Clashing political sensibilities surrounding the impending inauguration of President-elect Trump have erupted into acrimony among two prominent business owners in the Battleground Avenue entertainment corridor.
When Geeksboro Coffee & Beverage Co. owner Joe Scott received a visit from Capt. Keith Roberson, an inspector with the Greensboro Fire Department, early Thursday afternoon, he immediately suspected it had something to do with a Facebook controversy earlier in the week about a business competitor’s potential involvement in festivities to celebrate the inauguration of President-elect Trump.
Scott acknowledges that he shared a Facebook status update from a person identified as Paisley Parque that took aim at Red Cinemas, a theater owned by Marty Kotis, a developer who owns and manages a stable of high-concept restaurants in the city.
“I used to love Red Cinemas, until I found out that the family that owns the theater are huge supporters of Donald Trump and HB 2,” Parque wrote in a review of the theater and separately as a status update, both of which have since been taken down. “They are holding an inauguration viewing party at the theater. I refuse to support a local business that doesn’t support the GLBT community. There are plenty of other theaters in the Triad that we can support. I wish the folks that owned this theater never sold it to these people. The Janus & Terrace were the best ever.”
Scott also took down his post after learning that the inauguration watch party wouldn’t be held at Red Cinemas after all.
Kotis characterized the Facebook post as completely false, and also said he had nothing to do with the fire inspector’s visit to Geeksboro.
“The main message [of the Facebook post] is that I’m a huge Trump supporter,” Kotis said. “I didn’t give a dime. I didn’t put up a sign for him. I am a Ben Carson supporter. I don’t hide who I give money to. I’m very open about who I support and don’t support…. I believe in less government, I believe in less taxes over all.”
Kotis has been a reliable campaign contributor to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and other Republican members of the Guilford County delegation, including Sen. Trudy Wade and Rep. Jon Hardister, who voted in favor of the controversial HB 2 in March 2016. Berger also voted to put a referendum changing the state constitution to restrict marriage to a man and a woman on the 2012 primary ballot. Wade and Hardister were not members of the General Assembly at the time. Kotis himself has not taken any public position on either HB 2 or the 2012 marriage amendment.
Kotis also donates to members of the nonpartisan Greensboro City Council, including both progressive and conservative members.
Kotis said the Guilford County Republican Party looked into renting out Red Cinemas for its inauguration watch party, but ultimately decided they weren’t likely to draw enough people to justify the expense and decided instead to hold the event at their headquarters on High Point Road. [Kotis followed up later to clarify that the reason the event wasn’t held at the venue was because the party couldn’t specify a number of attendees and there was a scheduling conflict.] In any case, he said he doesn’t understand what the big deal was: He would consider renting his venue to any entity, including the Guilford County Democratic Party, that met the legal requirements and financial requirements, adding that the inauguration is a national event.
Meanwhile, the Idiot Box, which is leasing the basement theater under Geeksboro from Scott, is holding a “Trump Roast,” a comedy event based built around a classic celebrity roast, on Jan. 13.
Scott said Capt. Roberson told him during his visit on Thursday that he had received a complaint about potential code violations related to the Idiot Box’s use of the Geeksboro basement theater. The inspection resulted in a small fine, Scott said, but no major violations. “They dinged me on a couple small thing,” Scott said, “the way he always do.”
When Scott questioned the timing of the visit, Roberson divulged that his supervisor told him the inspection had been instigated by a call from Greensboro City Councilman Tony Wilkins, the only Republican who serves on the nonpartisan body.
Wilkins told Triad City Beat he had received a phone call from a constituent who was concerned about whether Geeksboro was in compliance, and in turn he called fire Chief Bobby Nugent, asking him to check to see whether everything was in compliance. Wilkins declined to reveal the identity of the person who asked him to look into the matter.
Scott said he thought it was strange that a city council member would call the fire department to follow up on a complaint by a third party.
“I just imagine if someone asked Tony to order a pizza, he would give them the number of Domino’s, if not hang up on them outright,” Scott said.
After the inspector’s visit, Scott called Wilkins. Scott was irate from the beginning of the conversation. When Wilkins refused to disclose the identity of the complainant, Scott said he told Wilkins he thought his position was “cowardly.”
“He told me if I was 10 years younger I would not be standing after I said something like that,” Scott recalled. “I told him to get a time machine.”
Wilkins said he doesn’t recall that those were the exact words, but conceded it was “something similar.”
Wilkins said there’s nothing unusual about him getting a phone call from a constituent and then calling the relevant staff member to pass along a concern. As an example, he said, he recently received a call from a barber located in the same shopping center as Geeksboro about traffic concerns at the intersection of Cornwallis Drive, Battleground Avenue and Lawndale Drive and relayed it to Transportation Director Adam Fischer.
City Manager Jim Westmoreland said council members’ decision to contact staff directly in response to constituent concerns is a matter of discretion and judgment. In one instance, he said, a council member’s decision to contact the water department directly about a water leak instead of suggesting the constituent contact city staff probably expedited the city’s response and prevented a more significant problem from developing.
“Every situation is different,” Westmoreland said. “At the end of the day, it goes down to the judgment and discretion of the council member based on what they’re hearing from the citizen or complainant, whether they feel they need to follow up directly with staff in the event that it may be a public safety issue or direct the citizen to call the relevant staff person if it’s deemed less urgent.”
Wilkins said in no way was his decision to ask the fire department to inspect Geeksboro motivated by his feelings about Scott’s opposition to Trump.
In the aftermath of the Facebook incident and surprise visit from the fire inspector to Geeksboro, both Scott and Kotis portray themselves as champions of the First Amendment.
“Rather than dealing with dissent they just want it to evaporate,” Scott said. “I guess the lesson I should take away is that more inspectors will show up at my business if I don’t shut up.”
Scott said Parque’s Facebook post resonated with him, in part, because of the history of Red Cinema before Kotis acquired it.
“The reason I was particularly irked by the Trump watch party is because during its last 10 years as the Carousel, the theater was propped up by the hard work of a Muslim family; they worked as a projectionist, ushers and cashiers,” Scott said. “For that place to be turned into a rallying place for a man who ran on an openly anti-Muslim and openly racist platform disgusts me.”
Kotis said the spirit of the old Janus Theatre is intact, citing Red Cinema’s lineup of LGBT-related films as evidence. He said Red Cinemas is currently developing a LGBT film festival with the Guilford Green Foundation. The foundation’s executive director, Nancy Vaughan, is also the city’s mayor. In the latter role, she’s been the beneficiary of Kotis’ spending on political campaigns.
“The spirit of the Carousel and the Janus are more alive now than ever,” Kotis said. “While we’re facing criticism you should look at the film lineup — we take criticism for our LGBT films that we run. I think both the media and the studios and artistic endeavors should always first seek to protect First Amendment rights. That’s the absolute gold standard of what you protect.”