The most interesting two things that happened at the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Thursday, March 15 meeting were ones that no one in the audience heard or saw.
One thing no one there was able to see was a two-hour-and-eight-minute closed session the commissioners held with representatives of a mystery company “for the purpose of considering a business location or expansion.”
The other thing at the meeting no one saw at the March 15 meeting – because it didn’t take place – was a discussion and vote on whether to reappoint Koury Corp. President Steve Showfety to a fourth term on the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority. Showfety is currently chairman of that authority. The Board of Commissioners had originally scheduled the Showfety decision for the meeting – his current term on the Airport Authority expires in April – but now that vote, which is polarizing the board, will be held at a later date.
Some in the commissioners second floor meeting room of the Old Guilford County Court House that night said they thought the commissioners’ closed session was about the possible new Publix Super Markets distribution center on Birch Creek Road near US 70 in Greensboro, with its 1,000 additional jobs for the area. However, after the meeting, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson – who wouldn’t say what company the commissioners were conferring with in the closed session was – did say it wasn’t Publix.
It was an unusual closed session because it was held in the middle of the meeting rather than before the meeting or at the very end of it – the board’s usual practice. The session was also uncommonly long, lasting from 6 p.m. until after 8 p.m. However, county personnel matters did take up some of that time in addition to the discussion on economic development.
Branson said that, while the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite just south of Guilford County recently lost out on the giant Toyota-Mazda auto plant that went to Alabama, there still seems to be a lot of interest from businesses seeking to relocate or begin new projects.
Branson said Guilford County’s competitors for the project discussed in the closed session were locations in South Carolina and Tennessee. He also said the company’s decision may hang on whether it gets incentives from the State of North Carolina.
“That’s going to play a role,” Branson said.
The chairman said he felt as though the state really did what it could for this area several months ago when local officials were trying hard to convince Toyota-Mazda to build their new plant at the megasite.
“I think they did everything they could possibly do,” he said of the elected officials and staff at the state level.
It was a huge disappointment when the two automakers chose a site in Alabama for their joint venture. Branson said that, while that type of giant project doesn’t come around very often, Guilford County can make solid economic development progress by bringing in five or six large projects that have hundreds of jobs rather than a giant one that offers thousands of jobs.
He said that, given the discussion in the March 15 closed session, the prospect of Publix coming, and other companies the county is in talks with, things are looking very positive. The High Point area has had a string of successful business recruitments and expansions in recent years and Guilford County has been getting a steady stream of base hits, even if did strike out on the hoped for grand-slam home run opportunity offered by Toyota-Mazda.
Asked when the Board of Commissioners might take a vote on an incentives package for the company discussed in the closed session, Branson said, “I think it might be pretty soon.”
The commissioners did conduct some business in front of the public that night. Prior to the mystery closed session, the board heard from two speakers from the floor who were strong opponents of arming teachers in Guilford County Schools – a proposal some county commissioners and Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes are backing.
At the meeting, Democratic sheriff’s candidate Danny Rogers spoke against arming teachers. Rogers said he has a teenage daughter in a Guilford County’s school and that she and her friends were very concerned about the dangers of teachers having guns.
“I don’t believe the teacher will have the training or know-how to take care of the issue if it arises,” Rogers told the board.
Rogers said that as next sheriff of Guilford County he would make certain the schools have the trained officers that they need to address the problem of shooters in schools.
Catherine Netter – a former parole officer and former detention officer who worked in the Greensboro jail – also spoke against arming teachers.
“It is my belief that to arm our teachers with guns would be one of the worst mistakes we could possibly make,” she said.
Netter said she knows everyone feels that “we have to do something,” but she added that the sound of a dropped textbook in a school hallway might be mistaken for a gunshot and cause an armed teacher to overreact. Netter also asked rhetorically if doctors and nurses should be armed to protect against hospital shootings and if stores clerks at malls should be armed since there have been mall shootings.
“We can’t run our community like the wild, wild west and have everyone packing heat in preparation for perceived danger,” she told the commissioners.
At the meeting, the board took a big step forward in opening a family justice center in High Point by hiring a contractor for that project. That center, like the one now operating in downtown Greensboro, is meant to be a “one-stop” resource center for victims of domestic violence, elder abuse and other family-related violence, neglect and abuse.
Guilford County received two bids for the project, and the board approved the lowest – $384,500 – from Greensboro-based construction company H.M. Kern Corp. The new family justice center will be in the Guilford County courthouse in High Point, and one of the more complicated aspects of that project is creating a new entranceway there. County officials expect construction to be finished in July and anticipate a “soft opening” in September, with a grand opening to follow.
Guilford County will also need to create a new parking lot for the center, but that wasn’t part of this contract. Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece said at the meeting that he expected the parking lot to cost somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000.
The commissioners made some new appointments and reappointments to the county’s various boards and commissions, but they didn’t discuss the possible reappointment of Showfety to the Airport Authority. Some commissioners say they feel continuity is important at this point in the airport’s progress, while others, like Commissioner Skip Alston, say the board should not have people – even those as well respected and competent as Showfety – serve in one position for a long period of time when other citizens are waiting to do so.
At the March 15 meeting, Commissioner Jeff Phillips spoke on the county’s new “Guilford County Solution to the Opioid Problem” (GCSTOP). That is a community-wide effort to fight the problem of opioid abuse that has hit Guilford County – particularly the High Point area – especially hard. Phillips thanked Cone Heath, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Guilford County Emergency Services and many other groups and organizations who are playing a role. He also thanked state Sen. Trudy Wade for her help in getting funding for the program.
The problem of opioid abuse, addiction and overdoses has become a front-burner issue for the commissioners, and, in addition to the effort to fight addiction and overdoses, Guilford County is now – like many cities and counties across the country – suing major opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Phillips said the opioid problem was at crisis levels and the county needs to take action.
“I’m very thankful for the work this community is doing and there’s much, much more work to be done,” he said.
Three Guilford County commissioners – Phillips, Kay Cashion and Branson – must have been exhausted at the meeting because they had just arrived back into town after a “whirlwind” meeting in Washington, DC, with Trump administration officials.
Phillips said that meeting was very productive and added that commissioners from all over North Carolina heard from Vice President Mike Pence, US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and others in the administration. He said the experience was very informative and it made clear the Trump administration’s intentions to work with North Carolina and its counties.
Cashion also said the meeting was very beneficial.
“There was a lot of discussion on agricultural issues and immigration and the way those issues affect North Carolina,” she said.
Branson likewise said he found the experience enlightening. He pointed out that he and five other commissioners had also gone to Washington for the National Association of Counties (NACo) Legislative Conference earlier in March.
“It was a huge amount of information and hard to take it all in,” he said of the two capital trips together. “Public safety, opioids, transportation, infrastructure – there are many, many goals from the North Carolina association that are being asked at the federal level.”
Branson wore a flashy madras jacket to the March 15 meeting to honor the late 6th District Congressman Howard Coble, known for his flamboyant jackets.
“I’m sporting a Howard Coble jacket tonight because March 18 would have been Howard’s birthday,” Branson said. “He was a good friend and mentor and a very humble guy who passed away Nov. 3, 2015 at the age of 84.”
He added, “The reason I pulled this thing out of the closet – it’s a little bit loud – is because I appreciate all the hard work that he did the number of years he served citizens at the city level and the federal level.”