The Guilford County Board of Commissioners met virtually for about an hour on Tuesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. and gave $2 million of county taxpayer money to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in downtown Greensboro.
The money is to help fund a project that calls for the purchase of a building, a mass expansion of the museum and an attempt to become designated as a World Heritage Site.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston didn’t participate in the discussion or the vote because Alston is a founder of the museum and also is the real estate broker helping the museum purchase the former First Citizen’s bank building next door on South Elm Street.
The $2 million from Guilford County will join with $2 million from the City of Greensboro and, possibly millions more from other sources, to fund the $20 million to $25 million project meant to result with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designating the museum as a prestigious World Heritage Site.
UNESCO was founded in 1945 and its landmark designations are very hard to come by. So far, only 24 sites in the United States, including the Statue of Liberty and the Everglades National Park – are designated as World Heritage sites.
The nine-member board voted to approve the money 5-to-3, with the board’s three Republicans – Commissioners James Upchurch, Justin Conrad and Alan Perdue – voting no, and with Alston not participating.
Upchurch, who offered reasons for his opposition during the meeting, later summarized his thinking. He said he’d met with a top museum leader for about three hours before the Tuesday evening meeting and said he offered to support the museum in a number of ways – such as by serving on a board overseeing the new project.
But Upchurch also said he felt as though the county has too many pressing critical needs right now to give away $2 million to the museum project.
Upchurch said at the meeting as well as afterward that he generally does not favor giving taxpayer money to non-profits, and he said in this case he didn’t like the way it was being done. The funding was unusual in that it was done outside of the budget process, without, he said, time for the county to properly vet the project, and without going through the usual requests and checks that the county normally requires before funding a non-profit.
“They rushed this through as quick as possible,” Upchurch said after the meeting.
Upchurch also said he believed it was a conflict of interest for Alston to be a co-founder of the museum and a real estate broker on the deal when it involved taxpayer money going to a private entity.
Alston has agreed not to take his $250,000 commission for the purchase of the property, but Upchurch said the taxpayer money giveaway still does not sit well with him.
Alston said after the meeting that the taxpayers of Guilford County are actually going to benefit because a World Heritage Site designation for the museum will be transformative for downtown Greensboro and Guilford County as a whole.
“It will be huge,” Alston said. “It will dramatically increase tourism and it will bring a lot of people spending money to downtown Greensboro and other parts of the county.”