by Eric Ginsburg
Two months in, Zack Matheny is charting a dramatically different course for Downtown Greensboro Inc.
It was Zack Matheny’s fourth time in Urban Grinders coffeeshop in a week, he said as he sat on a couch in the café on Sept. 3, and it was only a Thursday.
Only two months have passed since Matheny resigned from the Greensboro City Council, where he represented a portion of downtown, to run Downtown Greensboro Inc. The economic development and downtown booster organization has had no shortage of detractors in recent years, including a few of its former board members, and a year ago at this time, Matheny was one of the biggest.
The 42-year old criticized the direction and leadership of the organization both broadly and specifically, including after a shooting incident not far from two downtown nightclubs. Now that he’s taken the helm, he is driven to make sure he doesn’t let anyone down.
A black Fitbit fitness watch around his wrist keeps track of his sleep — he’s averaging just over four hours a night lately. In the mornings he’d been coming into Urban Grinders, a new coffee shop and art gallery that opened just a few days prior, for a much-needed coffee. Most days are like this one, he said, where by mid-afternoon he’d only spent an hour in his office, though he expected he’d crash over the upcoming Labor Day weekend.
Matheny always said his predecessor needed to be out walking the streets of Greensboro’s downtown more, constantly engaging with residents, business owners and visitors and implementing improvements. His four trips to Urban Grinders are part of that, as is his aim to buy something wherever he goes.
Julia Roach, his 23-year-old new marketing hire who graduated from NC State University just like he did, seemed to be taking Matheny’s cue. Thirty minutes after Matheny sat down at the café on Sept. 3, Roach walked in for a meeting with Hillary Meredith of Action Greensboro designed to strengthen the relationship between the two groups that have only loosely collaborated lately despite similar aims.
Matheny brought a folder with him, which among other things includes a list of 74 things that he is actively working on in his capacity as the head of Downtown Greensboro Inc. He’s bitten off a lot — that may be part of what keeps him up at night, along with the countless new ideas for things he wants to initiate — but he loves his job and appears eternally upbeat.
At Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s most recent board meeting on Aug. 27, Matheny ran through many of those new ideas. Some, like a building façade grant program, are things the organization used to do that he’d like to bring back. Others, like an idea to give away downtown gift cards to drive people into the center city while capturing their contest entrants’ contact info for future mailings, are new. At the meeting, Matheny barreled through them almost like a kid reading out a Christmas wishlist.
There may be two new restaurateurs coming from Charlotte, including a breakfast project, new construction planned and more than 15 economic development projects, he said.
“Hopefully all of your stores will have great new neighbors soon,” Matheny said to his board, which is comprised of many business and property owners.
He’s implemented new weekly meetings with the city to discuss infrastructure needs like street resurfacing, and he’s pushing for a new parking deck somewhere like the lot next to M’Couls. In an interview, he added that he hopes that plans to make all of Greene Street two ways will move forward by the end of the year after a final signoff by neighbors at Lincoln Financial.
The changes at the organization extend to the staff. Two employees on the team have left in recent months, one right before Matheny’s arrival for a higher paying position, he said. Only the chief financial officer and Cyndy Hayworth — who came on to fill the new position of director of operations less than a year ago — remain. Matheny quickly hired Roach, who started last month, and brought on an intern from UNCG to help with research.
“When you come into an organization, sometimes you have to realign,” Matheny said, declining to elaborate on the details of the other recent employee departure.
Even the organization’s logo has changed; now it’s a much simpler, just a black “G.” And Matheny wants the organization to move into a street-level office, something that had been originally set as a goal to be reached by 2001 but that he sees as part of a reenergized effort to be accessible and engage people in downtown.
Much remains to be seen. Matheny’s list is long, covering everything from an idea of hiring homeless people as ambassadors to help direct unwanted activity out of downtown including public urination to a vision for more public art projects. He wants to bring back the scuttled parklet idea — they’re mini-public parks temporarily set up in parking spaces — likely in front of Mellow Mushroom, and maybe revive the idea of a rubber-tire trolley from several years ago.
At a strategic retreat just over a year ago, the organization’s board decided to stop focusing on events and several other things it hoped to support in favor of drilling down to several top economic-development priorities. Matheny has scrapped that — he wants Downtown Greensboro Inc. to support more events, now fewer. As far as he’s concerned, they can do it all, as long as they prioritize and work strategically.
Under his leadership, Downtown Greensboro Inc. will join the downtown holiday parade, float and all. And there are several accomplishments or changes already under his belt, including a decision to rejoin the International Downtown Association for guidance and ideas, fence wraps depicting art to beautify blight in advance of the National Folk Festival, personally helping to paint an artistic crosswalk in front of the central library and the installation of new downtown signs.
Matheny also played what he described as an “integral” role in the deal for developer Andy Zimmerman to put the former Lotus Lounge property under contract after the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old club-goer outside less than a week earlier. During his tenure on council, Matheny pushed for a downtown teen curfew and an entertainment security ordinance in response to violence, often leading the way with what some called a heavy-handed approach to public safety. His more diplomatic and behind-the-scenes work that may lead to the sale of the Lotus property demarcates a different tack.
And it isn’t the only meeting he’s arranged out of the public eye; Matheny also bought beer at Beer Co., the downtown bottle shop, and brought it over to the CityView apartments for a casual conversations with millennials about downtown. He aims to do the same with twenty and thirtysomethings at the Greenway at Fisher Park apartments on the other end of downtown to gain valuable feedback at a later date.
He’s in more meetings now than during his time on city council, Matheny said, and he’s figuring out how to “block and tackle.” Right now he feels like he’s building the foundation, setting the tone and prioritizing, and soon more implementation will begin.
The real measure of his success likely won’t be apparent until a year from now, but his attitude and ideas already signal a change for Downtown Greensboro Inc.
“This organization needs to have fun,” he said at the board meeting.
In college, Matheny always wanted to be around all the fun, he said in an interview, which is why downtown appeals to him so much.
“I don’t want to miss anything,” he added. “When you have this strong a passion, it’s hard to train it. Now I’ve got the opportunity to do that.”