The Greensboro City Council Economic Development Committee meeting Tuesday, Dec. 13 was like some avant-garde play where the actors switch roles at the end of each scene.
Zack Matheny was there in the Plaza Level Conference Room as president of Downtown Greensboro Inc. (DGI). Before becoming president of DGI, Matheny was a city councilmember and chairman of this committee.
Councilmember Jamal Fox is now chairman. He used to be a city employee.
Kathi Dubel was there representing the city economic development office. She used to be with what was the Greensboro Partnership and is now the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce.
What made it all so surreal is that with a few changes the reports could have been given when Matheny was chairman, Dubel was with the Partnership or Fox was working for City Manager Rashad Young.
It’s the same old content repackaged with new graphics and designs. In fact, in one of the few meaningful questions of the meeting, Councilmember Tony Wilkins asked what other people thought of the “floppy leaf” as the logo for the city. It’s not a big deal, but Wilkins is correct in saying that it is a tired old look, and it was an appropriate comment because it was a tired old meeting.
The reports have been the same for years: Greensboro is poised for growth. According to these reports through the years on economic development, in Greensboro, the city has been crouched at the starting line waiting for the starter’s gun for so long that rigor mortis might have set in.
The reports are always that Greensboro needs to concentrate on the airport, and Haeco, which used to be Timco, continues to grow by leaps and bounds – but that’s not because of anything this City Council committee ever did. It’s because it is a well-run company in an industry that continues to grow. HondaJet was hardly mentioned during this meeting, which is unusual.
East Market Street Development Corporation took over a year to change its name, but it is East Greensboro NOW, and it hasn’t changed its stripes. Director of Operations Phil Barnhill gave the report and it seemed to follow the method used by the old Greensboro Partnership and DGI, which is to claim credit for anything good in the area. East Greensboro NOW claimed credit for two new Family Dollar Stores in east Greensboro and the new Wal-Mart on Alamance Church Road. These aren’t mentioned on the website, but the Southeast Chess Club at the Hayes-Taylor YMCA is. It does make you wonder if some resume padding wasn’t taking place.
Matheny talked about all the investments being made downtown and the $25 million in bond money that was going to be spent.
Sue Schwartz, the Greensboro planning director, gave a report that lifted the meeting out of the mundane into the surreal. Schwartz said that the area around I-40 and Gate City Boulevard was being designated as an “innovation village.” And because of this, according to Schwartz, young people are going to flock to the area.
It defies credibility that young people are going to move to a portion of Greensboro that doesn’t have much going for it other than a whole lot of government expenditure because some Greensboro employee circled an area on a map and wrote “innovation village” in the circle.
It’s unfair to say that it is simply an area that has been circled on the map. The city is also going to do a study on the area.
It sounds crazy, but this is what passes for economic development in Greensboro. The city has never quite figured out that economic development doesn’t come to areas that are designated on a map and studied, but that development comes to the area where someone with the money to develop the land decides to do it.
What Greensboro needs is economic development, period. What the city has tried to do for the past 10 years is force new economic development into east Greensboro, which is not where most businesses want to go. It would be far better for Greensboro, including east Greensboro, if the city tried to recruit new industry to the city and allowed the industry to choose where it wanted to go. More jobs makes Greensboro better for everyone regardless of where they live.
According to the report on the Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA), the taxiway bridge is closer to being finished than it was in the spring, the last time the report was given to this committee. To PTIA Executive Director Kevin Baker’s credit, he went over some new photos of development but didn’t go over his whole report.
The airport is a great jobs engine for Greensboro. But remember when the new FedEx facility at the airport was going to change Greensboro? FedEx has been there now for years and hasn’t changed anything. A reminder that not only are there winners and losers in economic development, there are also no-shows.
The latest report on the Greensboro-Randolph megasite includes a sharp new video promoting the site. It’s well done and stars Richard Petty, but it doesn’t solve the problem with the megasite that may turn out to be more troublesome than finding a manufacturer. To attract a major manufacturer to the site is going to take economic incentives from the state. Nobody is going to come here for free when some other state is going to pay them $200 million to go there.
So the Greensboro-Randolph megasite is going to need the support of the state government to land the big fish.
And that’s a huge problem because the Greensboro City Council is in a legal battle with the state and generally goes out of its way to irritate the state legislature every chance it gets – and it gets plenty of chances.
Individual state legislators have been singled out for personal attacks, and at other times the entire legislature has been ridiculed. When Greensboro goes to the legislature and asks for a $200 million economic incentive to attract an advanced manufacturing plant to its megasite, there is going to be strong resistance.
Off the record, some state legislators say there is no way the state House and Senate are going to approve any amount of money for Greensboro because of the statements made and actions taken by members of the Greensboro City Council.
Nothing is more certain in politics than the fact that everything changes. What having a new Democratic governor does to the mix is an unknown, but if Greensboro is serious about the megasite, the Greensboro City Council needs to start mending some fences with the state legislature. Or Greensboro can continue down its current course, thumbing its nose at the state, and see how that works for the area.
City Manager Jim Westmoreland gave the report from the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA), which is not to be confused with the old Greensboro Economic Development Alliance, the Triad Business Development Alliance, the Piedmont Triad Partnership or any of the other alliances and partnerships in the area.
The GCEDA is the economic development organization where Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County are all working together, and by all accounts the organization is working well.
However, the report given by Westmoreland was not well received by Wilkins.
The report titled “A Marketing Blueprint for Guilford County” looks like a middle school report on how to get along with others. Here are the quotes in blocks across the cover: “Guilford County should be itself and not try to copy everyone else,” “We need to have a niche and stick with it,” “Companies in traditional industries have been the backbone of the economy,” “When we talk about ourselves generally we default to ‘vanilla.’” That quote about traditional industries doesn’t work with middle school students, but the rest fits pretty well.
After sitting for 90 minutes listening to pabulum like this, Wilkins evidently had finally had enough. Wilkins held up the report and asked Westmoreland, “Was there absolutely anything in here that you didn’t already know?”
Westmoreland said that it was a combined plan.
Wilkins followed up: “Isn’t it the same plan that we have always been focused on?”
Westmoreland said that he had just handed out a summary and the complete plan might answer some of Wilkins’ questions.
Wilkins asked how much the plan cost and Westmoreland said that he would find out.
The highlight of the meeting was when Councilmember Sharon Hightower, who is not a member of the committee, came to the meeting late and started to ask a whole bunch of questions. Hightower has been asking the same questions for years, so it would have been in keeping with the tenor of the meeting for Hightower to launch into the same tired questions, but Fox said no. Hightower tried to get started again and Fox said she could ask her questions later and that was the end of it. Mayor Nancy Vaughan might want to try that at the next City Council meeting.
All in all it was the same economic development report that has been given to the City Council and City Council committees for at least the past 10 years. As noted, some of the people have changed titles and some of the organizations have new names, but the report is always the same.
Greensboro is poised for growth, but not growing.