Featured photo: Andy Zimmerman’s new project, Rhythm Works, will be located in an old meat storage building at 800 Pastor Anderson Way. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Correction (6/18/2021): Councilperson Justin Outling recused himself from the vote to grant PAW Greensboro LLC the $250,000. A previous version of this article noted that Outling voted against.

The goal is pretty simple.

Part of the organization would be a for-profit venture, with a live-music performance space, rehearsal areas and studio space for musicians. The non-profit portion would help “underserved” children receive a music education. That’s the vision local developer Andy Zimmerman has for the vacant building located at 800 Pastor Anderson Way in Greensboro, an endeavor he’s calling “Rhythm Works.”

“The concept actually came from my desire to have more of a music scene in Greensboro, specifically in downtown.” Zimmerman said to Triad City Beat. “When I first moved here, there was a much livelier live music scene and one of the components of Rhythm Works will be practice space, but it will be a venue for people to perform too.”

Andy Zimmerman in 2017. (file photo)

The building, which is owned by Zimmerman and partners Stu Nichols and Linda Spitsen under the company PAW Greensboro LLC, is a former meat-storage facility on the edge of downtown near NC A&T University and Bennett College. During the May 18 council meeting, Zimmerman and his colleagues petitioned council for a grant to help make their vision a reality. In the end, city council approved a $250,000 urban development investment grant to PAW Greensboro LLC to help renovate and upfit the building. The resolution for the grant passed 8-1 with all members voting in favor expect for council member Justin Outling who requested to be recused from the vote due to a conflict of interest.

According to the resolution, Zimmerman and his colleagues have already committed $2.3 million of private capital to the project, a condition of the grant. The resolution also notes that if PAW does not invest at least $2.58 million in the project by Dec. 31, 2022, or fails to create five new full-time jobs by Dec. 31, 2023, that the grant will be rescinded.

Zimmerman, who owns buildings in and around downtown through his business A-Z Development, told TCB that without the $250,000 grant from the city, he wouldn’t have moved forward with the project.

“I wouldn’t do it,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t have the full $2 million; I needed the $250,000 to make this happen. And not only is the city going to help, I’m going to start a GoFundMe campaign to outfit the studios.”

‘I don’t see why the city saw this as a need right now.’

Still, some in the community like Princess Howell Johnson are questioning Zimmerman’s assertion that without the grant from the city, he couldn’t have moved forward with the project. Johnson, who owns and operates Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet, says she’s been running her entity for 12 years and has gotten money from the city just once, and never anything close to $250,000. She said that she once got $600 from the city to help fund a summer arts program.

“I was shocked,” Johnson said. “And then I was angry because we don’t need any more music spaces; we have plenty. Also, he could have gone to the bank and got a loan. I don’t see why the city saw this as a need right now.”

Princess Howell Johnson owns and operates Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet in Greensboro. (courtesy photo)

Johnson, whose organization teaches kids and adults how to dance, pointed to the new Tanger Center as an example of another music venue that will be opening up soon. She also said that as a Black woman running a smaller arts organization, she feels she and others like her have been overlooked by the city for years.

“We have all these small organizations who are constantly overlooked and here you go once again sidestepping the people who have put in hours of building up the art community but not investing in it,” she said. “I was very disappointed that the city would approve something like that.”

When asked about his wealth and whether he felt like he was taking the grant from a smaller organization who might need it more, Zimmerman pointed out that the grant is available to anyone. Zimmerman also noted that the city has to reallocate funds from elsewhere in its budget to fund this particular grant.

According to a 2015 document on the city’s website, urban development investment grants are allocated for “development and redevelopment projects in downtown, reinvestment areas,  reinvestment corridors, corporate parks and long-term vacant big box shells that have requested city participation.”

The guidelines outlined in the document note that developers must demonstrate a need for assistance and an ability to pay private debt service. Applicants must also have experience successfully developing similar projects and contribute at least 10 percent equity in the project.

For downtown initiatives, the city has identified about 500 acres between Fisher Avenue and W. Gate City Boulevard as key for development. Some of the considerations for downtown projects is that they have “regional draw due to uniqueness of use” or “reuses a vacant or underutilized property,” both criteria which could be met through Rhythm Works. Another criteria that gets points from council is if the project is mixed-use.

According to a public records request submitted by TCB, only three entities have qualified for the urban development grant in the last three years. Zimmerman and his colleagues with PAW Greensboro are one and the other two were obtained by S&S Capital LLC in the amount of $750,000 in June 2020 and by Double G Properties LLC in the amount of $80,000 in July 2020. S&S Capital LLC is owned by Shahzad Akbar and his grant was to be used to build a Piggly Wiggly in the Freeman Mill Square shopping center. The project was delayed once in 2018 and was scheduled to open in April of this year according to a Fox 8 report. Double G Properties LLC, owned by Dale and Paul Talley, applied for the grant to create Bourbon Bowl, a new whiskey, bowling alley in downtown Greensboro which opened recently.

The area near downtown that is ripe for investment according to a 2015 guideline document by the city of Greensboro about urban development initiatives. (screenshot)

Stu Nichols, one of Zimmerman’s partners on the project, explained during the city council meeting that they wouldn’t touch the $250,000 from the city until they were able to fill the gap that they currently face to fund the project.

“There is clearly a funding gap between the amount of money we’ve put in so far, loans that we’ve taken and this grant money,” Nichols said. “We have a bunch of ideas…on how we’re going to close that gap, but one of the things that we as the partners in this concept that we wanted to make sure that city council understands is that one way or another, by us reaching into our own pockets or through third-party participation in the form of sponsorship grants, equity investment or what have you, we will make sure that that gap is closed and we will not tap into this grant money from the city unless that gap has been closed. We understand that full financing of the project is in place before we spend the first dollar on the project. The city dollars will be the last dollars in, and we won’t start until we know we can complete the outfit of the building for this project.”

