Action Greensboro is accepting applications for the next round of Spark Fund micro grants, which allot up to $5,000 to unique ideas for attracting people to downtown. An Idea Slam at Collab on June 23 drew entrepreneurs, artists and a political candidate.
In the front space at Collab in downtown Greensboro on June 23, about 50 people gathered in a half-circle as tunes from the Beach Music Festival taking place up the street reverberated off downtown buildings.
The high-pitched refrain of “Love Shack” was impossible to totally ignore, but the music didn’t impede Ryan Saunders of No Blank Walls and Create Your City as he clicked through a presentation on bringing in a renowned muralist to do a new piece downtown and attract national attention to Greensboro.
“The more murals we do, the more we elevate the art scene here,” he said.
He was one in a lineup of 10 representatives from various nonprofits, businesses and individuals vying for Action Greensboro’s third round of Spark Fund micro grants. The initiative, which makes gifts of up to $5,000 toward unusual and new ways of attracting attention to Greensboro’s downtown area (“placemaking” is the trendy urban-planning term), was inspired by a chamber of commerce trip to Chattanooga in 2015, said Cecelia Thompson, executive director of Action Greensboro.
“We came back knowing that we wanted to do something downtown,” Thompson said in her introductory remarks before hearing pitches at the Idea Slam.
“We wanted to facilitate companies, individuals and nonprofits to be able to have the flexibility and the funding to do unexpected placemaking activities in the center city,” she added. “Often, people come to us with these awesome ideas… but we don’t have the bandwidth or the funding in our budget that’s allocated for that purpose.”
After the trip, a funder from the Cemala Foundation suggested to the rest of Action Greensboro’s supporting foundations that they put a fund together for one-off micro grants to attract new people to downtown. Thompson said the process was very informal and that there’s “no rhyme or reason” to the limit on how many grants they’ll award this round.
“They put a pot of money together and said, ‘Figure it out,’” Thompson said.
Each quarter, Action Greensboro staff review the applications — which are only two pages long to decrease hurdles for community applicants — and make recommendations to the six foundations.
This will be their third grantmaking period. Past projects that received Spark Fund money include a “Jeansboro” pop-up historical exhibit and SpoonBoy, an inflatable character and social media campaign raising awareness of the Weatherspoon Art Museum at various downtown events.
In the most recent round of grants, the Westerwood Neighborhood Association received $3,500 to paint a mural on a blank wall across the street from the Westerwood Tavern on a building owned by Greensboro College, along the future Downtown Greenway.
Westerwood Neighborhood Association board member Jeff Nimmer said in an interview Monday that the association is in final discussions to retain Jeff Beck and Gina Franco as the muralists.
“We talked about different things we might apply for,” he said. “We applied for the first round, were told it was a good project, and if we applied again, we’d have a pretty good shot.
“I think it’s a great program,” he added. “You’d be surprised what you can do with $3,500 of grant money.”
At the Idea Slam last week, participants vying for the next round of grants ranged in preparation from a slick presentation on food education from HomeGrown Heroes to dancer Olivia Meeks’ two-minute idea of bringing a Helen Simoneau piece to downtown — “I hope I’ve stirred your thinking pot!”
Clement Mallory of Kids Poetry Basketball opened with an interactive poem, during which he signaled the audience to shout “poetry” as rhythmic punctuation. His nonprofit uses basketball as a metaphor for constructing language, partnering with Parks and Recreation and the YMCA to provide programming that helps kids improve their literacy while getting active. Mallory seeks funding to expand the program into a pilot iteration at LeBauer Park with portable equipment.
Elsewhere Museum’s George Scheer is hoping for $5,000 to rent a giant Ferris wheel for the day on Sept. 17 and set it up on South Elm Street to attract visitors to the museum and surrounding businesses.
The audience was as diverse as the ideas presented. Amber Graning, a Lincoln Financial employee, was there with her husband just for fun. Latoya Neal, who works with the Greensboro Police Department’s CrimeStoppers program, was there just to watch, but took copious notes and asked probing questions during talkbacks, especially in relation to how the pitched projects were connected specifically to downtown.
Tawana Rowland of TSR Kids, a mentorship nonprofit, was intentionally upstaged by her young mentees, demonstrating the effectiveness of TSR’s confidence workshops; 9-year-old Jacquirah McKoy strode back and forth with the air of a Silicon Valley executive.
“My dream is, I want to be a rapper,” McKoy said. “Y’all remember this face, you’re gonna see it on TV.”
The evening took a surprising turn when MiMi Boyett took her four minutes to pitch not a downtown business idea but herself, as secretary of state — she is not on the ballot in North Carolina — where she said God had called her to serve. Boyett said she spent three days in jail after peacefully protesting in favor of lowering a Confederate flag to half-mast in Columbia, SC, after the Charleston shooting.
“I don’t believe this two-party system is working at all,” she said.
More on-topic pitches rounded out the lineup, including one for an arts event hosted the Artist’s Bloc, and printing an up-to-date road biking map to equip casual bikers with knowledge about the best routes into downtown in collaboration with Bicycling in Greensboro. Applications will be accepted until July 15.
“[The ideas] have to be fun, they have to be exciting, they have to make change in the downtown area,” Thompson said.