What’s up with Downtown Greensboro Inc.?

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by Eric Ginsburg

The year ends in flux for Downtown Greensboro Inc. as the organization makes a big new hire, the board chair resigns and the end-of-year meeting is canceled due to a lack of diversity on the proposed new board.

December has been a busy month for Downtown Greensboro Inc., the organization charged with handling money from a special downtown tax and promoting economic development in the city’s core. Even with Hanukkah underway and Christmas looming, considerable changes kept unfolding, including the announcement that board chair Sam Simpson is resigning.

One of the most noteworthy developments was the decision to cancel the board’s big December meeting, scheduled for Dec. 17, where it was supposed to approve a proposal for new board members.

But that proposed slate didn’t include much diversity and some existing board members weren’t interested in continuing their service, sending DGI back to the drawing board until January.

 

Lack of diversity

Downtown Greensboro Inc. sought nominations for its new board — which has up to seven available seats based on expiring terms — as it has in the past, asking for public input and encouraging board members to submit nominations. A nominating committee consisting of the former board chair Dawn Chaney, current chair Sam Simpson and incoming chair Gary Brame was responsible for putting together recommendations to the full board.

Several board members, including ex-officio member Mayor Nancy Vaughan, raised concerns about the lack of racial diversity among those proposed, sending the process back to the drawing board.

“When I looked at the proposed slate, there was very little diversity, and there is very little diversity on the board right now so I felt like we needed to do better outreach,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan added that the candidates on the proposed slate are all “really good people” who would work well on the board, but said she knows there are plenty of other strong, competent potential board members who aren’t white.

Brame declined to comment and Chaney did not return calls before press time. Simpson, who said on Sunday that he is resigning from the board due to other obligations, missed the most recent meeting and said he is not aware of a proposed slate, adding that it’s his understanding that one will be discussed at DGI’s January board meeting.

Still, Simpson said diversity is “absolutely” a concern.

“We need to do a better job as a board seeking out more diverse candidates because they’re not coming from the general nominees,” he said. “Greensboro has one of the most diverse populations for a large city in the Southeast. We can use that as a strength and we could use that as a core competency.”

Board member Eric Robert said that the people who live, work and play downtown are not represented by the current, overwhelmingly white board. After the planned performing-arts center pushed Boston’s House of Jazz — and thus DGI board member Mike Boston — out of downtown, only one person of color remains on the current board.

The existing lack of racial diversity, as well generational and class diversity, is a considerable problem, Robert said, especially considering the demographics of the city and who uses downtown. While he would like to see representation from college students and Asian and Latino residents on the board as well, Robert said the proposed new slate was “whiter than white.”

DGI President Jason Cannon said “there were a variety of factors we discussed” about why to postpone the board meeting, adding that there was discussion about whether the proposals from the nominating committee were the right people DGI needed. Cannon said the decision was then made to take some time to look over and discuss the changes more thoroughly.

Jason Cannon speaks at a board meeting.
Jason Cannon speaks at a board meeting.

“There are several factors that I look for when I look for board members,” he said, adding that there are prescribed roles that need to be filled as well as whether a board candidate is willing to join and capable of serving.

“Obviously diversity is a concern,” he said. “It certainly is DGI’s desire to have a representation of downtown on its board.”

City council imposed specific regulations for categories of people who needed to have a seat at the table on the board, such as a nightclub owner. While Robert said those guidelines should be unnecessary, he doesn’t buy the excuse that it hampers efforts for diversity on the board, claiming that DGI skirts around those restrictions as it pleases and adding that there are several positions for city council appointments as well.

Vaughan agreed that council could use its appointments to improve racial diversity on the board.

 

Kicked off the board?

Several board members’ terms technically end as 2014 wraps up, though board members who haven’t served six years are eligible to continue. But Robert, who served a one-year term, and M’Couls owner Simonne McClinton, who is finishing a two-year term, are both under the impression that they won’t be invited back.

Robert and McClinton were the most vocal board members raising concerns about the organization and the board, and said their removal would be emblematic of a culture that discourages board members from asking questions and attempts to whitewash concerns.

Eric Robert at his mill
Eric Robert at his mill

Robert said he was not on the list of proposed new board members, and McClinton has heard she isn’t either, but is unsure.

“I have no clue,” McClinton said. “That’s the whole issue. The board itself is completely out of the loop and has no control of the decisions that come out of the executive committee.

“The bottom line for me is I wanted DGI to be successful and do great things for downtown,” she added. “I just never got the feeling the organization knew how to do that, and became defensive to suggestions.”

She agreed with criticism about the lack of racial diversity on the board, noting that besides one black man on the board, her being half Lebanese and Robert being French is the closest thing to diversity on the board.

“Goodness gracious, we’re supposed to be representative of downtown and we’re nowhere near that,” McClinton said, adding that the eclectic nature of downtown isn’t represented on the board either.

Councilman Zack Matheny, who has raised numerous concerns about DGI’s board and leadership under Cannon’s tenure, is bothered that Robert wouldn’t be asked back to the board.

“The slate that I saw of the new board members was going back to the perception of what it was before of only inviting people that look like you and agree with you,” Matheny said. “Eric Robert and I have challenged each other and debated and we don’t agree on everything but Eric has a significant talent. The branding campaign he put together is very good. He is the bright shining star of what DGI has done in the last 14 months. And to be rewarded, he’s asked to not be on the board anymore.”

McClinton agreed, and appeared to be more concerned about Robert not being asked back than herself.

