Tension mounts around role of Downtown Greensboro Inc.

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Milton Kern (left) and Jason Cannon

by Eric Ginsburg

As Downtown Greensboro Inc. presents its annual report, downtown stakeholders express opposing views about the organization’s progress and whether it should continue on its current path.

One of the reasons Jason Cannon was hired to lead Downtown Greensboro Inc. about a year ago was his perceived ability to communicate with elected officials, DGI board chair Sam Simpson said. Sitting at Gibbs Hundred Brewing downtown after the organization’s annual report to a packed room last week, Simpson said that ability has taken several forms. At a state level, Cannon played a “critical role” in securing $2 million in funding for the Union Square campus, and he also re-engaged Guilford County, bringing it back on board with a $40,000 contribution to the organization after it cut support last year.

A moment later, County Commissioner Kay Cashion, who is running for re-election this fall, approached Simpson to commend him on the presentation.

“I was impressed with their strategic plan,” she said in an interview. “The excitement in the room was just obvious.”

But Greensboro City Councilman Zack Matheny, one of only two council members to show up at the meeting, isn’t convinced.

“I didn’t see strategies,” he said. “What are we thinking one year down the road, two years down the road, three years down the road? As a city councilperson that has a significant portion of downtown [in my district], I’d like to see more vision, leadership and ideas.

“Frustrated is a good word,” Matheny continued, “but again, now is the time to shine. Now is the time. I just didn’t leave there with a warm and fuzzy of what we’re going to accomplish and how is he going to accomplish it, and I’ve expressed those thoughts to Jason.”

Matheny also said Cannon has largely been absent on key downtown issues such as the Cascade Saloon, a dilapidated historic downtown building that the city acquired in order to revitalize.

“I haven’t had a whole lot of conversations with Jason since he got the position and I think that’s disappointing,” Matheny said. “I’ve reached out a couple times and he finally reached out recently. You know, it’s like, where is he? I just don’t see him very much. If I was in a position to be the leader of an organization I would be in council’s office at least once a quarter saying this is what we’re doing so nobody has to guess.”

Councilman Jamal Fox, who didn’t attend the brief annual meeting, said he is left guessing about what DGI is doing.

“Me and Sharon [Hightower], we represent downtown as well so it would be great to know what the organization has going on,” he said. “I haven’t really heard anything since the reorganization and that was months ago.”

Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, who owns several properties downtown and went to DGI’s annual meeting, disagreed. The organization used to be dysfunctional, she said, but Cannon and the board have “worked though some of that.”

“They’ve gotten a reasonable amount done over the last year,” Hoffmann said. “Sometimes things get messy as you’re trying to figure them out.”

Hoffmann has asked for Cannon’s help with two different downtown issues, including contacting a retailer she wants to attract to the city, and he responded quickly, she said. And she contradicted Matheny, bringing up the Cascade Saloon building — which council recently handed over to Preservation Greensboro — without prompting.

“I think they have been and are very much involved in perhaps what we will ultimately do with the Cascade Saloon,” she said. “They, as an organization, have certainly tried to be responsive over the last six plus months.”

Downtown Greensboro Inc. continued a significant reorganization process in the last year, marked by Cannon replacing Ed Wolverton as CEO, changes to the board structure and composition and a refocused mission.

Cannon understands the frustrations some people feel at the pace of that change, but said he is executing the objectives city council and the board drew up before he arrived.

“We are doing exactly what we said we would do and exactly what we told council during the budget hearings [in June],” he said. “I was given a mandate when I came into this role, and I am focused on doing what I have to do to get DGI through this transition.”

That transition is now over, Simpson happily announced at the annual meeting, explaining that DGI’s board decided to focus on economic development downtown and move away from its historic role providing services such as trash pick-up, Center City Park maintenance and running the ice rink downtown.

Cannon has, in effect, been forced to run two organizations at once — the one he inherited that council deemed as mired in stagnation and the one the city and the DGI board have charged him with moving towards, Simpson said.

With a long list of daily, weekly and monthly tasks on the table in front of him at Manny’s Café, Cannon said he understands that some people want to see faster progress but that people expect DGI to perform a huge swath of things, many of them complex.

“I am pulled in 15 directions every day,” he said, sounding somewhat worn out.

DSC02140The quick PowerPoint presentation at the annual meeting didn’t provide much detail about what Cannon or the organization do, instead focusing on progress in downtown as a whole and addressing reorganization efforts in April. But with the list of responsibilities in front of him and some time to explain himself, Cannon elaborated on the specifics.

DGI is initiating a pilot project for parklets downtown, working to attract developers and businesses, supporting existing businesses as they expand, focusing on filling longtime vacant buildings, helping business owners navigate local government and locate financing opportunities, spearheading a master streetscaping plan, working on an overarching approach to events with more sponsorship possibilities and partnering with ArtsGreensboro on the SmArt Initiative on creative approaches to public art, he said.

