by Eric Ginsburg
In the wake of a shakeup on Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s board, there are already rumblings about kicking off a new board member.
Eric Robert is the kind of person who doesn’t hesitate to say exactly what he’s thinking. Robert speaks truth to power at city council meetings or on his blog: It is part of who he is.
In a city like Greensboro with its veneer of civility, it can be unsettling to some. Others say his remarks are too personal in nature. It’s not clear exactly what Robert said this time, but just a few months into his tenure on Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s board, there may already be plans to force him out.
The economic development nonprofit, which receives significant funding from the city, has been vague about its exact role in downtown, council members and other critics have said, and is in the process of redefining its focus to be more visionary.
Robert, the owner of the old Daily Bread Flour Mill complex downtown, said Mayor Nancy Vaughan called on March 21 telling him: “DGI is working on a resolution to kick me off the board because of my blocking tendencies.” Robert suggested some board members might be afraid he would repeat or criticize what they said on his blog.
There is no date set for a vote on involuntarily excusing Robert, and several board members said they hope the issue never comes up despite some movement in that direction.
Members of the board reached for comment said they either didn’t know who was behind the effort to oust Robert or declined to name names. Vaughan said she first heard about a possible move to remove Robert last week but said she couldn’t recall who first told her because she’s had so many conversations with board members at this point.
“I really don’t know ‘who is behind it,’” Vaughan said. “I think it had just reached a critical mass.”
Vaughan said she isn’t even sure there is a process in the organization’s bylaws that allows for it.
“It’s never been done before and I don’t think it’s something that should be done casually,” she said. “On the other hand I think Eric has to realize that words have consequences. Everybody has to own their words.”
Vaughan is a non-voting member of the board, and she played a strong role in helping to restructure the organization last year. It’s important for the board to work through this and look forward, she said, particularly with a strategic retreat early next month.
“For us to get back into the kind of situation we were in almost a year ago isn’t going to help us,” Vaughan said. “We need to find a way as an organization to find what our common goal is so we don’t spend the next six months beating each other up.”
Robert said he was only partially surprised to learn about his possible removal. In recent years he has been one of several critics of the organization, particularly what he characterizes as a lack of diversity and transparency, and a tendency to serve the interests of an elite group of wealthy, white property owners.
“It certainly shows that they’re not willing to be transparent or honest,” he said. “[It] sends the message that if you’re against us we’ll take care of you. You can see the hypocrisy that we’re not all created equally downtown.”
If he is removed from the board, Robert said he wants his property to be taken out of the BID tax zone downtown, comparing the situation to taxation without representation. Prospect Brands, the parent company of Gerbings and Duck Head, recently announced it would move its headquarters to Robert’s renovated mill.
Robert was added to the board as a longtime critic of Downtown Greensboro Inc., after a major shakeup of the organization last year initiated by city council. President Ed Wolverton left the organization, newer and more diverse representatives were added to the board and meetings and expenditures became public, among other changes.
Brittany Atkinson, a 25-year old MBA student at UNCG who also works at the school, is among the new additions. Nominated by friend and freshman Councilman Jamal Fox, who is also 25, Atkinson said she is hopeful that Downtown Greensboro Inc. is headed in the right direction but that a vote to remove Robert concerns her.
“My sense is that we’re kind of getting mired down in the personality issues when we have a lot of potential with this organization,” Atkinson said. “I’m hoping that we can look at what’s positive instead of pulling it back into something negative.”
Atkinson said she hopes the issue never comes up for a vote, adding that she and Vaughan have reached out to several members to encourage another solution to the tension. Over the weekend she spoke with new Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Jason Cannon and urged him to find a way to mend relationships and move the organization forward, Atkinson said. Cannon, who took the helm in October 2013, could not be reached for comment.
Board member and former chair Dawn Chaney, a real-estate developer, said she doesn’t know if holding such a vote would be wise but emphasized that nothing has been formally proposed.