“Eric did have big impact with marketing,” she said. “Quite frankly it seems like he’s the only one that did anything big for DGI this year, so why isn’t he being asked back? Or maybe he is. Who knows? And that’s the whole problem.”

Simpson, who said he is unaware of a panel, said he wants Robert to stay.

“He represents what we all like about downtown, which is the diversity of opinion and that’s why I wanted him on there in the first place and would like to see him on there in future,” Simpson said.

Cannon said decisions about who is appointed to the board are not his call but instead rest with the nominating committee and then the board itself. He declined to comment about whether he feels Robert or anyone else should remain on the board.

Robert said there are a number of good people on the board now, but like McClinton, he is concerned that the full board is merely there “to validate decisions made by two or three people” who “really don’t have downtown’s best interest in mind.”

“I really thought I could make a difference but I wasn’t there to make a difference, I was just there to validate a decision that had already been made,” Robert said.

To highlight the extent to which they feel like they wield no influence, Robert and McClinton both pointed to a board meeting called solely to approve minutes from the previous meeting and the numerous times they raised concerns about how decisions are made and a dismissive response from board leadership.

“Every important decision that DGI makes has been handed down from the executive committee of the board which makes the rest of us ineffective puppets,” McClinton said. “It’s only gotten worse over the last year. People should be looking into that organization for the very reason that it’s all of our money going into things we have no control over.”

Simpson said that Robert and others don’t give themselves enough credit for the changes they’ve made.

“I understand why Eric feels that way but… he’s been very successful at changing several initiatives of the executive committee and that’s what should happen,” he said. “The marketing has changed 180 degrees and that was all Eric influencing the executive board and not the other way around. Eric’s really not giving himself or the board enough credit for the influence he’s had on the board and the executive committee. The end product has been fairly representative of the board.”

Simpson said that tension is common on any board, but McClinton totally disagrees. She’s on the board of ArtsGreensboro and said it’s a completely different experience.

“I don’t feel like I’m ever in the dark about decisions,” McClinton said of ArtsGreensboro. “It’s very open and inclusive. You get the sense at DGI if you ask a question that you get put on a blacklist… and that there’s petty retribution for asking questions.

“You can see that you’ve offended by asking questions,” she continued. “It’s a big responsibility to sit on a board that spends taxpayer money and you have a fiduciary responsibility to know what you’re doing.”

 

Sam Simpson, center, at the DGI board retreat earlier this year.
Sam Simpson, center, at the DGI board retreat earlier this year.

Goodbye, board chair

Despite the uncertainty about the board’s composition in the future, one thing is certain: Chair Sam Simpson is out. Simpson told Triad City Beat on Sunday that he resigning.

“I had wanted to make it effective at the end of my term as president,” Simpson said. “It’s mainly just time. I’ve got a lot of stuff going on in my life that I’ve got to focus on, frankly. The megasite work in Randolph County has to be my No. 1 priority.”

Simpson’s term as chair was coming to an end, but past DGI board chairs traditionally stay on and play a significant role in the board’s executive committee. Developer and past chair Dawn Chaney is currently on the board, the executive committee and the nominating committee. Incoming board chair Gary Brame, who runs Jule’s Antiques, is scheduled to take over the helm after the board’s January meeting.

Simpson said he missed an executive committee meeting last week due to an emergency medical issue.

 

A new hire

All of the recent news about DGI isn’t about departures, though. Downtown Greensboro Inc. announced on Dec. 11 that it had hired Cyndy Hayworth as the director of operations. It is a new position, and DGI had advertised that it was looking for a business-development director but changed course after discussions about restructuring a market-data research effort, Cannon said.

“I have a lot of faith in Cyndy Hayworth,” Cannon said. “She has had a great deal of success and program management experience.”

Other people including Vaughan and Matheny agreed.

I think they made an amazing hire with Cyndy Hayworth,” said Vaughan, who feels that DGI has room for improvement and possible for reorganization. “She did a great job with Junior Achievement. I think she’ll be extremely instrumental in bringing DGI to where it needs to be.”

Matheny and Vaughan said Hayworth has experience bringing an organization back from the brink and making it successful. She also has good contacts and relationships with city council, Matheny said, something he feels is sorely lacking now.

“I think Cyndy can block and tackle for DGI and make some things happen for downtown that I haven’t seen happen in the last 14 months [since Cannon took office],” he said. “One of the things Cyndy has done is run an organization, so she has experience managing people and projects.”

 

Other developments

Beyond hiring Hayworth, Cannon said there have been a number of other significant, positive developments at DGI recently. The organization helped relocate the ice rink from its former site in Festival Park, which required significant time and planning, Cannon said.

And there is progress on a downtown streetscaping plan too that would identify areas to redo, such as turning all of Greene Street into a two-way road or creating opportunities for sidewalk dining. The board approved a consultant to do necessary research and generate a study that will pinpoint small and large projects, Cannon said. Last week, DGI and the city met to discuss the proposed $189,000 study and ways to reduce cost, concurring on several aspects that will be communicated and worked out with the consultant, Cannon said.

In the meantime, DGI has been working on a parklet program that would activate temporary streetside areas in current parking spots downtown as a shorter-term response to a desire for more sidewalk activity and dining. Cannon said there has been “substantial progress” on the parklet program and “great energy” around it, adding that people can expect to see one completed come spring.

“If I have to get out there with a hammer and nails myself there will be a parklet by the time it gets warm,” he said.

But to McClinton, Robert and others, those changes pale in comparison to the problems created by the way the board conducts business. At least for now, Robert said, if the board isn’t more diverse and democratic, DGI should be disbanded.