New Downtown Greensboro Inc. leaders chart course

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Downtown Greensboro Inc. faltered in early 2015 with a board shakeup and a change in leadership; at its monthly meeting last week the board chair and interim president attempted to chart a path forward.

 

To say Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s board meeting last week was unrecognizable in comparison to the one at the end of 2014 would be an exaggeration, but several rapid changes radically altered the organization’s composition.

Board Chair Sam Simpson stepped down, citing professional reasons, and shortly after a slate of new board members was approved — a slate that excluded the board’s two most vocal critics — President/CEO Jason Cannon resigned, effective immediately. In the wake of the shakeup, Director of Operations Cyndy Hayworth, herself brand new to the job, assumed Cannon’s role on an interim basis.

But at the downtown-booster organization’s board meeting last week, Hayworth and new board Chair Gary Brame worked to set an agenda going forward while simultaneously introducing new and old board members to each other.

Unlike some meetings in 2014, in which the board struggled with attendance issues, everyone was present for the Feb. 19 meeting. Teresa Yon, a Center Pointe resident who missed several meetings last year causing a small dustup, made it to the January and February board meetings after promising her friend Brame she would be more actively engaged going forward.

The new board is slightly more racially diverse than its predecessor, after several people including Mayor Nancy Vaughan criticized a potential slate in December that lacked diversity. The current board consists of only five women in comparison to 13 men, though with Hayworth at the helm the organization’s staff consists of four women and one man.

Matheny at the DGI board meeting
Matheny at the DGI board meeting

Though there has been considerable change to Downtown Greensboro Inc. in the last two months, more is on the horizon. Brame opened the meeting by announcing the formation of a search committee to replace Cannon, adding that it will include non-board members. After the meeting, Greensboro City Councilman Zack Matheny — council’s liaison to the board — told Triad City Beat that he would apply for the position. But Hayworth, who noted at the meeting that she was a mere 35 days into her position, said she would not seek the head role on a permanent basis.

There was some evidence at the meeting that the board’s executive committee took criticism from previous board members Eric Robert and Simonne McClinton to heart, who were not asked to return for second terms on the board last month. McClinton, who owns M’Couls, had been particularly outspoken about the lack of a board orientation when she joined. Brame announced at the meeting last week that new board members had gone through an orientation the week before and received orientation booklets.

But deeper issues raised by McClinton, Robert and other board members about feeling excluded from decision-making appeared to persist.

Brame pushed the board to accept a multi-page board-member contract, and when several members raised concerns that they couldn’t ratify it without first obtaining consent from their employers, Brame stumbled but attempted to push forward anyway. Seemingly unsure of the procedure, Brame asked about how or if the board could move forward with a decision, saying he really wanted to approve the contract that day. After some confusion and back and forth, the board approved the contract for members without individually signing on to its requirements.

The contract states that board members will not miss more than two meetings unexcused and will “actively participate in fundraising activity.” Two components appeared to be a direct outgrowth of conflict between Robert and the executive committee, saying each member will “respect and support the majority decisions of the board, even when I feel otherwise” and also “recognize my job is to ensure that DGI is well managed, rather than attempt to directly manage the organization myself.”

The contract also includes a five-paragraph enumeration of the board’s confidentiality policies, designed to ensure information doesn’t leak out.

“A major component of this obligation is to maintain the confidentiality of information that [board members] acquire by virtue of their position,” it reads.

“Board members shall not make any statement to the press or to the public representing the views of the organization unless explicitly authorized to do so by the board.”

DGI dedicated a considerable amount of the meeting to outlining several developments, including the launch of a mobile app, collaboration to support the National Folk Festival and handing over downtown cleaning responsibilities to the city.

City council had previously instructed the organization to refocus and to bring in visionary leadership, a move that led to Cannon’s hiring in late 2013 and a board retreat in mid-2014. The city provided $792,282 for DGI’s 2014-15 operating budget, just $65,000 shy of the organization’s total revenue figure, according to the budget statement on DGI’s website.

At the retreat, the board decided that the organization needed to focus heavily on economic development while shedding responsibility for putting on events, street cleaning and more. But after the presentations last week, returning board member Jeff Yetter questioned whether the board would create “a true economic-development committee” in accordance with its new mission.

“Yes, and others,” Brame responded, adding that there would be new committees for a revived annual fund drive, a downtown home tour and marketing as well.

Though DGI decided to focus on economic development at its retreat in early April 2014, the fact that the organization still does not technically have a committee to focus on it went unremarked on by anyone other than Yetter, who volunteered to be on the committee if it were created.

A staff presentation to the board about a streetscaping plan mentioned that DGI lacked sufficient funding to commission the study but glossed over specific figures. When pressed by board member Nick Piornack, Brame explained that DGI has allocated $59,000 for the study and hopes to have a contract with consulting firm MIG in the next 30 days. But about $125,000 in additional funds is needed just to pay for the plan, let alone implementation, Brame said, adding that the nonprofit is looking to the city for a financial contribution to cover the cost.

DGI is asking the firm to offer 10 ideas that could be implemented immediately and affordably in line with a larger streetscape plan that would allow DGI to take action, Hayworth said.

“We certainly don’t want it to be another stack of papers that sits on the shelf, but we need a plan,” Hayworth said.

As she updated the board and answered questions, Hayworth appeared to already be well versed in the intricacies of the organization’s plans, but she also has changes in mind: Hayworth suggested the board might be more efficient if it met every other month, with the executive committee and other committees meeting in the interim.

“I’m trying to look at, do we really need to meet every month?” she said.

City council has yet to appoint someone to its reserved seat on the board, and Councilman Matheny said after the meeting that he is unsure why that hasn’t already occurred.

“There are some folks who are passionate about downtown that we could bring back,” he said, mentioning Chester Brown of Brown Investments and developer John Lomax. Unprompted, Matheny said Eric Robert’s name had come up in discussions as a potential council appointment, but said that may be a distraction.

“I’m open to suggestions,” Matheny added.