“I would say that at this point it’s a decision that can only be made first by the executive committee if it even comes up, and it hasn’t, and then it would go to the full board,” Chaney said. “There’s always little rumbles about things but there’s no motion that’s been made. I don’t have an opinion at this point because I don’t know the details of what would be proposed.”
Chaney said she wasn’t sure that holding a vote on the issue would be wise but said she didn’t know “the feeling of the voting members.”
Simonne McClinton, a relatively new board member and the owner of M’Couls, said discussion about removing Robert from the board is “very disappointing.” Like Atkinson, McClinton said she is excited about the new direction and potential of Downtown Greensboro Inc., but not if Robert is shown the door.
“I knew he was very excited to serve and make a difference and help DGI come up with a new direction and also he’s been at every board meeting,” McClinton said. “I haven’t seen him misbehave.”
McClinton and Robert were part of a group of downtown business and property owners that formed the South Elm Alliance several years ago, partly due to what they said was a lack of responsiveness of Downtown Greensboro Inc. to people like them at the time.
In this case, the issue may be what Robert has posted about the board on his personal blog, how-do-you-say.blogspot.com, and the way he expresses himself.
“I think there are some cultural issues here,” Atkinson said, referring to Robert’s French heritage. “Being someone who has worked abroad and in different cultural situations… the way he is handling himself in person and on his blog is not uncommon in France but it’s not how you carry yourself here in the more conservative South.”
Robert offers recommendations for improving the organization on his blog, including recording meetings and other methods to improve transparency and creating a board that is more reflective of the city’s diversity.
“If someone does not like your ‘insolence’ in your questioning of their behavior, they will invoke some obscure motion only known to the seasoned non-profit professional deceivers, and instantly shut you up,” Robert wrote.
He also pens some biting criticism of individuals.
“Do not include The Sanders, Alstons, Carrolls or Carroll’s employees,” Robert wrote, because “they will only use their extensive experience and access to further penetrate us serfs.”
Last week, he shared some choice words for new board member and downtown resident Theresa Yon, who joined the board after a nomination by Councilman Tony Wilkins.
“It is worth noting that as much as I loathe her untalented, bigoted bourgeoisie wannabe ass, she belonged on the DGI board as much as I do since she lives in Center Pointe with her sidekick,” Robert posted on March 19.
Yon, a vocal supporter of recent noise ordinance restrictions that were promoted by Center Pointe owner Roy Carroll, declined to comment for this article. Al Leonard, the Carroll Companies employee on the board, could not be reached despite multiple calls.
Vaughan said some of the comments on his blog is likely why some people on the board want to give him the ax.
“You know obviously he didn’t do himself any favors by some of his blog posts and I think really that’s where it comes from,” Vaughan said. “It’s one thing to repeat what someone says, it’s another thing to disparage the person. I think it’s about style. You know not everybody is going to agree or disagree, but I do think it’s more about style.”
Robert said he should be able to speak his mind and be listened to by Downtown Greensboro Inc.
“You better believe that I have the right to talk,” he said. “I’ve earned that right, the moment that they took one of my dollars.”
Despite his frustrations, Robert added that Downtown Greensboro Inc. has made some significant improvements to the board and its process in the last year.
McClinton said the issues raised by Robert’s conflict with other board members predate his role on it and speak to a deeper issue with the way the entity functions.
“Often when you say something that seems to question the way things are done or the way things have always been done it feels very retaliatory,” she said. “They don’t want to be questioned about things. You get the sense if you ask a question that it’s not welcome and that you’re just supposed to show up and say yes to things. I’ve always gotten the sense that discussion is unwelcome.”
Some of the most recent conflict stemmed from a change in process, in which board’s executive committee made decisions about allocations of funds rather than being approved by the entire body as happened previously, McClinton said. There have been times in the past that McClinton said she questioned planned expenditures, such at $80,000 for newspaper corrals, but was concerned like Robert that funding was being approved without the full board’s support.
“It seems to me like we have a fiduciary responsibility to discuss how the money is spent and to vote on it,” she said.