District 2 candidate recruited by sitting councilwoman
Jim Kee had resigned as co-chair of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro at the beginning of the meeting at the Peeler Center, when he informed anyone who hadn’t already heard the news that he was running for city council in District 2, but he remained on the rostrum as he fielded questions about efforts to revitalize the ailing Bessemer Center strip mall on Phillips Avenue. The city of Greensboro, which owns the shopping center, had been at an impasse in negotiations with tenant Family Dollar. The city’s plans to build a new McGirt-Horton Library in front of the shopping center have been on hold because of the retailer’s insistence that its lease stipulates that no building be placed between it and the street. Now, a city planning employee announced, Family Dollar had agreed to move to a more visible storefront in the shopping center, and construction of the new library could move forward. Community leaders hope that the new library will promote new investment in the shopping center. One man in the audience suggested hopefully that “maybe we can get some visuals, a movie theater or something.”
Kee, a 50-year-old developer with a soft voice and an easy manner, gently talked him down.
“A movie theater isn’t going to work,” he said. “We’ve got to set our priorities. An urgent care center is more important.”
The city has undertaken an effort to market the area through a branding campaign, and community planner Dyan Arkin said a theme emerged around the idea of “physical and mental health and wellbeing.” City planners believe the shopping center’s most realistic goals are to attract a dentist, a pharmacist and, perhaps, an urgent care center — or “doc in a box,” as Arkin put it. The Concerned Citizens group has become something of a powerhouse in District 2 politics. Sitting Councilwoman Goldie Wells, who is retiring at the end of her term, founded the group and was its first chairwoman in 1998. Kee served as her vice-chairman until she resigned to run for city council in 1995. Then Kee and Ralph Johnson led the organization as co-chairmen. Kee said that Wells, among others, asked him to run for the seat. After announcing his candidacy at Mayor Yvonne Johnson’s campaign kickoff on May 31, Kee also secured the support of the mayor and Guilford County Commissioner Kirk Perkins.
The Kee campaign’s organizational strength is demonstrated in a steering committee of 30 supporters. His campaign manager, Jessica Foster-Bragg, is a career services director for TechSkills, a vocational college in High Point. And his campaign treasurer is Jack Zimmerman, a retired Greensboro police officer and former city council candidate himself.
Kee has two opponents, the most prominent of whom is Ryan Shell, a marketing communications supervisor for a credit union who has established himself as a modern campaigner by blogging about city politics, using the web and Twitter to publicize his candidacy. Shell is also the founder of Greensboro Community Watch. He regularly attends city council meetings and widely publicizes his appearances in the district.
In contrast to Shell, who lives in the Southside neighborhood at the southern end of the district and has arrived on the scene as something of an upstart, Kee lives in the same neighborhood as the mayor several miles from downtown and has made an orderly advancement in municipal politics.
Kee’s involvement with Concerned Citizens in pushing the library project forward is closely connected with the organization’s founding. The current councilwoman launched the organization when Winn-Dixie announced plans to close its store, which had anchored the Bessemer Center and commerce throughout the district. Concerned Citizens tried unsuccessfully to get Winn-Dixie to stay, and then to find a replacement tenant. Notwithstanding his understated manner, Kee outlines an ambitious vision for Phillips Avenue.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” he said at the meeting. “This is just the beginning. We’re planning to revamp Phillips Avenue from Huffine Mill Road to Summit Avenue. We’re talking millions of dollars that we’re asking the city to invest. We’re going to tear down Claremont Courts [public housing community]. I met with Tina Akers-Brown, and she says the Greensboro Housing Authority will be getting federal stimulus money to do that. If the city council approves it, Phillips Avenue will be totally different. Lives will be totally different. Hopefully, if we have the right people on council, they’ll approve it.” Kee said he expects the city council to vote on signing a new lease with Family Dollar on July 21. Assuming that happens, construction could begin on the new library within 10 days. The candidate proposed that dozens of residents pack council chambers wearing identical T-shirts declaring, “We support the plan.”
Members discussed the message and design of the T-shirt for several minutes, and one woman suggested writing “No to the landfill” on the back of the shirt. Concerned Citizens’ membership, like most residents of District 2, is adamantly opposed to reopening the nearby White Street Landfill to household waste. Members are concerned about revelations that the landfill currently accepts about 9,000 tons per year of so-called screening — essentially used condoms and tampons that are flushed down the toilet, a material that could be considered household waste although it’s not thought to be hazardous.
“This is an election year,” Kee reminded the members. “The landfill will not be resolved this year. It’s very important that you elect the right city council member.”
For the record, Shell is on record as emphatically opposing reopening the White Street Landfill to household waste. Kee demonstrated some of his leadership skills by quietly listening to the members’ ideas about the T-shirt campaign and then putting the issue to rest by succinctly expressing his own view.
“We’re talking about combining the issues,” he said. “I think we should ask for the money first, and then say no to the landfill.” Even if the library construction is approved, the district faces steep challenges in attracting new investment. Arkin said city staff has met with developers to try to find out why retail tenants are not interested in doing business in the area.
“Family Dollar, even though it is a good tenant, apparently when there’s already a tenant that’s a constraint,” she said. “There’s not a lot of traffic on Phillips Avenue. A lot of retailers don’t like being hidden behind the library. Also, you’re actually a lot closer to Wendover Avenue than you think. It’s quiet here, but you can actually get to Wendover Avenue to shop pretty easily.” Kee struck a moderate tone as he discussed his positions on the issues during an interview.
“I support hiring more police officer and hiring more firefighters,” he said. “I also support lowering taxes. So that’s going to be an interesting combination to make.”
Kee had little to say about the allegations of racial discrimination made by dozens of black police officers who are currently suing the city. “I think it probably will end up in court,” he said, “and the courts will decide.”
And he has done some homework to try to find a place for himself on the notoriously polarized council.
“I’ve spoken to all of [the sitting council members] with the exception of Mary Rakestraw,” he said. “She hasn’t returned my calls yet. We just have to operate from a position of mutual respect. We need to look at the issues, weigh the consequences and decide what’s best for the city of Greensboro.”