Expectations, plans shift for Downtown Greensboro Inc.

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Lomax, Brame and Zimmerman

by Eric Ginsburg

Downtown booster and economic development organization Downtown Greensboro Inc. continues to go through changes as well as shifting expectations.

 Developer John Lomax sauntered into the meeting room on an upper floor of the Self Help Building, past the buffet of do-it-yourself tacos, and took up a seat at the back. Invited to sit at one of the tables arranged in a circle for the Downtown Greensboro Inc. board meeting, Lomax said he would be fine where he was. Moments later, the organization’s interim CEO Cyndy Hayworth walked around the room to greet him.

“I understand I may not be eligible for this,” he said to her as he stood.

“Well, you can observe,” she replied.

Shortly after, board chair Gary Brame joined Lomax at the rear table as newer developer Andy Zimmerman turned around in his chair and joined the huddle. [Photo above (L-R): Lomax, Brame and Zimmerman]

Lomax and Zimmerman had been appointed to Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s board by city council a few days before the May 21 meeting. Neither had been approved yet, and it turned out Lomax couldn’t serve according to the board’s bylaws because his last term was too recent.

The board meeting began with a closed session, for which staff and the two appointees had to wait in the hallway. Before long, someone came to pull Zimmerman in, but Lomax waited.

Brame explained after the meeting that Lomax is technically ineligible to serve until the end of 2015 based on when his previous board term ended, but said the executive committee is looking at tweaking the bylaws and may return with the full board with a recommended change that would allow Lomax to serve immediately. But Brame also expressed some frustration at the whole process.

“These nominations were requested from the city council in December of last year,” he said, noting that names didn’t arrive until mid-May.

A month ago, Mayor Nancy Vaughan took the blame for the delay in an interview with Triad City Beat.

“Quite frankly, I think we just put it aside for the moment,” she said.

Vaughan had been critical of the lack of diversity on the organization’s proposed board in December, urging a subcommittee to come back with a new slate of candidates. She maintained, up until as recently as a month ago, that the city council’s appointment would also work towards creating a more racially diverse board. But Vaughan’s two recommendations, Zimmerman and Lomax, are both white men with multi-million-dollar holdings downtown.

Initially council only had one seat to fill, but downtown resident Theresa Yon recently resigned from the board due to a conflict of interest, Brame said. Vaughan recently learned that her first choice for the council appointment is actually moving to Ohio, but she said much has changed in the last month.

“The discussions about DGI have been evolving pretty quickly over the past two weeks,” she said. “I agree that maybe the city should defund DGI and have it be self-sufficient, and if it’s going to be self-sufficient than it should really be run by the property owners.”

And that’s why she proposed Zimmerman and Lomax, she said.

“I think Andy is a fresh voice for downtown,” she said. “He’s doing a lot of cool things. He’s taken a lot of risks. This is going to be a transition. It’s not something that can be done exactly this year. It’s one step in the process.”

Zimmerman, who runs AZ Development, is the man behind renovations to buildings that now house Gibb’s Hundred Brewing, the Forge makerspace, Preyer Brewing, Crafted: the Art of Street Food and a few projects underway including HQ Greensboro co-working space. Vaughan said Lomax is a good choice because he had been a board member and later a critic of the organization.

“Quite frankly I was looking at large property owners, people who had been engaged as downtown had started to turn,” Vaughan said. “DGI at its inception was doing really good things. This is a critical time.”

And when it comes to large property owners downtown, the pool is overwhelmingly white and male, a shortcoming of previous boards that many critics argued made it unrepresentative of downtown. Vaughan admitted that she had tried to come up with a woman — besides Dawn Chaney who is already on the board — or a minority property owner but the ownership of downtown didn’t leave her much choice.

Zimmerman had previously said to TCB that he wouldn’t serve on the board, but said last week that the “dysfunctional leadership” of the organization is gone now. Plus, the mayor asked him to serve, he said.

“Things have changed and they’re going to change even more,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference in other ways, but now I think I can help.”

Downtown Greensboro Inc. CEO Jason Cannon departed suddenly in January, shortly after past board chair Sam Simpson left the organization, citing time constraints.

The organization’s May 21 board meeting also highlighted significant changes for DGI.

Though $50,000 had been allocated in the existing budget for a streetscape plan — one of the major efforts that DGI held onto after dramatically reducing its scope at a board retreat a year ago — that effort has been dropped, Hayworth said.

At the meeting, she suggested putting it towards a broader effort to create vibrant, painted sidewalks in a few places downtown before the National Folk Festival in September. Hayworth said she would bring the idea with details back to the board for a vote in June. She also proposed that $20,000 set aside for improvements before the large festival go to hanging streetlights across West Lewis Street, a poorly lit area by Gibb’s Hundred Brewing and Lotus Lounge, among other businesses.

DGI’s marketing plans have shifted as well, with Hayworth explaining to the board that they have had three meetings with the city and now plan to coordinate together as well as use the city’s in-house team to create a 12 to 16-page sales packet for downtown. She estimated it could be complete by the first week of July and could be as cheap as $6,000.

There are internal changes at DGI too: The staff is down one full-time position after abandoning its long-pursued parklets initiative that would’ve installed tiny parks in parking spaces downtown, an urbanist idea that has taken root in plenty of other cities.

And it’s still searching for a new CEO, though a finalist has been selected. Councilman Zack Matheny, who represents District 3, is among the remaining candidates for the position. The councilman said it is premature to talk about what he would do if offered the job, but eventually said he would resign from his council seat.

“I imagine that it would be appropriate for somebody to fill my remaining term,” he said in an interview, adding that he may not run in the election this fall even if he isn’t selected. “I have long discussed whether I would run again or not. That decision is pretty imminent.”

Because his application is pending, Matheny abstained from the vote approving Vaughan’s nominations to the DGI board. The decision passed council 8-0.

Brame said the search committee has selected a finalist out of a winnowed pool of candidates but would not say whether their selection is local or even from North Carolina. The finalist has been notified, Brame said.

“We’re not putting a lot of pressure on them,” Brame said, as far as when they must accept or decline the offer. “We asked them to come back to us some time in the month of June to be able to negotiate.”

Vaughan, who is a non-voting member of the search committee, said 15 people applied from nine states. Matheny, her colleague on council, offered a possibly veiled account about where things stand.

“I haven’t received anything from DGI, like a contract or anything like that,” Matheny said.