Zimmerman said that the venture is one that will ultimately benefit the community.

“This is a return on community,” he said. “Me and my partners could have fun with our money anywhere, but we wanted to invest in East Greensboro instead…. We want to put thousands of kids through a positive experience.”

Through the nonprofit portion of Rhythm Works, Zimmerman said he plans to partner with Notes for Notes, a national organization that provides children access to high-quality recording studios, as well as Guilford County Schools. The kids in the program will be able to attend Rhythm Works free of charge. During the May 18 city council meeting, both Notes for Notes and a representative for Guilford County Schools wrote letters in support of Zimmerman’s project.

Joseph Wilkerson III, another arts organizer in Greensboro, had mixed feelings about the fact that Zimmerman got $250,000 from the city for his project.

Joseph Wilkerson III has been working to revitalize the same area of Greensboro under Uptown GSO Inc. for years. (courtesy photo)

Wilkerson, who is the executive director of Uptown GSO Inc., echoed Zimmerman’s assertion that the grants are available to anyone, but also noted that people need to know they exist to actually apply for them. He also stated that as a wealthy white man with connections throughout the city, Zimmerman likely had an easier time getting approved for the grant than others may have.

“I have a full-time job,” Wilkerson said. “I’m not afforded the opportunity to put in 8-12 hour days just operating my nonprofit…. To do this, you have to have that type of mindset that this is what you want to do, and unfortunately, if you don’t have sponsors or grants where you can make this your full-time endeavor, you have to juxtapose that with life. This is not for everybody. You have to have a functioning organization; you have to be made aware that these grants exist and then apply, so is it fair? Life is not fair.”

Johnson said she didn’t even know grants of that caliber existed.

“A lot of Black people don’t know what the city even offers as far as funding and assistance,” she said. “We don’t know what avenues to take. Like is there something available online, is there a contact person to talk to? I feel like to get money from the city you have to know who’s who in the city and if you’re not in that circle, you’re already behind.”

Who gets to revitalize Greensboro?

Johnson also wonders if Zimmerman and his partners are the right people to run an organization targeted at Black and Brown children.

“I’m asking the question: Who are you and where have you been? Why does Andy Zimmerman want a piece of this pie?” she asked. “We have plenty of outreach programs…. I just feel like he’s taking something that is already happening and is putting his name on it. Who’s going to follow up with that and ensure that what he says he’s going to do is going to happen?”

Both Wilkerson and Johnson have been working for weeks to put on events taking place throughout the city for Juneteenth this weekend. For the event, Johnson applied for funding through the city to be able to pay the artists who participate. The amount she got for four days of events: $6,000.

“That’s the first thing we’ve ever gotten from the city,” Johnson said. “And they had to create a program specifically for organizations of color because of George Floyd. It was like, ‘Oh it’s like we should probably do something about this quickly.’ And we’re grateful, but where was this years ago when we were asking for it?”

Even with the city funding, Johnson said that they are still fundraising for the Juneteenth events and that that’s how it’s always been for Black organizations in the city.

“We’re always piecing things together,” she said. “We get started with these projects hoping we’ll get funding, but then we end up having to cut corners. Black artists are always having to play for free in this city.”

She says $250,000 could have gone to opening up a theater. Wilkerson said that he would have used the money to get a space for entrepreneurs to start businesses.

Neither of them have $2 million up front to bring to city council for a grant like the one Zimmerman got, they said.

“That sounds so backwards,” Johnson said. “If you can put up $2.3 million, then why do you need $250,000 more? Why wouldn’t you give the $250,000 to an organization that doesn’t have $250,000 so they can build with the $250,000? It just seems so backwards to me.”

A large part of Zimmerman’s plan is also to “revitalize” that area of downtown Greensboro, which Zimmerman has dubbed Down East Downtown.

“I think that section of town in east Greensboro has been overlooked,” Zimmerman said. “I saw nothing but opportunity to give it some vitality and activity by building some community-based places.”

Zimmerman also owns Studio 503, a visual artist collective, which is located next to the Rhythm Works facility.

He said that the combination of the two will help make that area a vibrant arts community.

“I am very excited about the diversity at Studio 503, and I think it’s going to carry over to Rhythm Works,” he said.

Council member Goldie Wells of District 2, said during the city council meeting that she was excited at the notion of the project.

“I’m pleased that this is coming to District 2,” she said. “I think it will help so many young people, thanks to you all. And I know you’re continuing to get those funds, so we won’t spend any until you get it all.”

However, Wilkerson said that he’s been trying to revitalize the area for the last decade through Uptown GSO Inc.

“What I would hate to see is the gentrification of the community when I’ve been yelling, ‘Fire,’” Wilkerson said. “There’s a real opportunity to start developing our community. A&T has done a tremendous job with their campus, but no one has taken the initiative to level up the community.”

But Johnson makes the case that organizations like that do and have existed but that they are never given the kind of resources that white-led organizations are.

“We don’t have 50-year organizations, 100-year organizations because we come and we go,” she said. “We burn out or the person dies who was running it or they can’t keep up this passion project because they have to eat too. It’s just hard for us to sustain when we’re not being helped by the city.”

At the end of the day, Wilkerson said he can’t really blame Zimmerman for trying to build what he thinks is a goodwill organization. Still, he wonders about the fairness of the process and who, ultimately, gets to realize their visions in the city.

“It’s just up to the individuals that are allocating the money,” he said. “If you have multiple millions of dollars, should you be applying for it? There’s nothing to say that you can’t; it is the way it is.”

To learn more about grant funding from the city, visit greensboro-nc.gov/business/economic-development-business-support/assistance-programs.

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