and touting the capture of methane gas to create energy and savings. For his challenger, the young but experienced Jamal Fox, a primary issue facing east Greensboro is transportation.

Kee, who won a seat on council when Goldie Wells decided not to seek reelection in 2009, will face Fox —a county transportation board member, NC A&T University political-science professor and former city employee — in the Nov. 5 election. It’s the only race that didn’t entail an October primary, because there weren’t enough candidates to require one, making it difficult to predict if Fox will be able to make significant inroads against Kee.

Fox is a first-time candidate and is only 25, though he is anything but naïve or inexperienced. After three years working in the city manager’s office, where Fox said he helped develop the “one-stop shop” economic development and business support office, he’s saved up thousands of dollars for this campaign. With a door-to-door grassroots strategy, Fox is hoping to become the youngest person on council.

Since Kee took office in 2009, the councilman said things have improved dramatically for the district as evidenced by several large investments. A Dollar General that opened on Phillips Avenue last week marked the first private investment on the major road to hit $1 million in 30 years, Kee said, adding that he worked hand-in-hand with the redevelopment commission and Dawn Chaney to see it through. Kee cited several, much larger developments that will transform the district too — $200 million by Proctor & Gamble, $40 million in Revolution Mills and $80 million for the South Elm Redevelopment.

He quickly provided numerous smaller, multi-million dollar private investments as well that Kee said he nurtured through strong advocacy, building support on council and making the right votes.

There’s much more the city can do to grow investment and development in the district, he said, citing two specific plans. After talking to Durham Mayor Bill Bell about the Bull City’s approach to economic development, Kee said Greensboro should copy the economic development bond approach to initiate neighborhood-level revitalization. Despite a smaller budget than Greensboro, Kee said Durham is using a $50 million bond to those ends and he can’t see why the Gate City can’t do the same.

His second idea: Pushing council to adopt the recent east Greensboro study that, among other things, would give tax breaks to companies to open in a “prosperity zone” around the landfill and would transform the county’s prison farm and other key areas for development including hotels, Kee said. Development around the landfill would thwart any potential efforts to open it in the future, he said.

Since he was first elected, the councilman has repeatedly advocated for finding a way to capitalize on the excess methane gas burned at the landfill. A considerable portion is currently given to the International Textile Group, while the rest remains unused, but it could be turned into electricity or fuel, Kee said. Two companies applied for a contract to capture the gas, he said, but there isn’t a deal on the table yet.

Monetizing and utilizing the methane, along with keeping the landfill closed, are parts of his core focus on waste disposal issues that are part of putting the district on a path to muchneeded development, he said. Greensboro fell in the rankings for median income in the state, he said, indicating a problem that is only worsening, he said. Unemployment and low-wage work in his district contribute heavily to the city’s low ranking, he said, which is just another reason the east Greensboro study is so relevant.

Fox said that despite increased development in the area, he hasn’t seen a return on the investment as far as employment for district residents. He’s skeptical of loans and grants provided by the city, both in terms of who receives them and about whether there’s appropriate follow-through about loan repayment or companies meeting loan conditions.

Greensboro needs to provide incentives for small businesses as well as large companies, in part because it would fuel hiring in east Greensboro, he said. In order to create necessary growth in District 2 and the city more broadly, Fox said, the city needs to invest more in transportation. That means sidewalks on streets like Yanceyville, where a pedestrian was killed this year, and it means an expanded public transit system that people in east Greensboro rely on to get to work.

Multiple modes of transportation isn’t just key to economic development and sustainability, it’s what people repeatedly tell him they need in the district, Fox said. By investing in walkability and public transportation, the city would encourage development along lines of transportation and rebuild its reputation as the Gate City, he said “People say we don’t have an identity,” Fox said, “but we have an identity and we need to stick to it.”

Fox and Kee both stressed the importance of road connectivity in east Greensboro. When asked about sidewalks, Kee said that the city has an initiative and referenced recent ones on Bessemer Avenue, but said there is a lack of capital and that funding is spread across districts by percentages rather than according to needs. When pressed, Kee said he would advocate for switching to a needs-based system to combat the legacy of uneven development.

Both candidates said they have strong relationships with city staff and other council members, emphasizing their ability to work with others to accomplish what needs doing.

Fox worked for the city under three mayors — Yvonne Johnson, Bill Knight and Robbie Perkins — and said that even though council and staff have had a contentious relationship in the past, he developed the ability to work well with current council members and even former councilwoman Trudy Wade.

“I know how to cope with personalities and people,” Fox said.

Fox developed a closer relationship to Kee, though they offer different accounts of what happened. Kee said he was mentoring Fox for a while before Fox announced his candidacy.

“Jamal came to me over a year ago and asked how to be involved in politics,” Kee said.

Fox disagreed, saying that he “never worked with [Kee] as a mentor or anything like that,” but said he went to Kee’s house several times. Kee showed him some of his plans and shared ideas for the district, Fox said, which is when it became apparent to Fox that District 2 needed new leadership.

Kee said that in addition to providing advice, Fox came to his house at least five times and met with him and his campaign manager and community leaders in other places like restaurants. Kee didn’t expect Fox to run against him, he said.

“I even took him to the Pig, Poultry and Politics [TREBIC event] with me a year ago,” Kee said. “Not much in this industry surprises me, but that did surprise me.”

Fox said he attended the event, but said Kee initially approached him and said he’s been to Kee’s house fewer than five times.

“Jim Kee is not the only elected official whose house I’ve been to, and Jim Kee invites everyone to his house,” Fox said. “He initially approached me because he heard that I was going to run for county commissioner and that I was looking at seats and thinking about running. He approached me.”

The strained relationship between the two was evident when they crossed paths at the YES! Weekly office last week, and didn’t speak to each other.

Fox, a Greensboro native, said that he is running because “District 2 needs someone to fight for it,” and questioned Kee’s leadership on the city’s Renaissance Shopping Center deal. Kee worked with the grocery cooperative group in the beginning but left to court investors, took credit for the deal and wasn’t transparent about what was happening, Fox charged. The plan involving investors represented by Skip Alston took the community by surprise, Fox added.

Kee told a different story, saying that he worked with the co-op and that his motion to sell the property to the investors represented by the former chair of the county commissioners explicitly included a space for the grocery cooperative.

“I supported the co-op,” Kee said. “I still do.”

Mediators are currently working out conflict between the cooperative, a newly formed community nonprofit and the investors, Kee said, and despite the investors growing weary, he said there are positive options that may become public this week.

Fox said the shopping center could have been completed by now if it had been handled properly, and that center needs to be a resource center with a clinic and other things residents already said they’d like to see there.

Fox and Kee offered different takes on a recent noise ordinance too, with Kee saying he sought to bring Greensboro in line with Raleigh and Charlotte while Fox said he opposes council’s decision to pass a more restrictive ordinance because he said it damages small businesses. They each addressed other issues — Kee saying he’d love to see an entertainment district downtown and Fox saying he would push for the city to partner with the county and A&T to fill a void in affordable health clinics — but primarily focused on their approaches to economic development and big picture ideas for District 2 and the city.