City, civil-rights museum discuss loan details

Douglas Harris and Tom Carruthers

A special Greensboro City Council meeting to discuss the city’s loan to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and to consider a resolution to alter the loan agreement results in several testy exchanges and the decision to postpone the matter until Aug. 16.

As far as Councilwoman Sharon Hightower was concerned, there was no reason to have a meeting to discuss the city’s $1.5 million loan to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum on Monday.

“I don’t understand why we’re even here today to discuss this and what is owed,” Hightower said, arguing that direct communication between the city and the museum seemed to be going well and that a public meeting only served as “basically just a media witch-hunt discussion” and unnecessarily dragged down the museum.

“I feel we don’t do it with other entities that we do business with as a city,” she said, adding that she’d like to give the museum an opportunity to have the entire balance of the loan forgiven.

At question is the city’s $1.5 million loan to the civil rights museum and how much of it is forgivable according to the initial agreement and whether the city should reconsider the framework of the loan or take further action before the museum’s New Market Tax Credits are completed on Aug. 18.

The city paid out the loan in chunks, the first for $750,000, and as part of the agreement the museum needed to match the loan dollar-for-dollar with independent fundraising for it to be forgiven, City Manager Jim Westmoreland said at the meeting on Monday. The city recently told the museum it would owe more than $144,000 of the initial $750,000 this June 30, but after regular communication with the museum’s lawyer and other spokespersons, the city determined the museum would owe less than a tenth of that figure, Westmoreland told council, adding that more would be due on the remainder of the $1.5 million loan in future years.

Councilman Jamal Fox said he’d like the city to forgive the entirety of the loan, forgoing the condition of the original agreement that required matching fundraising. Later in the meeting, his motion that Hightower had seconded went to a vote, but nobody else on council supported the move, with several others calling it premature.

There were several terse exchanges at the special council meeting as Councilman Mike Barber and Mayor Nancy Vaughan challenged museum lawyer and board member Douglas Harris’ characterization of several financial matters, Hightower and Fox criticized city staff, and Councilman Justin Outling and Fox butted heads over Fox’s proposal. A few council members challenged Hightower’s characterization of an adversarial relationship between the city and museum, with Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann — who called into the meeting — saying that the city helped save the museum with the loan, the terms of which she called quite reasonable.

The fact that the vast majority of the first half of the loan is forgivable is “amazing,” Hoffmann said, adding that council could consider making the remaining $750,000 forgivable by extending the fundraising timeline set out in the initial agreement but said that would require “lots of discussion” first.

Council will revisit a complex proposal by City Attorney Tom Carruthers regarding the loan on Aug. 16 prior to the termination of the museum’s New Market Tax Credits, in part because council members didn’t have a copy of the proposal in front of them and two members had called into the meeting. The postponement will also enable the International Civil Rights Center & Museum’s board to meet next week prior to the discussion and could make it easier for more museum representatives to attend.