Word is bond: The fast track and slow crawl of voter referenda bonds in Greensboro

by Jordan Green

At-large Greensboro City Councilman Danny Thompson attended a groundbreaking for the Natural Science Center’s SciQuarium with Greensboro Convention & Visitors Bureau President Henrie Fourrier and City Manager Rashad Young. (photos by Jordan Green)

Mayor Bill Knight and District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny stood with a penguin onstage at the OmniSphere Theatre at the Natural Science Center of Greensboro for a game of Jeopardy.

At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, a political rival and challenger in Knight’s mayoral reelection race, found that he didn’t have a seat on the front row, so he retreated to the back of the theater.

“I bet the penguin wins,” Perkins predicted. The social pecking order established at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Natural Science Center’s SciQuarium was a mirror image of what had transpired almost a month earlier for the ribbon cutting of the Greensboro Aquatic Center, a bond project approved by voters as part of a parks and recreation referendum and then absorbed into Coliseum Director Matt Brown’s bailiwick. At that event, Knight came in about 15 minutes into the program and stood in the back while other council members filled out the front row.

Knight had voted against a proposal to use hotel-motel funds to supplement the $12 million allotment approved by voters to cover the cost of the aquatic center. The vote to put the SciQuarium and other Natural Science Center projects on the 2009 ballot — at a price tag of $20 million — was made by the council that preceded Knight.

But Knight and the Natural Science Center bond shared something in common: In the first election after the recession left its brutal impact on the national economy and as a conservative backlash against President Obama gained force, voters said yes to both. In fact, political consultant Bill Burckley had predicted before the polls closed on Election Day that the Natural Science Center would bring white voters to the polls, who would favor his client, Knight, while incumbent Yvonne Johnson would be hurt by

depressed turnout among black voters in east Greensboro.

The game-show title flashed across the screen and a pre-recorded voice announced, “Today’s Jeopardy categories are….”

The host, played by Curator of Community Programs Ron Settle, assuming an ostentatious intonation, picked up the thread: “… ‘North Carolina Firsts’ — self explanatory. ‘The Buck Stops Here’ — What about creating revenue and saving money?” “The answer is the Natural Science Center,” District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw quipped to her seatmate, District 2 Councilman Jim Kee.

“Our factoids — unusual facts about aquatic creatures will be on the board as ‘Critter Trivia,’” Settle continued. “‘No Child Left Behind’ — the Natural Science Center as a creative, educational institution. ‘Eat or Be Eaten.’ — the struggle for survival among animals and institutions….”

Knight got the first crack at the board. “‘North Carolina First’, for 200,” he said. “Not Gate City, but this city is the plan that gave rise to the North Carolina SciQuarium,” Settle said. “Yes, Penguin.”

“Aughckkk!” replied the penguin, played by Marketing Director Steffany Reeve.

“That is correct,” Settle said. “What is science? Science City is the master plan that seven years ago in house provided the road map.”

The mayor was struggling and had incorrectly guessed that public funds accounted for 40 percent of the Natural Science Center’s budget. Settle provided the correct answer: 21 percent.

“I go now to ‘Survive,’” Knight said, misstating the category “Eat or Be Eaten.”

“I hope you can,” Settle said. “Now, Mr.

Mayor, you’re 200 in the hole. I suppose we can allow you a wager.”

“Let’s go a thousand,” the mayor said. The host and contestants waited for the scoreboard to adjust.

“A thousand, he says,” Settle commented.

“It’s like watching the board on election night,

isn’t it?” Executive Director Glenn Dobrogosz, a dynamo with a penchant for rhetorical superlatives and the ability of rapid elocution, took the stage. He informed the audience that Greensboro would be the first major city in North Carolina to have an aquarium. That doesn’t include the three coastal aquariums at Roanoke Island, Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher, of course.

“Three years ago, in the deepest, darkest point of this recession, we went before the city council,” Dobrogosz recalled. “City council said, ‘Of course. Good idea. You guys have a good reputation. You’re building. You’re growing. You have a private support factor with your board of directors.’… Then, two years ago, here we are standing naked in front of the entire community on a bond referendum. No one up there except the Natural Science Center. We didn’t know what to expect. We felt good about it. We put together a great campaign. But I’ll be honest: I was a wreck that day.”

The Natural Science Center is a significant cultural and educational attraction in District 3 on Lawndale Drive near Guilford Courthouse National Park. The area is blessed with desirable residential real estate and humming retail clusters. Zack Matheny, a man who wears his passions on his sleeve, has become one of the Natural Science Center’s most ardent supporters.

