Who is a city for?

Sign announcing teen curfew in downtown Greensboro
Sign announcing teen curfew in downtown Greensboro
Sign announcing teen curfew in downtown Greensboro

One thing I do a lot is think about urban planning, place-making, and public space. Something I do just as much is ask questions. So the question I’ve got on my mind as of late is:

“Who is a city for?”

Are cities meant for people? Are they meant for businesses? Are they meant for young people, or old people, or the wealthy, for houseless people, renters, recent immigrants, generational residents, artists, people of specific or varied racial identities, or any of the many different kinds of people?

Here in Greensboro we must ask ourselves this very question. Who is Greensboro made for? Who is it currently being made and envisioned for? Who is Greensboro? Part of the answer is connected to whom we ask this question, and who is allowed to answer.

We are in a critical place in the development of Greensboro’s identity, which will be formed and reformed whether intentionally, haphazardly, or with little consideration for all those it will affect.

Recently in Greensboro the city council voted to impose a curfew on people under the age of 18 when they are in the downtown of the city. This is an example of several things; the shaping of Greensboro’s identity without everyone’s input; of closing off the commons, an already scarce resource in Greensboro; and the permission for police profiling. This curfew answers the question of who this city is for, as it seems to indicate a lack of trust in young people. This is occurring at the same time that young people are championed as the “future”. The curfew is a tool to perpetuate the villainization of and in turn criminalization of youth, specifically black youth, brown youth and working class youth. Holding onto young people in this city is something that Greensboro claims it wants to do. But which young people do we want? Is it only young professionals, middle class folks, and mostly white folks that are valued and invested in, that the city is conceived for?

This curfew also runs the risk of creating a Greensboro brain drain. If young people aren’t allowed to participate in the use of a city, in the creation of a city, then it only makes sense that we’ll feel unwelcome and policed, and keep to certain parts of the city; parts of the city that aren’t being invested in the same way as downtown, lest we forget that the city is not confined to just the downtown. Or we leave the city all together and contribute our creativity, energy, and passion in other places where there is opportunity and where we are welcome and encouraged to create. This will inevitably affect the face of our city.

When thinking about who a city is for, it is critical that we understand that we all have a right to the city, both in its physical space, but also in its creation. So I challenge each of us to go further, to demand of the city, and enact in our daily lives what it would look like to draw young people in, to draw all sorts of people in to the conversation and creation of what we each want the city to look like. We’re all responsible, but as I said everyone has to be allowed to answer these questions, to have their voice heard, instead of being pushed out by such exclusive practices like the curfew. Greensboro, what will we do?

The Early History of F4DC’s Role in Community-Based Efforts to Build a Cooperative Grocery Store at Bessemer Center

Bessemer Center, Northeast Greensboro (Photo by Eric Ginsburg, Yes Weekly)

Earlier this week, I drafted this history to clear up some confusions about how and when work on the Renaissance Community Coop started, and the role that F4DC has played. We decided to post this history on our website so that more people have access to it during this period when City Council is deciding whether and how it will support the coop. We also thought that in the long term (5-10 years from now), people might be interested to see in some detail the ways that F4DC has chosen to work in its local community. You can see that community organizing of the kind we’re supporting on the grocery store project is connected to long time frames, networks of relationships, and developing ideas.

It’s important to say that this particular written history mainly covers the early work on the coop, which was spearheaded by F4DC. At this point, in 2013, the coop development work is led by the Renaissance Cooperative Committee, to which F4DC provides technical support. But in 2011 and most of 2012, F4DC was playing the leading role, which is why this history is titled the way it is: its emphasis is on the early days, before the RCC had assumed the lead. I eagerly await the history as written by the RCC, which will have its own perspective and community-based flavor!

Since 1998, when the Winn-Dixie closed, Ed Whitfield (co-director of F4DC) and I have independently followed and occasionally connected to Northeast Greensboro residents’ efforts to bring a grocery store to the site of the old Winn-Dixie. Both of us attended early meetings of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, just to see what was going on, and to lend our occasional support as private citizens.

