The Greensboro City Council decided to put $126 million in four bonds on the ballot for Nov. 8 with little discussion, and for millions of dollars in bonds there are no plans on how the money will be spent.
The $25 million of the proposed $38.5 million community and economic development bond, which the public has been told will be spent on projects in downtown Greensboro, was approved with nearly no consideration of how to spend the money.
The $25 million was passed by the City Council after a discussion by councilmembers of what they would be “comfortable” with. Some said they would be more “comfortable” with $20 million. There was absolutely no discussion of what would be removed from the project list if the amount was cut by $5 million because there was no project list.
However, President of Downtown Greensboro Inc. (DGI) Zack Matheny is developing a project list and drawings of what could be done to enhance the downtown area with $25 million.
The tax base in the downtown Business Improvement District (BID), which pays an additional tax to fund DGI, has a tax value of over $1 billion. Matheny says that over $200 million in private dollars is currently being spent in the downtown and that for the taxpayers to fund $25 million to enhance the area and bring in more development makes good economic sense.
He said the city gets the biggest bang for is buck downtown, but that the city hadn’t put any sizable amount of money into the downtown in 30 years.
He noted that the other districts get tens of millions of dollars for parks, but the two parks downtown, Center City and LeBauer, were both built with private funds and donated to the city.
Matheny said that with the $25 million it is possible to streetscape Elm Street the entire length of the BID from Fisher Avenue to Gate City Boulevard and also do portions of Davie, Church, Bellemeade and Lindsay streets.
Matheny has contracted with a consulting group that specializes in urban develoment, MIG, to provide drawings of what the streets might look like after being streetscaped. In 2014, MIG put in a proposal to develop a plan for the downtown at a cost of about $200,000. Since there was no money available to complete anything other than the plan itself, the proposal was put on the shelf.
Matheny said, “We don’t have a plan, but we have an idea and have images.” He said DGI would help pay for the planning and engineering.
The renderings of the way Church Street in front of the Central Library and Children’s Museum looks now and the way it could look show a vast improvement. Church Street right now is a vast expanse of unbroken asphalt that at times looks more like a long skinny vacant parking lot than a street.
One advantage the city will have in making the downtown streets more people friendly is that there is a lot of excess capacity. Evidently, when the streets were built, the city fathers thought Greensboro was going to grow like Charlotte has; since Greensboro hasn’t, there is a lot of space between the curbs that isn’t needed for automobile traffic.
Since some of the streetscaping will involve sidewalks, Matheny said it was likely that the city would be able to leverage some bond money to attract federal and state dollars.
Matheny’s current estimate is that about $11 million of the $25 million bond would be spent on Elm Street and the remaining $14 million on the rest of the downtown area, but the emphasis is going to be on improving the way the streets look.
He said, “The goal is to have one model of street light downtown.” Currently there are three or four different kinds of street lights and who knows how many different varieties of trash receptacles, some of which date back at least to the 1970s, but may be older.
The City Council, not DGI, will determine how the bond money is spent. Matheny said that he knows he will have to have the support of downtown businesses and residents and he is working on that. He said he felt certain that if DGI and the downtown community were in agreement on how the money should be spent that the City Council would go along. Since the City Council isn’t doing the work themselves, or hiring anyone to do it, it should be pleased that DGI is taking the ball and running with it.
Matheny agreed that deciding to put a bond on the ballot and then deciding how the money would be spent was not the ideal way to go about a bond referendum, but he saw this as a great opportunity to improve the downtown area and he was doing all he could to drum up support for the bonds.
For years as a city councilmember, Matheny worked at getting the ridiculous traffic pattern on Greene Street changed so that Greene Street would be two-way. He said the project wouldn’t be part of the bond package because the city had set aside money for it and once again he was close to getting it done.
It’s impossible to talk to Matheny without covering a lot of topics, and Matheny also talked about hotels, parking, garages, revitalizing underused buildings, new offices, parking garages and a few other things, but he said he couldn’t get into details, yet.