COVER: Can Downtown Greensboro Inc. find its way?

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Jason Cannon, left, talks with Megan Millard while Dawn Chaney, center right, leans over to whisper and laugh with Brittany Atkinson.

by Eric Ginsburg

Downtown Greensboro Inc. is like a teenager: It’s not quite fully formed yet, but like a kid on the cusp of freshman year, DGI is quickly discovering its identity.

There have been clashes with Greensboro City Council, in this metaphor the organization’s parents who have recently taken a more active interest in their child’s report card; an expected amount of inner turmoil; visible alterations to its public image; new friends who may or may not be good influences; and a vague sense of what it wants to be when it grows up. Oh, and it’s pretty concerned with looking cool but isn’t particularly clear about what that means.

Family members will say how much potential they see in DGI, mention how quickly it’s grown up, how awkward the recent bout with puberty was and maybe compare it to its older sisters, Charlotte and Raleigh, who have already gone off to college.

Downtown Greensboro Inc. is going through what could aptly be described as its high school years, a pivotal moment in which the organization is pulled in too many directions but is trying its damndest to move forward and hopefully graduate. A parental city council concerned that DGI lacked a strong vision initiated numerous changes last year, including a new president and fresh blood on the board. That motivational but stern approach coupled with a recent strategic retreat, suggest DGI has buckled down and finally seems ready to start applying itself, determined to study and fully prepare before an impending examination by council.

There are a host of challenges in DGI’s way too, many of which come down to a matter of resources — especially time, money and leadership. Given these circumstances can the organization find its way? Or will it be like that kid from high school who keeps getting left back and eventually gives up and drops out?

Downtown Greensboro Inc. kept the main focus of a two-day board retreat in early April pretty succinct: Redefine the entity’s priorities and start moving towards actionable steps to actualize the plan. First though, the board needed to reflect where it had been.

With the help of two impartial facilitators from a Raleigh firm, the board charted its history on a huge sheet of white paper at the front of the basement of the Carriage House at Blandwood Mansion.

As DGI staff sat at a long table at the back, board members called out aspects of the organization’s work throughout the last 17 years, starting with its humble beginnings in 1997 when its main charge involved trash collection to cut down on a blossoming rat population.

Much of the history chronicled reactive work despite its more proactive infancy, Downtown Residents Association President and DGI board member Dianne Ziegler said. But nonvoting board member and Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that began to change in 2012 when the city re-engaged. Calling on Downtown Greensboro Inc. to be a “more economic development-driven organization rather than [focusing on] maintenance and housekeeping,” the city prodded DGI in a new direction.

So much has changed in the district since the organization began, including a rise in cultural activity and residential properties as well as an economic downturn.

Dawn Chaney knows that as well as anyone else on the board. A big commercial and residential developer and the last board chair, Chaney is like a bulldog for the organization, playing the role of a defensive end and a friendly mascot with equal ease. She’s quick to sing the praises of downtown or buddy up to a stranger, the kind of person that you want in your corner.

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Dawn Chaney, far left, at the strategic retreat.

Chaney is a character to be sure, identifiable by her short curly hair or a jacket with padded shoulders. At the April board meeting she sported bright red knee-length shorts over leggings, but Chaney is even more defined by her tendency to smile and lean over to whisper an excited remark or unabashedly share her thoughts at a meeting.

“Any time you have a large group of people you have a multitude of problems,” Chaney said at the retreat. “Sometimes they’re easy to solve and sometimes they’re not. Now we’re looking at where do we go and still encompass what we have.”

The bigger question is where to make cuts. A massive chart created by new DGI President Jason Cannon during his first six months in the position lined a side wall, enumerating the staggering amount of things the organization attempts — and is expected — to carry out.

Looking at the bevy of organizational responsibilities, board member Derek Ellington worried that their work “may be a mile wide and an inch deep.” Eric Robert, a new board member who has aggravated some members with his criticism, said DGI would need to realize that it can’t please everyone, later suggesting the board look more closely at some of Winston-Salem’s successes.

Theresa Yon, a downtown resident and noise-ordinance proponent who recently joined the board and was the recipient of some criticism on Robert’s blog how-do-you-say.blogspot.com, didn’t attend the retreat or the subsequent board meeting last week. Despite brief private discussions among members about kicking Robert off DGI’s board, the retreat went smoothly.

Even a newcomer could pick Robert out at the retreat as somewhat of an outsider — besides the obvious French accent, signature ponytail and salt and pepper beard, he dressed more casually than most of his counterparts, donning a brown vest and a long sleeve black shirt the first day and a grey Henley the second.

Eric Robert, right, with Mark Hewett and Dianne Ziegler
Eric Robert, right, with Mark Hewett and Dianne Ziegler

Robert has butted heads with Cannon and the old guard of DGI’s board, the legacy members who compose the board’s executive committee and survived a city council-imposed shakeup to the body.