In 2010 and 2011, Ed and I established a tighter focus for F4DC’s work, with a strong emphasis on cooperative economics. In the course of entering this arena, we discussed among ourselves the possibility of a community-owned grocery store on Phillips Avenue.

In fall of 2011, Ed and I had a discussion with Goldie Wells (President of Citizens for Economic and Environmental Justice (CEEJ) and founder of Concerned Citizens) about the possibility of a coop grocery store in the site of the old Winn-Dixie. At that time, Goldie wasn’t particularly interested, because she thought Sav-a-Lot was coming in. By the end of that year, it was apparent that the Sav-aLot deal was dead.

In winter-spring of 2011-2012, Ed and Sohnie Black (an F4DC staff member with a personal interest in the grocery store) began mentioning the idea of a coop grocery store in CEEJ and Concerned Citizens meetings. People showed interest, and a few took home copies of a “how to” manual for starting food coops put out by the National Cooperative Grocers Association that we circulated.

In March of 2012, I reached out to Dyan Arkin, the City Planning Department staff member with responsibility for the Bessemer Center, to discuss the possibility of a coop grocery store. It took a while to set up the meeting, but we finally met in early June. Dyan went to some length to help us understand the history of the by-that-time “past due” contract with East Market Street Development Corporation and New Bessemer Associates (the 75% occupancy deal). She encouraged us to give the coop grocery a try, since there seemed to be no other action on the Center at that time.

On July 10th, Ed, Sohnie, and I convened an exploratory meeting with Ralph Johnson, Bob Davis (co-chairs of Concerned Citizens), Wes McGuire, Mac Sims (East Market Street Development Corporation), Jim Kee, and Dyan Arkin, in which we explained how coops work, and asked for their ideas about whether/how to proceed. Goldie Wells was invited to the meeting but was unable to attend.

The very next morning, with no consultation with F4DC, Concerned Citizens or CEEJ, Jim scheduled a press conference at the Bessemer Center, and at least one TV station filmed Jim’s press conference. The news story, which can be viewed in its entirety here, included these statements and quotes:

The Concerned Citizens group who live in East Greensboro is talking about starting a co-op grocery store. In this case it would be owned by investors and people in the community who would also invest.

“The great thing about a co-op is that the community gets to decide what they want in the store, how they want the store to look, how they want the store to operate,” said Kee.

Jim also mentioned F4DC’s role in helping to find financing for a coop grocery store and compared the potential of the Northeast Greensboro effort to the recent successful coop grocery startup in Burlington, Company Shops Market. (F4DC had provided information about Company Shops the night before, as an example of how a community came together to build itself a grocery store.)

In late July and early August, Ed, Sohnie, and I made presentations about the coop approach at CEEJ, Concerned Citizens, and Woodmere Park neighborhood association meetings, to drum up interest for a field trip to Company Shops Market.

On August 8, 2012, F4DC sponsored the field trip to Company Shops Market, and took 2 van-loads of folks from the neighborhood to tour, eat lunch, and talk to a founding board member and the general manager of Company Shops. Jim Kee, Ralph Johnson, Bob Davis, Goldie Wells, and Mac Sims were on the trip, as were many of the people who went on to form the core of the RCC Steering Committee. About 25 people from the neighborhood decided over lunch at Company Shops to continue to explore how they might, as ordinary people working together, form a coop grocery store.

Throughout the fall, these folks met regularly, studied, and got more people involved. Jim Kee attended a few of these meetings. In November, the group decided to formalize its organizational efforts, and voted to name itself the Renaissance Coop Committee, because they knew the name of the shopping center was slated to change and because they liked the association with the concept of “rebirth.” The Renaissance Coop Committee publicized the fact that they would be electing officers at their next meeting in December. A front page Peacemaker article featured the RCC and its efforts.

