by Eric Ginsburg
After dragging on for more than a decade, the process to establish a grocery store in northeast Greensboro may stall again as the city considers contributing $500,000 less than the Renaissance Community Co-op has requested. Co-op supporters are gearing up to push back.
Everyone seems to agree that the Renaissance Community Cooperative, a grassroots-driven grocery store initiative in northeast Greensboro, is an excellent idea. The co-op aims to open at the long vacant Renaissance Shopping Center on Phillips Avenue, creating access to groceries in the middle of one of the city’s food deserts. But after raising $1.2 million and despite backing from Greensboro City Council members, the funding may come up a half-million dollars short.
The co-op is currently requesting $600,000 from the city, one-third of that as a grant and two-thirds as a loan, down from an earlier ask of $700,000. But city staff, who are still finalizing a recommendation to bring before city council in the coming weeks, plans to recommend just $100,000.
Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson, who has been in regular talks with the Renaissance Co-op, said it looks like the significantly reduced figure is all the city can afford.
“We’re still in dialogue and we have some more discussions to have before we take it to council,” Wilson said. “At this point the [number] that I had and that we came to is $100,000. That may or may not be where we end up at. That $100,000 mark is what’s available to us that has not been committed otherwise.”
But co-op supporters question the figure, saying the city led them to believe their larger request was reasonable and feasible.
Goldie Wells, an active community leader who used to serve in council’s District 2 seat that covers the Renaissance Shopping Center, said that when council wants to find the money for something, they make it work.
“I don’t think that the $100,000 is adequate,” she said, “My reason being that we asked for this amount for some time, and I think the RCC has tweaked their proposal to the city four times, and no one ever said, ‘We will not be able to do this.’ We’ve been living with the hope because of the positive feedback. I really don’t think that we will just accept it without making comments about it.”
In an email last week, the Renaissance Co-op called on its supporters to mobilize for its monthly meeting on Monday to put pressure on the city.
“We have everything lined up: The shopping center was sold to Self Help and they are going to start working there soon; We have raised $1.2 million dollars in committed funds towards the opening of the store; and we have built a strong financial, management and operational plan for the business,” the message read. “All we need now to open the doors at the RCC is economic-development funding from the city that our community deserves.”
Co-op Board Chair John Jones said he believes the city can do more.
“We are not a charity,” he said. “We are going to pay them back. We just expected the city to come up with the financing that we need to finally complete this. Everything is in order to complete it with their financing. We are thankful for the $100,000, but it is not enough.”
The co-op canceled its meeting on Monday due to the snow storm, but has been rescheduled for Feb. 23. Wells said she isn’t sure exactly what the next step will be, but said they plan to organize and take action.
“I don’t know how we’ll tell the council, but we want to make an outcry so that people in the west know it’s a need and it isn’t giving money away for frivolous activities over here,” she said. “These are serious needs. I think we do have some council members who are sympathetic to our cause. I know there are situations when they need to find money, they do. Whenever it’s something they want to do, they find the money. We talk about Greensboro being one city, but you can’t have people starving on one side of town. We have to have a feel for each other.”
Councilman Tony Wilkins, who represents the westernmost district of the city, said he wants to make it work but will have to wait until council is briefed on the specifics before weighing in on an exact figure. While $600,000 seems like a “huge” amount and Wilkins is council’s most conservative member, he said he makes his decisions on a case-by-case basis.
“I tend to be a little bit more agreeable when we’re talking about feeding hungry people,” Wilkins said. “Even though I couldn’t give you an answer on what my plans are right now I certainly hope I can support a plan that would help. I go to the meetings and I see the enthusiasm. I did have a problem with their original business plan… but I am pulling for this project. I really hope that we can all make this work.”
District 2 Councilman Jamal Fox, who represents northeast Greensboro and partially campaigned on his support for the co-op, was noncommittal about whether he would push for the city to allocate the full $600,000.
“It’s not for me to think if that’s enough or not,” Fox said. “We’ll see what happens. We have to look at everything when it actually comes to council.”
Fox said he is sure city staff has sound reasoning behind the $100,000 figure, and said he is confident the co-op will be successful “regardless of how things pan out with money from the city.”
While emphasizing his support for the grocery co-op and redevelopment of the shopping center, Fox would not say if he would like to see the city try and find the remaining $500,000 somewhere.
“I don’t want to tip my hand,” Fox said, while declining to elaborate. “They elected me to be a problem solver and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Jones said if the city can only provide $100,000, the co-op will be forced to look for money elsewhere, adding that the city is best positioned to provide a reasonable rate on a loan and that the co-op has already secured considerable funding from a number of different sources including loans, a membership drive and other fundraising efforts.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan said she wants to sit down with staff to discuss the reasoning behind the $100,000 figure, and said she would encourage the co-op to reach out to the county “and maybe we could do some sort of matching funding.”
“I would like to find a way to fund them at a higher level but I don’t think we can justify the full figure,” Vaughan said. “I think we all recognize that this is a really, really good project and I think we would like to fund it to the highest level that we could.”
Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter offered the strongest support among those interviewed on council.
“I want to make it clear that I would like to see us give the co-op whatever they need to maintain themselves,” she said. “We’ve got to get rid of our food deserts, and I’ve always been so supportive of the community coming together and pursuing this. How can we not?”
Abuzuaiter said she trusts that staff has carefully considered the $100,000 figure for the next budget year, but said she hopes at the very least it wouldn’t preclude the city from contributing that amount annually for a while as part of an ongoing commitment. And she agreed with Wells’ criticism that council has, in the past, found money for nonessential things while shirking core responsibilities.
“It is true that certain projects, the money is certainly found,” she said. “I voted against forgiving the Nussbaum Center’s $1.2 million loan for that reason. There are so many projects and things that can be found. Should we suggest to the co-op that they ask for the loan and five years later we forgive it?
“For something that is so crucial to the nutrition and the wellbeing of the northeast community, we need to try and find the money,” she continued. “We have to make sure our citizens have access to food and the items they need.”