by Eric Ginsburg
A combative Greensboro City Council work session last week illuminated a rift on council around economic development and budgetary issues, including the Cascade Saloon.
By the time the Greensboro City Council reached the second item on its work-session agenda last week, the tone had already been set. A rancorous debate about allocating funding for a startup business accelerator veered widely off topic, and any hopes that the discussion around the Cascade Saloon would move more smoothly were quickly abandoned.
The city acquired the historic saloon in April after years of battling its landlords to do something to restore the dilapidated property, which stands between two rail lines near the downtown intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and South Elm Street.
Council is faced with two options: Figure out a way to restore the property or tear it down. Because of the proximity to the rail lines, demolition would mean the lot would remain vacant in perpetuity.
The city requested bids to determine the cost of restoring or demolishing the saloon, the cheapest of which came in at $700,000-$800,000 and $600,000 respectively, Assistant City Manager David Parrish told city council.
But the nonprofit Preservation Greensboro presented the city with a third option. With $175,000 from the city to help cover costs, Preservation Greensboro asked the city to convey the property to it so the organization could use private partnerships to restore the saloon.
To Councilman Zack Matheny, it seemed impossible to understand why council wouldn’t jump at the opportunity, saving itself upwards of $425,000, preserving a historic African-American business in the process, returning the property to the tax roll and turning over liability. But several council members didn’t see it that way.
“We… are not good landlords,” Matheny said, citing the Renaissance Shopping Center in northeast Greensboro as an example. “Financially for the city this is a lot better deal than we had initially anticipated.”
Obviously exasperated, Matheny asked council members what they wanted to see happen with the building. He didn’t get a direct answer, except from Councilman Jamal Fox, who said earlier in the meeting that he is sick of people coming to council with a hand out.
“I’m comfortable with gifting the building to Preservation Greensboro but I’m not comfortable with giving them the money,” he said.
After the meeting, Fox said in an interview that he would like to see Preservation Greensboro come up with the rest of the money privately. If the organization refused his suggestion or was unable to do so, Fox said he wants staff to exhaust all possible strategies first rather than jumping on the first offer.
“I’m just making sure we’re very thoughtful on what we’re doing,” he said. “Don’t scare me by saying we have to demo something for $600,000.”
The price of demolition nearly doubled from the first round of requests for proposals, Parrish said, but Matheny noted that all demolition figures still dwarfed Preservation Greensboro’s proposal.
Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who was antagonistic towards the proposal from the beginning, said she wasn’t sure why expected demolition costs were so high when the city only had to pay $35,000 to tear down the Greensboro Inn.
Parrish and Marsh Prause, Preservation Greensboro’s board chair, said several issues played into the high price, including requirements stemming from the building’s historic nature, an adjoining wall to another building, the proximity of the railroad and more. DH Griffin, the company that demolished the inn, didn’t bid on the saloon, Parrish said.
There are other things that make restoration of the Cascade Saloon unique, like the fact that there are two 1950s Jaguars in the basement and an old printing press, Prause said.
City staff appeared to recommend the deal, which Parrish said would provide the benefit of restoration more cheaply than demolition. And he said people are tired of the process taking so long.
“This is something that I know I’ve been on since I’ve been here,” Parrish said.
City Manager Jim Westmoreland, who remained quiet for most of the discussion, chimed in to say that hopefully the plan would turn the Cascade Saloon into a tax-producing site for the city as opposed to losing that potential revenue forever.
“This is probably the best proposal we’ve seen so far,” he said.
Several council members remained highly skeptical.
Hightower repeatedly raised concerns that restoration would block traffic to the Worx and the planned Spice Cantina on Barnhardt Street, though Prause assured her that the contractors Preservation Greensboro is talking to believe they could restore the saloon from the inside and could complete it in six months.
Hightower wasn’t buying it.
“The answers that Marsh [Prause] gave were too vague,” she said later. “I’d like to really talk to the people that claim they can preserve it. If I had to make a decision today I would probably say, ‘Tear it down.’”
Hightower said Preservation Greensboro’s work on homes it owns in Glenwood, which is in her district, has moved too slowly and that she isn’t confident that it would move expeditiously on the saloon. That’s a big concern considering that the historic Kilby Hotel in High Point, which she said she was involved with trying to preserve, collapsed unexpectedly just as restoration plans ramped up.
Even if all her questions were answered, Hightower said she isn’t sure she would support the $175,000 figure.
“I don’t even know if I’m okay with the numbers,” she said. “I’m tired of numbers being thrown at me. Is it really $600,000 to tear it down? I don’t know where all these numbers are coming from and I think we need a better description of the numbers.”
Councilman Tony Wilkins, who appeared to be against Preservation Greensboro’s proposal in the meeting, said afterwards in an interview that he is open to the idea but is concerned about cost and negotiating the best deal for the city.
“My whole thing is tweaking,” he said, “and I just want to see if we can tweak this.”
By the end of the work session an air of civility returned to the room, as council members made convivial comments and even a joke about the earlier tension, but they still seemed gridlocked, with few alternatives proposed.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann appeared supportive of the deal with Preservation Greensboro, along with Matheny. Councilman Mike Barber was not in attendance.
Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said in an interview that she would like to save the saloon but added that the building is already in bad shape. As she did earlier in the work session, she emphasized that the city is strapped for cash.
“I really think more private donors should step up for things like this,” she said. “Monetarily we’re not in the same financial situation as when we started talking about it. A lot has changed since them. I’m not trying to be doom and gloom, but it’s starting to be a major concern. If we had the money I’d love to help everybody but I don’t think we have it.”
Abuzuaiter said that given an unforeseen budget deficit created by the state revoking the city’s ability to collect business license fees, she is concerned about the city’s ability to deliver basic functions in the future.
“It’s going to be scary times,” she said.