GREENSBORO — Two local groups are working to find Greensboro’s problems and assets as they try to polish the city’s national image and make it a place that welcomes, entertains and engages local residents and large groups of national visitors.
This week, the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau and Downtown Greensboro Inc. each set out to look at ways to overcome such state issues as House Bill 2 and such local issues as making downtown a place where people can have fun, make connections and build the local economy.
Armed with new survey data and inspiration from an expert on boosting downtown vitality, the two groups are ready to start the long process of building plans that, they say, won’t sit on a dusty shelf.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau learned this week the results of a survey of more than 100 local business, community and tourism leaders that asked what this city does well and what it does not.
And on Thursday, DGI, which is downtown’s economic-development agency, held a discussion with a national expert on creating vitality or as he calls it, “placemaking.”
“I do think that it is kind of encouraging to see that our community is saying ‘Let’s work with creative things, with things that are already coming in to create environments that people want to be in,’” said Nancy King Quaintance who, with her husband, Dennis, is the co-leader of the Quaintance-Weaver hotels that include the O. Henry, Proximity and several upscale restaurants.
“It’s not just about downtown, it’s about everywhere in the community,” she said. “We need that kind of energy everywhere.”
Quaintance attended a meeting Tuesday of the Convention and Visitors Bureau where a national consultant presented results of a survey of 110 local people with an interest in tourism.
While not entirely surprising, the results give the agency a clear path for future planning, said Henri Fourrier, the group’s president and chief executive.
Among those who responded were hotel managers and owners, elected officials, community foundation officials and customers of local hotels, restaurants and convention facilities.
A rating system in the survey shows that those surveyed believe the city is better than the industry average in accommodations, sports and recreation facilities, convention and meeting facilities and other key assets.
But Greensboro, and the entire state, is suffering a tourism backlash from House Bill 2, the new state law that requires people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate, Fourrier and other tourism officials say.
And while the survey did not specifically ask a question about the bill, Fourrier said that many of those who responded mentioned the bill in the open-comments section.
Whether the bill is repealed or not, one respondent to the report said: “We should create a campaign or should’ve created a campaign to inform our shareholders that we welcome all guests. We have to be ahead of the problem and not beside it.”
Many groups charge that HB 2 amounts to state discrimination against the LGBT community. Those groups have pulled NCAA athletic tournaments, the NBA All-Star Game, and other businesses or events that we may never know about.
“I can tell you that everybody would love to blink their eyes and have HB 2 go away,” Quaintance said. “And it would help our industry so much. But it’s going to be a long time before we’re going to be able to control that.”
Another issue for Greensboro is the limited and expensive air service from PTI. It’s not the airport that’s a problem — everyone gave the sleek, renovated airport high marks — it’s the small number of flights and limited destinations.
“Every community in this country right now is having a problem with air service,” Fourrier said. Surveys show the industry is flying with the same number of airline seats today that it had in 2007.
Fourrier hired Destination Marketing Association International to create the survey, which is called DestinationNEXT.
He said it will help the Convention and Visitors Bureau write a better-informed master plan to account for problems and assets.
A different group is looking at a more narrow area.
A proposal to improve downtown, still in its early stages, would recruit local people to help the city in a “placemaking” effort to make downtown a unique destination and a place where people would want to live and work.
Zack Matheny, the president of DGI, held a luncheon Thursday where Ethan Kent of the Project for Public Spaces spoke about “placemaking.” His group helps cities around the world find ways to revitalize downtowns with affordable and colorful projects that connect people without necessarily building large developments.
Kent told the group that common sense drives the program, which aims at improving city health programs, arts, architecture and land use, among other things, to attract people to diverse and entertaining spots in a city.
“What attracts people most is other people,” he said.
Even a bankrupt city like Detroit can benefit, he said. An abandoned city center there was revived with festivals, parks, small markets and other events that draw people out of the gloom and into bright spaces that encourage optimistic thinking, he said.
A city like Greensboro could do the same thing much more easily.
In fact, Kent said, smaller cities like Greensboro are more affordable and easier to navigate, which makes them ideal for downtown revival.
He pointed to Asheville and Roanoke, Va., which have brightened their downtowns and built new public places, such as an amphitheater in downtown Roanoke, with great success.
He said the idea is not to build massive malls, buildings or stadiums so much as it is to create smaller places where people gather and can meet or simply share local activity.
“It takes a place to create a community and a community to create a place,” Kent said.
Matheny said in the coming weeks he plans to send a survey to the 50 people at the luncheon so they can add their thoughts to the discussion.
Quaintance said all of the efforts are good if they can heat up tourism in the city.
“This is just data,” she said. “And data is your friend, so we’re going to use data as our friend.”