In its December 3rd meeting, which, like all its meetings, was open to the public, the RCC elected officers and decided to commission a market study, to assess the viability of operating a full-service grocery store. Jim Kee was in attendance at that meeting, and Ed asked him if it was time for the community to formally ask the City to stop seeking a grocery store for the site, because the coop was going to take care of that need. Jim responded that there was no need to slow the process down since it had been many years since the grocery store had closed and there was no progress. “You couldn’t go any slower,” he said. He then went on to say that he wanted to remain open to any and all proposals, but that there was nothing in the works at that time.

Two weeks later, at a specially called CEEJ meeting to discuss the proposed sale of Redevelopment Commission property on Phillips Avenue to Dollar General, Skip Alston made an announcement that he was working with a group of investors who wanted to bring a full service grocery store and a renovated shopping center to the Bessemer Center. He stated that he had been working with Jim Kee on this for a few weeks. When coop people in the crowd asked Skip if he knew that there was a community group interested in opening a community owned cooperative grocery store, he responded that he did not know anything about that. Skip was then asked if his group of developers would be interested in working with the coop in a scenario where the coop group would operate the grocery store and his developers would operate businesses in the remainder of the Center. He responded that his group was not interested in that. “No,” he said. “We want the whole thing.”

The next night, at the December 18th City Council meeting, Jim Kee formally asked City Council to work with the new development group that Skip represented on the proposal that would include giving the ownership of Renaissance Center to Skip’s group of investors. In that discussion he made no mention of the community’s interest in opening a coop grocery store. In his presentation, Jim stated that he had been working with Skip on the project for the past two months.

Epilogue: In mid-February, 2013, Skip contacted the RCC to offer the coop a corner of the grocery store that his group of investors would own and operate and to say that the coop might even have its own cash register there. He was told that the coop was interested in opening a full service grocery store, not just a fresh vegetable section of a larger store. He said that he did not know this. It was later erroneously reported to City Council that Skip’s investors had offered to support the coop and that the coop had rejected the offer.

Since that time, there has been continued work in the community by the RCC leadership group and growing understanding and support for the coop grocery store. Skip and his investors met with the RCC and amended their original offer to say that they are now willing to lease the grocery store space to the coop at the same rates the coop requested from the City. RCC also met with New Bessemer Associates, the developers who are seeking the contract for doing the construction and upfit work on the Center, but are not seeking ownership. They too expressed a willingness to work with the coop and offered the fact that they had built the successful Deep Roots expansion as proof of their competence and willingness to work with coops.

Private investment is private investment, whether it comes from individuals or a community

Bessemer Center, Northeast Greensboro (Photo by Eric Ginsburg, Yes Weekly)

The Renaissance Community Coop will bring $1.3 million in private investment to Phillips Avenue, and has already raised more than half of that amount.

Bessemer Center, Northeast Greensboro (Photo by Eric Ginsburg, Yes Weekly)
Bessemer Center, Northeast Greensboro (Photo by Eric Ginsburg, Yes Weekly)

The Renaissance Community Coop (RCC) is really on a roll! Self-Help Credit Union has stepped up with a term sheet offering $700,000 toward the start up costs for launching a community-owned grocery store in the Renaissance Center on Phillips Avenue. Now, Self-Help didn’t do this out of some charitable impulse. Sure, they’re a credit union with a mission of community development, but they’re also successful bankers who have to properly evaluate and underwrite all the risks associated with any loan they make. Like any bank, they want their money back—with interest.

Self-Help looked at the RCC’s market study, pro forma, and proposal, and decided the coop was a solid investment. A solid investment, that is, given certain conditions, including ongoing City ownership of the shopping center in which the coop will operate. Self-Help added this condition because they think that’s the best situation to nurture the coop and lay the groundwork for an even larger investment in community ownership: the community buying the whole shopping center.