“Come on! Glenn Dobrogosz? You’re amazing!” Matheny enthused. “His passion exudes through his staff.

“There’s a fine line between being conservative and fiscally responsible, and not investing in your community,” continued Matheny, who has two boys. “This is an investment, and it’s an investment that makes sense. It’s an investment that’s going to be amazing. It’s an investment that’s going to bring 10-, 20-fold to our economic development in our community, and 40-fold to the kids that are going to come here. So it’s very easy to support.”

The Natural Science Center broke attendance records in the last fiscal year with its Bodies Revealed exhibit, and is drawing impressive numbers with its Titanic exhibit. As a reflection of the positive publicity generated by economic activity at the Natural Science Center, mayoral candidate Bradford Cone frequently mentions the institution when asked about job creation.

The city has issued $1.7 million in bond to pay for the SciQuarium master plan, and plans to issue an additional $8.3 million in debt next year to finance construction of the facility. The remaining $10 million is budgeted for renovation of a science museum and expansion of an outside zoo in issuances through fiscal year 2015-2016.

City Manager Rashad Young opted in April with council’s blessing to reduce the overall bond issuance next year from $35 million to $30 million so that the city could keep debt repayment costs down. To compensate for the loss of bond revenue, Young recommended deferring construction of a new branch library for the Lake Jeanette area, which is within a half-mile of the Natural Science Center.

Dianne Bellamy-Small, who represents District 1, has at times carried on spirited public debates with Matheny and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade over the allocation of resources, particularly when it comes to public safety. A hallmark of Bellamy-Small’s representation since she was elected in 2003 has been fighting for parity in infrastructure so that her majority African-American and low-wealth district can achieve economic development.

But during a candidate forum at the Greensboro Historical Museum, Bellamy-Small conceded District 3’s sacrifice.

“You’ve got bonds that are sitting out there,” she said. “I’m not advocating this for District 3, but we promised a library for Lake Jeanette, but we won’t build it because we won’t issue the debt.”

Bellamy-Small briefly mentioned that the city is about to open two new fire stations in District 1 and then reproved a candidate in another race who had questioned the financial management of the Greensboro Coliseum, a city-owned asset.

“That $1.4 million deficit, as it’s called, is actually an investment,” Bellamy-Small said. “In the last 12 months, the coliseum’s economic impact — what it has brought to the city has been $155 million. So you do the math of that — 1 percent?” Dobrogosz excels with the animal kingdom, but Matt Brown — the city’s highest paid employee — presides over a far bigger empire. And fitting for someone responsible for managing a sizeable chunk of the city’s event and tourism economy — upcoming bookings include mega-selling artists Jay-Z and Kanye West, indie darlings My Morning Jacket, boxing matches and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair — Brown is not one to overlook the art of show-biz.

Brown’s rhapsodic speaking style is replete with dramatic pauses and strategic points of emphasis. Seemingly spontaneous and exploding with dynamism, his remarks are often carefully crafted and painstakingly revised to achieve the desired effect. And with a politician’s touch he salts his remarks with names of people high and low to ensure that important constituencies feel appropriately appreciated.

Brown’s written remarks for the Aug. 25 aquatic center grand opening read like dialogue in a Tom Wolfe novel:

“Good evening. Thank you for joining us tonight on this historic occasion,” he said, standing on a floating platform in the 50-meter competition pool.

“For over… six decades, thousands and thousands of swimmers and divers from Walter Johnson Sr. in the 1950s to Scott Lineberry in the ’70s to Mary Brewer in the ’90s to Natalie LeBonge today have only hoped and dreamed about this day becoming a reality… and …

“So too have the hundreds upon hundreds of dedicated, loyal and supportive swimming & diving parents like Ted Oliver and Wesley Reid who have traveled countless number of miles to every aquatic facility across the country in support of their children’s ambition, could only imagine… what if… someday… maybe… could Greensboro have our own facility… and…

“For those many long hours spent by loyal swimming grandparents who were always there to help out with carpooling whenever needed… like Alta Abernathyand…

“That long line of community swimming supporters who never lost faith, who continued to campaign for our own GBO facility… like Ted Oliver, Joe Bower, Gary Flynn, Mike Barber [and here Brown had added in a handwritten notation the name of Mitchell Johnson, the former city manager and his former boss] and Bonnie and Dr. Hensel and… “For those local USA swimming judges and officials like Oneta Manual, Trish Martin and Joel Black who officiate everywhere but here… all of them together… have waited… for too many years… to hear the following words… Ladies & Gentlemen….”

Brown extended his arms and thundered, “WELCOME… to the… GREENSBORO AQUATIC CENTER.”

