by Eric Ginsburg
Economic development was the top priority for many Greensboro City Council members during their campaigns last fall, but the council’s economic development committee has met only once in 2014 and is now on hold.
Greensboro City Council’s four-member economic development committee has only held one meeting this year — back in April — and there is nothing official scheduled on the calendar.
Councilman Zack Matheny, who chairs the committee, cited numerous reasons why more regular meetings haven’t occurred, adding, “It’s kind of been on hold.”
“Part of it was regrouping after November and the elections, and then I had this whole other thing that popped up and got in the way,” Matheny said, referencing his unsuccessful Congressional bid. “It took a pretty significant amount of time, more so than I anticipated.”
But several other significant things happened too, he said, including the departure of City Manager Denise Turner Roth and the appointment of Jim Westmoreland as her replacement. There have also been changes to the city’s economic-development office, restructuring and retirements at economic-development group the Greensboro Partnership and ideas put forward by Westmoreland.
“There’s a lot going on obviously besides me having a Congressional run,” Matheny said. “I’ve got a lot of questions with the [Greensboro] Partnership restructuring. I’m very curious about that. I want to make sure the city, county and [Greensboro] Partnership are working in a partnership. With all restructuring, it’s hard for our economic development committee, which is supposed to support these other partnerships. You don’t want to get over your skis.”
At-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, who serves on the committee, said she didn’t know why the committee had met only once in 2014, adding that she would like to have one happen soon.
“Zack’s the chairman,” Abuzuaiter said. “Perhaps he’s working with Jim [Westmoreland] on pursuing this new economic-development strategy.”
Abuzuaiter said that she senses the committee is on hold but hasn’t actually been informed about what is going on.
“I would hate to see that,” she said. “I thought we were kinda rolling along. I do appreciate Zack [Matheny] saying he got a little overwhelmed. I hope that we either meet very soon or maybe I’m not aware that we’re on hold [because] this other economic development plan came up with the new city manager.”
Abuzuaiter said the committee had successfully created shovel-ready sites, a longstanding priority, as well as signs directing people towards downtown. Her other concerns are infill development and, most of all, a small-business summit.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who is not on the committee, and Matheny both said they support Abuzuaiter’s summit idea, but Vaughan said council is re-evaluating its development priorities with Westmoreland’s help.
“I think it’s okay that they haven’t met because we’re looking really at what the agenda is,” Vaughan said. “There are a lot of moving parts right now. I don’t think that meeting for the sake of meeting is very efficient.”
Vaughan added that while economic development is very important, not everything has gone or needs to go through the committee.
“There just hasn’t been a good topic for them to meet on,” she said. “The city manager is looking at what we’re going to do as far as our economic development. As you probably know there has been some pushback on that at this point. The city manager is going to reach out to the council to try and get a consensus on which way to go.”
A flare-up between council members at a recent work session led to a discussion about whether council shared the same vision for economic development. A meeting was planned specifically to address it among the entire council.
Vaughan agreed with Matheny that changes at the Greensboro Partnership, in the city manager’s office and with the city’s economic development office have forced the council to slow down, re-evaluate and wait to see how things shake out. Council will also need to talk about how to strengthen the city’s economic-development office and discuss “if we need to bring more people in.”
Councilman Mike Barber, another committee member, also said he was aware that the committee is on hold.
“I think the mayor and a few other council members are re-evaluating how we’re approaching economic development both with the re-organization of the [Greensboro] Partnership and our upcoming work session to discuss economic development,” he said. “The committee is on hold and might be retooled.”
That retooling could mean making it “more of a marketing committee,” Matheny said. He and Vaughan met to discuss the possibility.
“I really would like to look at three things,” Vaughan said. “Branding, what our economic-development office is going to look like going forward, in terms of if we have the right people at the city and how will that mesh with what’s going on at the [Greensboro] Partnership, and marketing, which is kind of an offshoot of branding.”
Matheny said one other factor has played into the lack of committee meetings: the dynamics between its members.
“I think in a lot of ways our relationship has been strained,” Matheny said. He added that his relationship with Councilman Tony Wilkins, who is on the committee, has been “hurt.”
“When you’re certainly not all on the right page, it makes it difficult to come together,” Matheny said. “I think part of the delay has been the struggles with council that we’ve had communicating with each other and getting along and getting a game plan.”
Wilkins and Matheny have clashed on a few council issues including during a recent work session about the Cascade Saloon, and Wilkins endorsed one of Matheny’s opponents in the Congressional race.
But they’re working on it, Matheny said. He has recently met one on one with Wilkins, Barber and Abuzuaiter about the committee.
“Mike and I have talked,” he said. “Tony and I had a very open exchange. I expressed some of my frustration and he expressed some of his. Marikay and I totally agree and are absolutely on the same page with a small-biz summit so I think you will see us planning that.”
Wilkins declined to comment, except in general terms.
“The economic-development committee is in transition and I would prefer not to comment at this time,” he said.
Regardless of the reasons why the committee has hardly met this year, Matheny said he hopes there will be a meeting at the end of the month or possibly in early September.
“I want to see what direction Jim [Westmoreland]’s going in and what direction the Greensboro Partnership is going in and what’s on Tony, Marikay and other council members’ minds,” he said.