Council members approve $1.4 million for convention center

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Winston-Salem City Council is considering an additional expenditure of $1.4 million for renovations to the Benton Convention Center. (photo by Jordan Green)

Members of the finance committee of Winston-Salem City Council approve additional funds to complete the renovation of the Benton Convention Center, but take a cautious stance on a request to support a proposed food cooperative.

A panel of Winston-Salem City Council approved an additional $1.4 million for renovations to the city-owned Benton Convention Center during a meeting on Monday, bringing the total cost of the project to $19.9 million.

The extra funds include $335,000 to enhance the exterior of a “skywalk” from the convention center to the Sixth-Cherry-Trade Parking Deck, $302,000 for new carpet in the lower level exhibit hall, $263,000 for unforeseen maintenance issues uncovered during the renovation and $500,000 for additional contingencies.

“As much as some of us travel to these smaller cities, even in North Carolina, we have to catch up,” said Councilwoman Denise D. Adams, a member of the finance committee whose North Ward includes the convention center. Adams said the city did a good job with the construction of the convention center in 1969 and a renovation in 1986, but hasn’t made adequate investments since then.

“We just got an old convention center,” she said. “And when people plan conventions and tourists come to our town, we want to talk about the Innovation Quarter, we want to talk about our restaurants, we want to talk about what we’re doing with the arts. But we got a broke-down convention center. And we have to understand the convention center is the goose that laid the golden egg as well.”

Adams indicated that the renovations will be critical for the National Black Theatre Festival, a biennial event that runs from July 31 to Aug. 5 this year.

“That’s something that this city profits from very well,” Adams said. “We have all of the hotels are full, even hotels in Greensboro, High Point and surrounding areas. And it’s all because of what’s going on, not just downtown at all of our different theater venues, but the convention center is the main hub of that activity.”

Other council members who serve on the finance committee also expressed support for the project, although they asked Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe for an accounting for any expenditure of the approved contingency funds.

“The convention center business is an arms race, and if you’re not as good as your competition, you’re not going to get the business,” said Councilman Jeff MacIntosh, who represents the Northwest Ward. “And I would hope we didn’t value-engineer this to the point that it’s not going to be something we’re proud of. There’s an awful lot of hotel capacity coming online downtown and having a fully functioning convention center’s going to be really important to us.”

Winston-Salem voters approved $17.5 million in limited obligation bonds in 2014 to pay for the renovation, which got underway in April 2016. City council approved an additional $1 million in funding for the project in March to create more flex space in the exhibit hall, install aluminum panels on an exterior wall facing Cherry Street and make improvements to the terrace. Rowe said the money to cover the new $1.4 million request would come from unspent funds from the city’s new maintenance yard, additional debt capacity and reserves in a fund designated for the convention center. Rowe said contractors have projected that the renovations will be complete by May 4. The finance committee’s action on Monday forwards the request to the full council for consideration.

A request from a community group for funding to pay for a feasibility and marketing study for a proposed food cooperative met with a cooler reception from members of the finance committee.

The Revs. Gary R. Williams and Willard Bass, respectively the project coordinator and project founder, hope to open a member-owned grocery to address food insecurity in the West Salem Shopping Center near the intersection of Peters Creek Parkway and Academy Street. The $21,800 requested by the co-op would cover the cost of a market analysis study by Minneapolis-based Dakota Worldwide, and start-up assistance from CDS Consulting Co-op, also based in Minneapolis. Assistant City Manager Derwick Paige warned council members that if the project proceeds, the co-op would likely need additional financial support from the city.

Williams said the proposed venture, named the Share Cooperative, is modeled after Renaissance Community Co-op, a grocery store that opened in northeast Greensboro in November through more than a decade of community organizing efforts in response to the 1999 closure of a Winn-Dixie grocery store and a successful mobilization to block the reopening of a landfill. Williams encouraged members of Winston-Salem City Council to visit to the Greensboro co-op.

Williams said the aim of the Share Cooperative is to provide “fresh, nourishing food at a reasonable price” in a food desert. He added, “When we stand that store up anywhere in Winston-Salem, it will stay there. It will belong to the people. The profits will not be siphoned off; the profits will be reinvested in our community.”

Councilwoman Adams said she’s seen numerous nonprofits pledging to address food insecurity and disparities, with little result. “I will support whatever is needed from me on this end right now,” she said, “but as we move forward — as I’ve told the council — we have to really think about the end result of what we’re getting for our taxpayers’ dollars being invested in this.”

MacIntosh expressed reservations.

“I guess I’m concerned about the long-run capacity of this to be successful, and successful without the city of Winston-Salem having to continue to put money in,” he said.

“Before I’m comfortable committing $21,000 to this I would rather see a second go-round where we’re shown what the possibilities are, what the structures are — a lot more in-depth information about how this works in the long run,” MacIntosh added.

Councilman John Larson, who represents the South Ward where the co-op would be located, and Councilman Derwin Montgomery said there’s no way to tell whether the plan is viable without conducting the study requested by the organizers.

“Many of the questions that I’ve heard around this table about the end result and the end goal of an actual co-op are questions that hopefully some of the answers would actually come out of the actual study, so not to do the study doesn’t get us the answers to the questions that I think are being raised at this moment,” Montgomery said.

Based on the information from the feasibility study, Montgomery said community members and foundations will have to determine whether it makes sense to move forward.

Councilman Robert Clark, the chairman of the finance committee and the only Republican on the city council, echoed MacIntosh’s skepticism.

“If you’re serious about addressing it, you need to peel the onion back and really ask: Why can this person not get groceries?” he said. “Is it they don’t have the money or they can’t get to the grocery store? And that’s what we need to address. I am reluctant for us or anyone else who is not in the grocery business, getting into it. We have a bad habit of encouraging people who do not know anything about an industry to get into it, and then it all blows up.”

Council members did not take a vote on the request, which was presented only for informational purposes.