Greensboro voters approved a $20 million parks and recreation bond in 2008. Tucked into it was $12 million for what was advertised as a “regional competitive aquatic center.” Voters had turned down single-item referenda respectively for a swimming center in 2006 and a natatorium in 2000.

Yet not all parks and recreation bonds are created equally.

Greensboro voters approved a parks and recreation bond for $5 million in 2006. A brochure produced by the city to explain the bond packages to citizens declared, among other items, “A skateboard park will be constructed.”

The parks and recreation department has budgeted $575,000, but Director Greg Jackson said the city manager and council have yet to approved the sale of the bonds for the project.

“We are just now to the point where we are wrapping up the projects from the 2000 bonds,” Jackson said. “We prioritized our oldest projects first.”

Jackson said the skate park is included in the master plan for the Hilltop Road Recreation Center, a park planned to serve southwest Greensboro that will be located in District 5, which is represented by Trudy Wade. Jackson said Hilltop Road Recreation Center and Keeley Park — which is located in northeast Greensboro in District 2, represented by Jim Kee — are the only two parks and recreation projects deferred from the 2000 parks and recreation bond. Keeley Park is scheduled to open this fall, and Hilltop Road Recreation Center is likely to go out for bid at the end of the year, Jackson said. Hilltop Road Recreation Center was first advertised to voters during the 2006 bond referendum.

Despite folding the aquatic center into a parks and recreation bond, the city council transferred the item out from under parks and recreation’s authority and handed it over to Brown at the coliseum complex. At the time, citizen members of the parks and recreation commission strenuously objected to the move.

As city manager at the time, Mitchell Johnson warned council that the amount of money they were contemplating putting on the ballot to finance the aquatic center would be inadequate to pay for an aquatic center.

“Staff has determined that a competitive venue appropriate for hosting regional swim events would be significantly more expensive to build; potentially in the range of $18 to $20 million based on the facility recently completed in Cary, NC,” he wrote in a June 2008 memo to council. “I am concerned that placing the proposed pool, as listed in the [capital improvements program], in the bond package would create expectations which we would fail to meet with that level of funding. As a result I would recommend not considering this option unless council is very clear that we would not be providing a competitive venue as required to host state or regional level events. I also do not believe that private support could handle the $8,000,000 to $10,000,000 shortfall.”

Under the city’s most recent bond status report, the cost of the aquatic center is listed as $19.5 million. The city ended up closing the gap by spending hotel-motel funds following heavy lobbying by members of both the swim community and the hospitality industry.

Similar to spending on the Natural Science Center, justifications for the expedited handling of the aquatic center bond have been offered under the rubric of economic development. The former was approved in the depths of the recession, while the latter was green-lighted as the economy was about to slide over the precipice.

“There may not be a better example in the country of a more successful economic stimulus project for a local community than the Greensboro Aquatic Center,” Brown said during the grand opening. “Designed, engineered, bid and constructed in less than 19 months… on time and under budget. The Greensboro Aquatic Center’s already overwhelming success has far exceeded every expectation as evident by the number of major meets booked. The Greensboro Aquatic Center will generate a virtual tidal wave of economic impact for our region’s economy from hosting these major national and regional aquatic events.”

Other, less glamorous projects have had to wait.

Ole Asheboro Park and Brightwood Neighborhood Park, budgeted respectively at $115,275 and $93,560, were at one time included in the 2000 bond, but the city plans to start construction on the former project in the next couple months and has yet to develop a master plan on the latter one.

The city has budgeted $6.6 million for improvements to Creekridge Road in the 2000 bond, and Transportation Director Adam Fischer said the major amount of that project has finally been encumbered. Voters approved $134.1 million in street improvement bonds in 2008, but Fischer said only about $2.2 million has been issued from those funds. The money has been spent to design streetscaping for High Point Road, construction of part of the Downtown Greenway and design of the Fleming-Horse Pen Creek Connector. Future bond issues from the 2008 referendum will finance construction on those projects. The 2008 referendum also includes funding for the Cone Boulevard extension-Nealtown connector, the Florida Street extension and improvements to Alamance Church Road.

The Greensboro Aquatic Center was thronged with admirers, ranging from Jim Melvin, a former mayor, to Ron Tuck, a plasterer.

“They jumped on this one quick,” Tuck said.

“This is the fastest one I’ve seen.”

But did he resent the city’s prioritization? Not for a minute.

“It has great potential,” Tuck said. “Being a swimmer myself, I know the effect it has on health. I lost 105 pounds from aerobic exercise.”

Then he added, “I predict an Olympic swimming champ will come out of here.”