Watch whose money you pick up

by Jeff Sykes

Well, I’ve been asked to participate in this hootenanny on April 7 in Downtown Greensboro. Labeled with the moniker “GSO Newsmakers,” the event will feature no less than five newspaper editors on a panel convened to discuss issues facing the Gate City and to take questions from readers. Mayor Nancy Vaughan’ll bless us with opening remarks so you best be on your best behavior.

Now back in the day if a group of two or more newspaper editors got together in the name of freedom, then whiskey and pistols would be the order of the day. Five newspaper editors gathered in one place used to require a permit from the local ABC Board and a 72-hour notice with the National Guard, but that was way back in them olden days, before the decline of traditional media and the rise of self-congratulatory BuzzFeed listicles paid for with non-profit economic development funds.

Sanitized interdependence, we’ll call it. I promise not to bring that up at the panel discussion on April 7 at Scuppernong Books in Downtown Greensboro.

But the whiskey and pistols part got me thinking about William S. Burroughs. The vision of Burroughs blasting melons and wood chunks with his pistol by day and drunkenly reading bizarre passages of prose and poetry on college campuses at night got my juices flowing. The bassist and producer Bill Laswell once set a Burroughs speech to a down tempo beat. The result, from a project known as Material that released the LP Hallucination Engine in the early 1990s, is the track “Words of Advice”.

Since I’ve been asked to share some opinions on an oft-discussed subject, the “Words of Advice” metaphor seems apt.

Here, then, are a few simple admonitions (and questions) for young and old:

Never listen to newspaper editors. They are as subjective and solipsistic as any group you’ll ever meet. Often ego-maniacs with overdeveloped narcissistic tendencies, they hide behind the power of the First Amendment and often drape themselves in a crusader’s flag in order to hide otherwise obvious personality defects.

Now that we’ve stipulated that newspaper editors are flawed beings, we can get real.

What the fuck is up with Greensboro’s political leadership, if there is any? Charlotte, Raleigh and even sleepy ole Winston-Salem, which once lost its major flagship corporate headquarters because F. Ross Johnson found it too ‘bucolic,’ have eclipsed Greensboro in terms of forward progress. You really think the Downtown Greenway and the unimaginative box rising from the brownfields on South Elm Street are “transformative downtown projects” on par with the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter? I’m sorry, let me get up off the floor where I was rolling around laughing at you.

Wait, really, let me gather myself.

This is almost as good as the city council member who secretes his emails to the Rhino Times editor the day before publication in order to manufacture a front-page story. A prime example was last week when Mike Barber’s email to the city manager and fellow members of the Greensboro City Council made it’s way into the pages of the Rhino. Barber was unhappy that certain city staffers have a bad reputation in the development community. “Clear the deck for the developers!” was Barber’s rallying cry, as if developers in Greensboro don’t have carte blanche on a daily basis. I emailed Barber asking if he’d share his email with me, but I have yet to have a response from him in five days.


I asked him for the email out of curiosity, but I didn’t expect a reply. In fact, I went ahead and got the email via other means five minutes after I asked Barber for it. Barber complains that a staffer needs to be removed or he will seek changes at the department head level or higher. Word on the streets indicates that Barber is after either a third-level GDOT engineer, the director of city planning, or the head of inspections.

All have reputations as being sticklers for details. Now in any other city, having an engineer, planning director or inspector who knows the rules and how to enforce them would be seen as a plus. In Greensboro, however, this is cause for a city council member to manufacture a front-page story in order to build enough tension to demand that staff bend the rules for a special interest group. He probably wants the wife of a major developer to get the job. That would fit with other models Greensboro employs for leadership. We hear Vanessa Carroll will likely soon be running for congress. That’s cool, because my wife says she will run for state senate once she retires from being an educator in North Carolina.

In his Words of Advice, Burroughs admonishes the listener that, ” If, after having been exposed to someone’s presence, you feel as if you’ve lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence. You need it like you need pernicious anemia.”

That’s how I feel about two certain topics, not people, but institutions. I’m talking Downtown Greensboro Inc. and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. One should be a cultural gem that downtown hangs its hat on. The other should just plain go away.

The ICRCM, in a town still divided by race, was always going to be controversial. That the museum has been able to keep the doors open and the lights on is no small miracle. The complicated corporate paper structure erected to secure financing for the museum will go away this year once federal tax credit requirements are met. At that point, the museum’s future will be clearer and a path to longevity arrived at. The board chair and the museum’s chief corporate officer are smart and engaging people. I am confident the museum will find success once the mirage of corporate layers is dissolved and fertilizer for unreasonable suspicion goes away.

DGI, on the other hand, is a waste of time and money and has no justifiable rationale for existence. In the years since Ed Woolverton was run out of Greensboro—only to be wildly successful in the same job in Wilmington—DGI has been a political football and a waste of taxpayer money. The one viable project DGI had was the parklets concept, but that was scuttled after six months of collaborative effort when a meddling councilman began asking questions that benefitted a special interest.

That special interest was him getting the job. Zack Matheny has been head of DGI since last summer and has nothing to show for his months on the job except for an embarrassing arrest for DUI last October.

Woolverton did events, but Jason Cannon came along and retooled DGI for economic development projects. Those turned out to be untenable, and now Matheny is back to proposing to manage events. With Betty Cone retiring, DGI is now going to pick up management of Fun Fourth and Festival of Lights. Many observers feel this will sap all of Zack’s time and energy. We recently heard staff at DGI couldn’t even fill out an application for a special permit from the city for the St. Patrick’s Day party downtown. We’re not sure how that portends for the future of Fun Fourth and Festival of Lights.

I promise not to bring that up on April 7 at the newspaper editor’s panel.

As Burroughs continues in Words of Advice, “We don’t like to hear the word ‘vampire’ around here; we’re trying to improve our public image. Building a kindly, avuncular, benevolent image; ‘interdependence’ is the keyword — ‘enlightened interdependence.'” I resume. The biggest problem I see in Greensboro is the desperation of status quo Greensboro to hold on to power. Need someone to manage a public-private partnership? Hire the wife of a powerful fund manager. A failed politician needs a job to pay his bills? Hell, find him one at all costs. A guy who inherited his buildings and wealth doesn’t like the foreign guy who earned his money coming along and making a name for himself? Just send inspections and the fire department to his buildings every week.

Stack the deck on the selection committee to make sure the “right proposal” wins the project. Proffer a “national candidate search” for that high-profile position and then give it to insider already here.

I could go on. But like Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot, all good things come to an end. We’ll join Diogenes on the streets to search for one honest man and will report back on April 7 at the newspaper editor’s roundtable at Scuppernong Books. !