When the retreat facilitator called for suggested internal changes, Robert was far from the only new member offering up concerns. Several said they weren’t oriented at the beginning, unclear of how things worked or even who the other board members were.

Board chair Sam Simpson took responsibility for the confusion, as did Cannon in an interview, both saying they had decided it didn’t make sense to plan an orientation on the board’s old structure when they were organizing a strategic retreat as soon as possible to re-conceptualize everything DGI does.

Robert has also criticized the predominantly white board for its lack of diversity while admitting that there has been progress, including the addition of two younger women — Brittany Atkinson and Megan Millard — who are both 25.

Cannon averted a possible flare up over the language of meeting minutes last week by including phrasing requested by Robert and M’Couls owner Simonne McClinton, both of whom attended the full retreat but not the next board meeting. The waters appeared to have calmed.

Like a high school hallway or locker room, a few snide remarks could be heard at the edge of the room during breaks throughout the retreat on opposing sides of the new versus old member divide. A mocking comment about blogging directed at Robert here, a chiding mention about some members’ unwillingness to accept change there. But for all intents and purposes, that’s where the tension remained — corner chatter. Maybe DGI is growing up even faster than expected.

A survey of nearly 1,000 people as well as 80 phone and in-person interviews confirmed that the public and downtown stakeholders agree that economic development is the right priority, but didn’t provide a definition of what that should entail. Respondents didn’t disagree with DGI’s previous work, but said change is necessary given new realities downtown such as increased nightlife and residential complexes.

Responses from people familiar with DGI and its board also concurred on a defining quality of nearly everyone involved — this is a group of Type A personalities, all passionate and steadfast people. Even for several who didn’t speak up much in full board discussions at the retreat or meeting last week, the truth in this showed through in small group discussion. Most of the new members fit the bill too, suggesting DGI will retain the quality beyond its teenage years.

Gary Brame, the incoming board chair, standing center
Gary Brame, the incoming board chair, standing center

Several board members expressed some surprise at the results, including incoming chair Gary Brame of Jules Antique and Fine Arts.

“I am surprised there aren’t more negative responses given how this board maybe feels we are perceived,” Brame said.

Joe Stewart, the bowtie-wearing executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, presented the results at the retreat and said that respondents appeared supportive and forgiving.

“People were so excited about the process going forward that it overcame whatever happened before,” he said. “Let me put it this way: I think you have an Etch A Sketch moment. Your constituency is very excited about what you’re doing here. It’s important for an organization like this to have this sort of clarity about its mission.”

Millard, who works at Proctor & Gamble and quickly involved herself after moving to Greensboro four months ago, asked if respondents provided any ideas about what sort of economic development the organization should pursue.

“I think what you’re looking for, in some ways, is so elusive,” Stewart conceded.

Veteran board members did most of the talking throughout the first day, while a few newer participants chimed in periodically. Brame said if the board can’t define economic development it would be difficult to move forward.

“At least there has to be some sort of loose identification of what economic development is among this group,” he said to murmured agreement.

Even after the board drilled down to its priorities, narrowing a list of five focus areas to two goals, the way forward remained hazy. Edging out retail development, nurturing a cool physical environment and attracting new capital investment and jobs tied as top priorities. But what exactly does that look like?

Simpson spoke repeatedly about streetscaping, making Greene Street two ways and possibly reducing street parking on Elm Street and replacing it with sidewalk dining. Creating a cool environment where people want to be is integral for downtown’s success, he said, and while the board generally agreed that coolness, streetscaping and “activating dead space” was a top priority, it endorsed Simpson’s idea broadly rather than the details of his suggestions.

The monthly board meeting last week
The monthly board meeting last week

The board reached some initial agreement about slimming down the organization’s role in events, possibly subcontracting an event planner for a few key events. Jeff Yetter, who works at Iron Hill Investments, argued that the events were DGI’s “single biggest way to show off downtown’s cool factor.”

Still the primary thrust associated with downtown’s “cool factor” remained streetscaping and more permanent elements than events, with some saying they’d like to see DGI get out of event planning entirely. Like other aspects of DGI’s work, Cannon said it “deserves some further discussion.”

The board more fully agreed to cut or eliminate its role in an array of things that don’t directly relate to the core mission of economic development, including its relationship to the downtown ice rink, Center City Park, a dumpster program and flower pots.

“We should be doing things that nobody else can be doing for downtown and we shouldn’t be doing things that someone else can do better,” Simpson said.

That left numerous questions about how funding tied to those activities would be affected and whether the city or other entities would be able to help fill the income gap. It was also unclear to what extent other organizational functions would be reduced, such as facilitating a time-consuming façade grant program.

Board members volunteered to work together on areas of interest, including marketing, events and articulating the board’s structure and expectations for new members.

At the monthly board meeting last week, they set to work. After a brief formal portion, board members broke into small groups in different corners of the room, trying to parse out specifics while snacking on sandwiches and sides.

