East Greensboro study approved, but many questions remain

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by Eric Ginsburg

A Greensboro City Council subcommittee approved a plan for east Greensboro on Monday, but some of the most fundamental questions about the city’s role in developing that part of the city remain undetermined.

Fresh off a trip to Tampa, Fla. for a National Forum for Black Public Administrators conference, a couple city council members on the east Greensboro study committee appeared short on sleep but still made it to the Monday morning committee meeting.

After a joke that “What happens in Tampa stays in Tampa,” District 1 Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who chairs the subcommittee, offered this: “Gators. That’s all you need to know.”

Later after Councilman Jamal Fox murmured “sly fox,” Mayor Nancy Vaughan referenced a recent trip she participated in, quipping about how checked-out her colleagues seemed.

“We did not come back from Chattanooga like this,” she said. “I just want to go on record.”

Hightower continued the playful banter: “We’re just so heavy with knowledge; it just loaded us down.”

But despite the lighthearted and somewhat mysterious exchanges, the subcommittee did move forward after a three-month hiatus.

“We have minutes from our last meeting, which was so long ago that I don’t even remember when it was,” Hightower said, referring to meeting minutes from the committee’s Jan. 28 gathering. “Have they been read, honestly?”

After a few councilmembers said no, Hightower provided a moment for review before calling for a vote.

More significantly, the subcommittee, which consists of Vaughan, Hightower, Fox and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson — who also traveled to Florida but kept her comments to Monday’s agenda — approved an expansive east Greensboro study plan. The plan outlines a myriad of ways to potentially encourage and foster development in the city’s eastern half through economic opportunity, education, community pride and quality of life initiatives.

Though only minor tweaks were made to the plan since the committee’s January meeting, Assistant City Manager David Parrish said a March meeting to formally approve the plan had to be canceled due to scheduling and council had been unable to find a time to meet until Monday.

The plan goes into significant detail about various approaches to the four focus areas, particularly economic development, and incorporates a range of short-term and long-term concepts. Parrish said he hopes the plan could be approved by the full city council this fiscal year, meaning that some of the components could start to roll out in just a few months.

But before that can happen, there is still much that remains undecided.

“There are a lot of strategies in here,” Parrish said in his presentation to the committee on Monday. “Some of them we will not do, we can not do, so who will our partners be?”

And he went on to identify even bigger questions: What will be the priorities out of a long list of concepts that ranges from community volunteers cleaning neighborhoods to land-banking and leveraging private investment in focused areas? The city will have to figure out timelines, how much to tackle, identify and recruit community partners, establish roles and responsibilities, allocate resources and more, Parrish said.

Hightower said after the meeting that instead of disbanding now that the study is complete, the subcommittee should continue for the foreseeable future to guide the process forward.

“This committee should set those priorities,” she said. “This committee will stay together until east Greensboro is Greensboro. We can’t just do this piece and walk away.”

Hightower then turned to Parrish, suggesting that addressing misperceptions about crime rates should be a part of efforts to sell people and businesses on east Greensboro, adding that she’d like to set a date for the next meeting.

Some of the ideas in the east Greensboro study plan tie into work the city is already doing, including efforts to address housing.

Council members expressed significant interest in land-banking during the meeting, and Parrish said city staff attended a training in Boston on the issue since the committee’s January meeting. Staff has also talked with the city of High Point about a possible partnership and plans to discuss foreclosed properties with the county soon as well, he said, adding that other cities in states that have enabling state legislation — unlike North Carolina — have land-banked effectively. The city is looking at options to potentially purchase, maintain and resell vacant, abandoned or foreclosed properties in targeted areas as a way to turn areas around.

The idea would connect to other ongoing efforts to address housing in the city, and Neighborhood Development Department Director Barbara Harris said her department will also soon suggest two ideas to council along those lines. One, a “property reclamation program,” would give a property owner going through condemnation the option to grant the city some level of control of the property as a way to ultimately resell it. With a targeted approach in east Greensboro neighborhoods like Old Asheboro and Arlington Park, Harris said the city could have a significant and measurable effect.

Councilmembers, including those apparently still recovering from Tampa, still had plenty of questions and suggestions about various elements of the plan and despite the exhaustion of some, appeared eager to move forward and begin identifying priorities. And council may decide that a partnership with the East Market Street Development Corp., an organization that presented at the Monday meeting and that is considering a name change to reflect all of east Greensboro, is a logical next step once the full council approves the plan, Parrish said.

But even that will take time.

“We realize that there’s a lot of work to be done, but we hope that this is a good framework to move forward,” Parrish told the subcommittee.