No doubt, the news about Self-Help’s willingness to lend to the coop had a strong impact on Greensboro City Council members. That news, plus the over 100 people who turned out in support of the coop, turned last week’s City Council meeting into a bit of a love-fest for the coop. Virtually every member of Council plus both developer groups declared their support for the RCC effort.

The Council meeting was long and ultimately no conclusion was reached. After more than four hours of listening to the various proposals and public commentary, followed by discussion among themselves, Council members decided to postpone the decision about the long-term ownership of the Renaissance Shopping Center until their June 4th meeting. Whichever way the Council decides (continued City ownership of the Center versus passing ownership to a private developer), it looks like the coop has a home. So I left the City Council meeting pretty happy, even though I was confused about one aspect of the conversation.

Here’s the thing that puzzles me: Again and again, I heard several Council members say in support of the idea of selling the Renaissance Center to a private development group: “In this economy, we can’t afford to turn our back on private investment!” I wanted to jump up out of my seat and yell, “Wait a minute! That’s exactly what you’ll be doing, if you sell the Center to a private developer. Because that’s endangering the $700,000 loan from Self Help, which is explicitly tied to the City retaining ownership of the shopping center or selling it to the community!”

Council members, for the most part, seemed oblivious to the idea that the coop was itself bringing a significant amount of money to the table. Instead, many seemed to be treating the coop as a very worthy, popular, “charitable” enterprise. This was puzzling to me: In the RCC’s presentations to Council and in all the information we had circulated to Council members in face-to-face meetings, we had carefully spelled out our plans for raising the $2 million we needed to open the grocery store. Yes, we are asking for a $100,000 grant and a $600,000 loan from the City. Lots of businesses have asked for and received economic development support of this kind from the City. More importantly, the RCC is also bringing $1.3 million of our own money to the table. That $1.3 million is what any banker would call “private investment.”

Maybe there’s some confusion about this word “private.” When City Council members were throwing the word around in regard to the proposal from the private development group that wants to gain ownership of the shopping center, I think they meant “dollars not coming from taxpayers.” That is the same meaning I am putting on the term when I say that the coop will bring $1.3 million in private investment to the project.

With the Self-Help offer included, the RCC already has $745,000 of our private investment in hand or pledged. That’s a whole lot more than any of the other proposing groups have demonstrated.

And we are well on our way in raising the $600,000 more that we need, from member equity, owner loans, local and regional foundations, and community development financial institutions who specialize in lending to coops. If you want to see the details on our financing plan, check out the “Capital Requirements” worksheet that’s included in the RCC’s pro forma, which is available on the RCC website.

It’ll be a whole lot easier to raise this money when decisions are finalized, assuring the coop has a certain home in the Renaissance Center with the financial backing of the City. Here’s hoping everyone on City Council comes to understand the sizable investment the coop is making in our community, and makes the best decision for the community and the coop!

Congratulations to the people’s movement to end corporate personhood

Rights are for the People on the Supreme Court

The Fund for Democratic Communities wishes to congratulate all the people and organizations that worked hard to see a resolution passed by our City Council opposing corporate personhood and calling on Congress to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Rights are for the People on the Supreme Court
Rights Are For The People on the Supreme Court

While the City of Greensboro’s resolution will not, by itself, remove the ability of corporate interests to flood our political processes with virtually limitless money, this decision adds our local government to the growing list of municipalities, counties and other government institutions demanding serious action on campaign finance reform.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that began just one year ago shook up the status quo by reminding people across our country and the world that the people hold the ultimate decision-making power. The effort to create and pass this resolution here in Greensboro drew energy from this movement and built relationships with organizations already engaged in similar work. This is an excellent example of how grassroots organizing builds coalitions capable of changing government policies.

We also congratulate the members of Greensboro’s City Council who voted in favor of the resolution. They demonstrated sincere receptiveness to learn about issues brought before them by Greensboro’s residents.

Click here to download a PDF of the resolution passed. Below is a video featuring some of the statements made by council members about the resolution.