One group moved methodically from point to point under the organization’s marketing plan, consulting with staff about what could be consolidated and making suggestions such as putting paid advertisements on DGI’s website. Chaney, Greensboro Grasshoppers president Don Moore and Assistant City Manager David Parrish discussed restructuring DGI’s clean-and-green team contract by the end of the year and asking the city to assume that role.

SONY DSCEach new or recreated committee also picked a chair at the April monthly meeting with several new members — including Robert, who was nominated in absentia — joining the committee leadership ranks. Recognizing that monthly meetings would never provide enough time for substantial progress, Cannon instructed the committees to set separate meeting times as well.

While to some extent Cannon will need to wait for direction from board members on specifics of what they want him to do, he is also fully aware that DGI’s goals can’t be accomplished if they are entirely staff-driven.

When I call, please step up and take the baton away from me,” he told the board at the end of the retreat.

Cannon started in the position in early October after working at the Greensboro Partnership, where he became familiar with the NC General Assembly and successfully lobbied for funds for the UNCG-A&T nanotechnology school, among other things. Despite his expertise, Cannon sometimes looks like someone who has bitten off more than he can chew, pensively considering his expansive charge while resting his chin in his hand.

Cannon remained silent for much of the retreat and also spent most of the board meeting last week listening. He said afterwards that he had hoped to emerge with more direct marching orders from the retreat, which informed the small group discussion format of the next board meeting, but he was “very proud” of how well the board worked together.

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Jason Cannon presents his organizational chart

He already knows that a significant portion of the job is about balance.

“How much do we focus on what is, versus what we’re supposed to be becoming?” he asked in an interview. “I am trying to figure out how to run an organization that says it wants to change.”

Listening to him list the things DGI is responsible for on a daily basis or looking at the massive chart he assembled for the retreat, it’s no small wonder that the wheels haven’t fallen off. He’s greatly encouraged by the progress at the retreat, but in the meantime DGI must hold together everything on its plate. On one recent day, that included a request from the city to facilitate communication with business owners about a road closing, talking with someone who wants to shoot a video promoting center city, fielding a call from someone who wants to open a bakery, meeting with a board member to try to improve communication and countless other things.

The two priorities established at the retreat would be more than enough on their own, Cannon said.

“I need more people than I’ve got just to do those two things,” he said.

SONY DSCThe board will need to be “a working board” to pull it off, Mayor Vaughan said. Cannon will also manage the load by contracting former Action Greensboro executive director April Harris to help with communications after she won a DGI request for proposals process. The new and reconstituted committees have less than 30 days to generate actionable plans, and city council will review DGI’s progress in less than two months.

Despite the prominent conspicuous changes downtown since 1997, especially the influx of businesses and proliferation of activities after 5 p.m., the staff and infrastructure of DGI hasn’t increased. Similar organizations charged with promotion and development in other North Carolina cities boast much larger staffs — 12 people in Raleigh and 20 in Charlotte, compared to four in Greensboro. Durham and Winston-Salem, which are smaller than Greensboro, have six and three people on staff respectively.

It is unclear to what extent board members are willing to or capable of filling that role in a sustained fashion. For now there is plenty of energy, but as board member Mark Hewett said at the end of the retreat, there’s been plenty of great talk and now it’s time for action.

There are other barriers for DGI in its budding adulthood, too, beyond whether the city has saved any money for its metaphorical college fund and can afford to support DGI’s newfound aspirations that the city desperately wants to see materialize.

Citywide job loss was one of many other downtown challenges that emerged from conversations at the retreat, as was attracting and retaining recent college graduates.

Nick Piornack, center
Nick Piornack, center

“The other thing that’s unfortunate that may be going away next year is the historic tax credit,” board member Nick Piornack said at the retreat.

Others cited tax codes that discourage property owners from repairing vacant buildings, the psychology of safety, a lack of diversity on the board, eliminating some board committees, and public distrust of DGI.

“Greensboro has this tendency to not know where the line is drawn between community and conspiracy and we live in a very small community,” Simpson said at the retreat, adding that recent transparency efforts including making board meetings public should help.

And there are more ideas, also — a retail incubator like Design Archives on a grander scale, student housing, an internship program with business schools, improved tree canopy, coordinated seasonal planting, and parking signs among others.

There appear to be no shortage of dreams for the future, but it remains to be seen if the bright-eyed DGI can pick a major, stick with it, design a career path and hold down the job. Amidst all that, can DGI wade through the murky waters and maintain its focus?

After the retreat, which board member Mark Prince called “desperately needed,” everyone appeared hopeful or expressed reserved optimism, including Eric Robert.

“If we can accomplish even half of this we’ll be in a very good place for downtown,” he said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

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Board Chair Sam Simpson, center, leads group discussion including Eric Robert and Gary Brame.