Downtown Greensboro Inc. board purges critics

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by Eric Ginsburg

Downtown Greensboro Inc. confirmed a new board that won’t include two members who went against the grain. Some board members abstained from the vote saying they lacked adequate information.

As Eric Robert and Simonne McClinton see it, the board of Downtown Greensboro Inc. is just window dressing. All the real power lies with the executive committee, they said, and the rest of the board is just there to rubber-stamp its choices. And now that board doesn’t even include them, the two members who routinely questioned the organization’s direction and process.

At its monthly meeting on Jan. 15, the board approved the addition of six new board members. Robert and McClinton’s terms were up, though they were each eligible to continue and publicly expressed interest in doing so. The Greensboro City Council still needs to appoint somebody to a seventh open seat.

Sam Simpson, the outgoing board chair, was scheduled to continue serving in a seat held for the past board chair but officially resigned, citing professional time restraints. New board chair Gary Brame of Jules Antiques said an exception to board rules was made to allow past chair and developer Dawn Chaney to remain in the role given Simpson’s departure.

Three board members — Brittany Atkinson, Mark Hewett and Tom Philion — abstained from approving the slate, while McClinton and Robert cast the only opposing votes before leaving the meeting. Brame said that while the board didn’t make an issue out of it, abstentions aren’t actually allowed unless there is a conflict of interest and that they are recorded as affirmative votes.

Atkinson, a recent UNCG graduate, said she is disappointed that McClinton wasn’t included in the slate, adding that female business owners are now underrepresented on the board. Of the six newly confirmed members, only one is a woman. Atkinson also would’ve liked to see Robert continue his marketing campaign, but abstained from the vote because of a lack of information, adding that she only saw the proposed board list the day of the vote.

“I didn’t feel like we were educated on what the list was,” Atkinson said. “I think [my abstention] is the Quaker in me wanting to encourage more discussion.”

Hewett, who owns Area Modern Furniture on South Elm Street, said he didn’t know much of anything about who was on the slate or why they were chosen. The full board only received information about the proposed changes a few days before last week’s meeting, Hewett said, even though the meeting had been postponed for a month.

Considering how much Robert did for the organization with his marketing campaign, Hewett said, he finds it hard to understand why Robert wasn’t asked back.

“Eric did a great job and I just feel like his good work should be recognized and I think he would’ve been a real benefit going forward,” Hewett said. “Out of all the people in that room, he was the most creative and did the most positive that actually happened. If I could give Eric my seat I’d do it any day of the week because he’s done way more than I’ve done.”

The whole affair makes Hewett wonder if DGI is “really going forward,” agreeing that it is a problem to have a small portion of the board making the decisions.

“What’s the point of the board if it’s just a few people [deciding]?” he said.

Hewett also wondered aloud if city council would use its appointment on the board to reinstall Robert. Mayor Nancy Vaughan said council will use its spot on the board to improve diversity, adding that diversity expands beyond race to include other components such as age and thought.

“I’ve got a few names but none that I’m willing to talk about at this moment because we haven’t talked to them yet,” she said.

As for Hewett’s question, Vaughan said it “could be a consideration but there will be other candidates under consideration as well.”

“I hate that the board couldn’t work something out with [Eric Robert] because I think what he worked out for the marketing plan was very important,” Vaughan continued. “I’m not sure how the marketing plan would move forward at this point. I was surprised that Simonne wasn’t asked back, too.”

Brame and past board chair Dawn Chaney both did not comment directly on the decision not to invite McClinton and Robert to return.

“It’s hard to talk about,” Brame said, adding that it is a personnel issue and he isn’t supposed to say anything about it. “I hesitate to respond to the public statements that they made. The comments about diversity were totally unfounded.”

Two of the six new board members are black, Brame said, and the board worked hard to be fair and diverse. After Vaughan expressed concern that the initial slate lacked diversity, the nominating committee returned to the drawing board and Brame said he offended a friend by rescinding an offer to serve on the board, saying it was a necessary sacrifice in favor of diversity.

While applauding the board’s new diversity, Chaney declined to say anything about Robert and McClinton explicitly but offered general thoughts.

“I can tell you the committee, we had a long discussion about every member of the board,” she said. “I know that’s a nebulous statement. It’s sort of like a team player. You’ve got to have them all on the team. Our goal is to get more people involved… and we want people who are really committed to developing our center city. That’s the critical thing.”

Brame also said he had been surprised to read about McClinton and Robert’s concerns about the board’s lack of diversity in Triad City Beat, adding that they hadn’t expressed the issue to him or DGI President Jason Cannon. Cannon could not be reached for comment.

The new board includes Mark Gibb of Gibb’s Hundred Brewing, downtown resident Paula Pierce, small-property owner Marsh Prause, small-property owner James “Smitty” Smith, Lotus club owner Paul Talley and Brian Wise of the Carroll Companies.

Some of the openings were created by board members hitting the six-year service limit, including Al Leonard of the Carroll Companies. Downtown resident Teresa Yon was invited to return despite missing several meetings last year.

“They’re definitely stacking it up to get the desired outcome,” Robert said, naming Yon specifically.

Brame said Yon missed too many meetings but said it is up to the board chair’s discretion — then Sam Simpson — whether to let an absentee member continue. Brame, who said Yon is a client of his at the antique store and had been in that morning, said he knows she was on vacation and had legitimate personal reasons for her absences, but said he pointedly asked her if she would be able to attend going forward and could actively participate and that she said yes.

Vaughan takes issue with a procedure that could be unevenly enforced.

“I think board members have to meet a standard and that includes showing up for meetings and working on committees,” she said, “and I don’t think that should be at anybody’s discretion.”

McClinton said it is emblematic of what is happening on the board.

“DGI does not want our opinions,” she said. “They don’t want board members to rock the boat.”

The executive committee operates in isolation, she said. In more than two years on the board, McClinton said she didn’t have any one-on-one discussions with an executive committee member, or Cannon, with one exception, that she didn’t initiate. That’s in sharp contrast to her experience on ArtsGreensboro’s board where members are in regular, healthy communication, she said.

Robert said he tried his best to contribute something positive to the board and downtown but at this point, he is tired of talking about DGI.

“It’s an organization that is backtracking,” Robert said. “Gary Brame and Dawn Chaney made all decisions last year, and this year they will keep going and making all the decisions with a more amiable board. It’s wrong on so many levels, and again, they take my money. If they didn’t take my money they could do whatever they want, but they do. The fact that the city is letting DGI get away with this and that they’re putting the civil rights museum under the microscope is a little messed up.”

[Photo above: Tom Philion, Brittany Atkinson, Gary Brame and Mark Hewett at a DGI board meeting. Philion, Atkinson and Hewett abstained from a vote on the new board members last week, and Brame became the organization’s board chair.]