by Eric Ginsburg
Since leaving Action Greensboro a little more than a year ago, April Harris has been “fantastically busy,” working behind the scenes on many of downtown’s major projects.
April Harris jokes, when talking about her professional experience, that if the organization has “Greensboro” in its name, she’s worked there.
Harris served as the vice president of operations at Downtown Greensboro Inc. for five years before becoming the city of Greensboro’s special-events manager for two years. She left the post to become the executive director at Action Greensboro, where she remained for six years until the position was eliminated at the end of 2013.
Given plenty of warning before the split, which she describes as amicable, Harris moved quickly. As 2014 began, she was already consulting for Union Square — the planned downtown university campus — and the Greensboro Partnership’s entrepreneurship connections program.
With encouragement from her husband, Harris formally launched her own consulting business last March. Even though she describes the decision as “absolutely the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” in part because she has a daughter attending Wake Forest University, as Harris wraps up her first year at New City Ventures, she describes herself as “fantastically busy” and incredibly satisfied.
“I’ve never been happier personally or professionally,” she said. “The timing is absolutely perfect. It’s so exciting.”
Over the last year, Harris has been involved in many of the largest projects happening downtown. Her work with Union Square — helping with marketing, fundraising and events — continues. She helped with Collab, a new co-working space, until an outreach person was hired recently, consulted for Downtown Greensboro Inc. about a communications plan, ran the SmArt Initiative on public art for ArtsGreensboro until the end of 2014 and she provides administrative management for the Forge makerspace.
The list goes on — Harris has also done “a little” for Momentum Development, the group behind Spice Cantina, the Worx and the Railyard, which are now erecting a caboose-shaped stage between the restaurants and assembling a weekly music series to go along with a beer garden of sorts in the space. And a considerable amount of her time is dedicated to HQ Greensboro, a co-working space that will tentatively open in June next to the Forge.
“My little world is down there,” Harris said on Monday at Mellow Mushroom, gesturing to the area behind her that includes the Railyard, the Forge and HQ Greensboro. Union Square, which will hold its groundbreaking on April 7, is just a few blocks away at the intersection of Arlington and Lee streets.
“It’s the most exciting part about what’s happening in Greensboro,” she said with a smile.
Downtown is leading a catalytic change for the city, she said, one that will make Greensboro an entirely different place in a few short years. That’s exactly why she named her firm New City Ventures, Harris said.
When she works out of an office these days, it’s usually one at her home, with her black Lab Daisy often providing a welcome distraction by way of a tennis ball. On Thursdays Harris operates at the Forge, and when HQ Greensboro opens next door, she’ll have an office there as well. The two projects and Union Square take up most of her time these days, but she still has time to take the initiative on other projects and dream up ideas to enhance downtown.
Her role on each project varies based on what the client needs, but is generally within the realm of community outreach, event planning and facilitating “between the public, private and non-profit sectors,” according to Harris’ website.
That thread unites otherwise disparate efforts to enliven downtown, from planning a community-outreach meeting for the neighborhood around Union Square on March 31 to imagining of ways to add more color to downtown.
She’s also helping to plan a new Saturday business-pitch series at the Forge in tandem with the existing Idea Slam by the Greensboro Partnership’s Entrepreneur Connections on Wednesday mornings. “Slam & Eggs” begins March 21.
Harris is diplomatic when talking about the differences between her current profession and her former gig; she offers that she misses her coworkers at Action Greensboro or the leadership of the organization’s foundation backers. Other than that, she’s reluctant to talk about herself or her previous roles; Harris is modest, and would rather heap praise on the projects she’s involved with or the city’s entrepreneurs.
She’s willing to talk about her vision for downtown too, honing in on some ideas gleaned from ArtsGreensboro’s SmArt Initiative to use public art to bring vitality to downtown. Harris talks of a “busk stop,” an idea adopted in other cities, in the grassy area of Hamburger Square alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the train tracks that split South Elm Street. With a small stage and some Adirondack chairs made from recycled material, Harris can envision the unused “Hillside” being transformed into an activated public space.
She talks about painting every downtown sidewalk differently, comparing it to the colorful hexagons that fill up February One Place, a project undertaken during her tenure at Action Greensboro. Harris would like to see vibrant murals and sculptures downtown as well, and she wants the city’s core to embrace more events like the Mosaic Festival that highlight Greensboro’s ethnic diversity.
Some of her ideas spring from a visit to the Congress for New Urbanism’s annual conference last June in Buffalo, while others are inspired by projects she has been a part of, particularly in the last year. But she emphasizes that there is no silver-bullet solution.
“I don’t think there’s any one thing,” she said. “I think it’s being open to a lot of different answers. I think sometimes we need to get out of our own way.”
Sometimes the most important thing is to try an idea, Harris said, because even though it might fail it will energize people and allow for learning experiences. And sometimes it could succeed wildly.
She was talking, of course, about downtown — or even entrepreneurship more broadly — but Harris might as well have been describing her own rebirth during the last year.