Plus, DGI is in the initial phases of working to attract a downtown culinary arts program, is working actively on the Cascade Saloon redevelopment efforts and played “a really impactful role” on securing state funds for the Union Square campus. And it is hiring a director of business development to help Cannon with the minutia and data-driven details of economic development.

It appears that Cannon’s board, including the newer members, have rallied behind him and the organization’s redefined mission. Brittany Atkinson, one of the youngest members of the board, said a huge amount of staff time is still devoted to handing off old responsibilities such as the skating rink, and that the organization is just coming out of its transition stage.

“Give it a year,” she said. “Let our good team prove themselves.”

Eric Robert, who clashed with other members after joining the board at the beginning of the year, agreed with Atkinson.

“I think the true measure will be at the end of next year,” he said. “We can’t transition forever.”

As if to demonstrate the board’s newfound unity, Simpson applauded Robert’s work to help the organization redefine how to market downtown, referring to him at the annual meeting and in an interview as “truly the most creative guy I’ve ever met.”

Robert, who has vocally criticized other board members in the past, was upbeat about the strides DGI is making. What began as a Marketing 99 session — not even Marketing 101, Robert said, referring to the inexperience of some — developed into a clear vision and strategy for marketing downtown and the organization. They even let him write the bones of the plan, he said, sounding surprised at the level of acceptance, and later approved the plan unanimously.

Mark Hewitt, another new board member who owns Area Furniture, didn’t think three years ago that he would say DGI could be a good organization, but now he said if it can stick to its new plan, it will be. After feeling lost for the first several months on the board — a concern that several new members raised at the strategic retreat in April — Hewitt is upbeat.

“I think potentially there’s a lot of great things that could happen but we just have to keep the momentum going,” he said.

Downtown developer and property owner Milton Kern, who used to serve on the organization’s board, said that if DGI wants to focus on doing what nobody else can do — referring to a comment Simpson made during the presentation — than he doesn’t understand why DGI is handing back its most unique services to the city.

“If they can’t justify their existence with something other than economic development…” Kern said, trailing off. “They need to define exactly what they’re going to do. I don’t understand where they’re going. The last thing we need is more people in their offices sitting around and talking about economic development, so I’m just asking the question for how they’re going to spend this [Business Improvement District tax] money.”

Kern, who attended the annual meeting, said lots of organizations talk about economic development but very few are doing anything to support it.

That’s something that greatly concerns Councilman Mike Barber.

“I believe Jason Cannon is very talented,” he said. “I think the challenge is not with an individual. The challenge right now for DGI is an unclear mission. The city has taken over some of the basic maintenance responsibilities, but until there’s a clear mission I don’t think they’re going to be tremendously successful at carrying anything out.”

Barber agreed with Kern that there are too many organizations talking about economic development and very few with anything to show for it. Maybe one out of 30 groups actually accomplishes that goal, he said, citing the Greensboro Partnership. Part of the problem, Barber said, is that Greensboro is a well disguised small town where “everybody knows everyone.”

“These are our friends that we’re suggesting are not fulfilling their purposes,” he said. “That’s what creates these challenges. It’s obvious some of these organizations have no purpose. I think as a council we have to be courageous and look some of these organizations in the eye and say, you know what, you’re welcome to move forward but you’ll have to do it without the support of the city of Greensboro because we don’t have the luxury to waste money.”

Barber clarified that he wasn’t necessarily referring to DGI, but other council members said there has been discussion of restructuring the organization.

As Matheny sees it, there are three options: DGI continues in its current form, its responsibilities are taken on by one or two new city staff positions or it is somehow incorporated into a larger economic-development strategy, occupying a role similar to Action Greensboro in relation to the Greensboro Partnership.

Hoffmann said the larger economic-development plan in the city “has been somewhat disjointed,” and that a change may be necessary with DGI.

“There is some discussion going on about whether it could function reasonably well as part of the [Greensboro] Partnership or at least under that umbrella,” she said. “There is some rationale for it.”

Former mayor Robbie Perkins, who as mayor was vocal in pushing for a new direction at DGI and who attended the annual meeting, supports that approach.

“I’d like to see a strategy to incorporate them with the structure of the Greensboro Partnership because I think downtown Greensboro is going to be one of the big areas of economic-development potential in Greensboro, with the airport and downtown and the universities, and we need to find a way to focus on that,” Perkins said. “It’s a natural, really.”

Cannon is open to the possibility of a redefined relationship with the Greensboro Partnership, which itself is in flux, as is the city council’s economic development committee. Immediately before taking the job with DGI, Cannon worked at the Greensboro Partnership, developing a reputation for his ability to lobby state legislators.

While he didn’t explicitly endorse the idea of joining the Greensboro Partnership, Cannon expressed a desire for more citywide unity between primary economic development efforts rather than to continuing to operate in silos.

“If we’re seriously discussing economic development in the area, why let DGI operate as an island?” Cannon asked. “Why not combine the resources that are available with the [Greensboro] Partnership? We should put our interests together with a larger economic development agenda in the city.”

  • Walle, A.

    How anyone sifts through all this minutiae is beyond me, even if it pays well.