A prayer for DGI

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As of press time, the organization known as Downtown Greensboro Inc. is still in negotiations with a prospective new CEO, just after the organization had been called to the carpet by city council to justify its existence.

The organization charged with overseeing downtown development in Greensboro has had a rough couple of years, beginning with the conspicuous exit of former CEO Ed Wolverton in 2013 when his contract was not renewed, running through a noisy non-controversy about the résumé of his replacement Jason Cannon, who lasted well under two years, and myriad beefs and rumors involving the oversized personalities and business concerns of the district.

The rub against DGI is in its lack of diversity — the board is overwhelmingly white, middle-aged and male; its deep resistance to change, as exemplified by last week’s attempt to put two developers on the board, including one returning after a short absence; and its lack of leadership.

As a point of comparison, since Jason Thiel took over the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership in 2006, DGI has run through five CEOs: Ray Gibbs, Wolverton, Cannon, interim CEO Cyndy Hayworth and whomever the board is now negotiating with to replace her.

Odds are pretty good that it’s a middle-aged white guy. In fairness, so is Jason Thiel.

But whoever this person is, a full understanding of the job is paramount.

DGI is most effective when it shies away from the social engineering of curfews and loitering on our most public streets and instead works with what already exists — the bones, if you will — of our downtown. We have great buildings, some of which have fallen into disrepair; perhaps DGI could work on some solutions for our empty and decaying spaces. We have some fantastic restaurants, many of them new, and a few of them activating heretofore dormant areas of downtown, like Crafted’s new effort across form Deep Roots Market. Does anybody even remember what used to be on that corner?

It’s a political job, too, managing the concerns and desires of a somewhat diverse group of stakeholders — which includes everyone who lives, works and hangs out there. A good leader understands where the smaller entities are coming from, and has the sand to stand up to the big players once in a while and tell them that they’re not going to get their way.

But most of all, the new DGI CEO must understand cities, those big, messy amalgamations of civilization and culture, and the people who live in them. He or she must realize the importance of transportation and walkability, and help to change a culture that doesn’t comprehend the concept of downtown parking. That person has to see the benefits of diversity, both to our culture and our economy, and the role that the arts play in connecting everything and everyone. The new hire can’t play favorites, and can’t be pushed around. And the new CEO has to spend a lot of time on the street, talking to people — business owners, residents, bartenders, artists, merchants, loiterers and homeless people alike — to figure out what is really happening downtown.

  • Lindsay Burkart

    I love this article and totally agree.