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At 10 years, civil rights museum is proud of where it is, believes expansion is a must

GREENSBORO — When four young black men from N.C. A&T sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown, they sparked a fight for civil rights that has reverberated for 60 years.

That legacy gives a strength of purpose to John Swaine, CEO of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

The museum, which is in its 10th year, is now on relatively smooth financial terrain, earning a profit and expanding its educational programs to the community.

These days, Swaine concentrates on building a brighter future, clear of a city loan that divided the community over the museum’s relationship with local government.

But he faces ongoing challenges and pressure to keep contributions rolling in as he tries to expand the profile of the 91-year-old building on Elm Street.

“Difficult is an understatement,” Swaine said of his more than five years as CEO in a recent interview. “I am grateful for having to go through it because it changed my outlook. ... I had taken for granted that this was a powerful institution with a powerful story — and people wanting to find something to come together over.

“That is not necessarily always the case. You’ve got to constantly engage them.”

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Just like the fight for equality the museum commemorates, building an institution to honor that history was, it seems, never meant to be easy.

Historically, the institution has struggled with money issues and bad publicity as it sought to stand on its own.

On Feb. 1, 1960, when the four A&T students decided to launch their nonviolent effort to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter, they likely had no idea they would create a shrine to civil rights progress.

Once the store’s manager decided to allow African Americans to eat alongside white customers in July 1960, the lunch counter became a touchstone to an indelible moment in Greensboro — and the country’s — history.

By 1993, the moment had faded. The lunch counter had stopped serving food and was facing an uncertain future.

Enter Melvin “Skip” Alston and Earl Jones, community leaders who wanted to protect the store from the inevitable wrecking ball.

When the store closed in early 1994, the duo led an effort to buy the building for $700,000.

The next year, an organization called the Sit-In Movement began an international fundraising campaign to turn the building into a civil rights museum with an eye toward opening in 1998.

But the International Civil Rights Center & Museum wouldn’t debut until Feb. 1, 2010.

The years in between were punctuated by one issue after another.

Museum officials found they had a serious problem with a leaky basement and in 2005 announced they would need an extra $6 million for the repair project and to prepare the building to meet the standards for affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution.

In 2006, officials announced a fundraising campaign with a $12.5 million goal.

In 2009, in the museum’s most complicated deal, two investment groups agreed to buy $10 million in tax credits linked to the project. Local foundations and a variety of corporations made $4 million in new pledges.

The museum was able to open in 2010, but it was soon feeling financial strains.

By 2013, the museum had asked for a $1.5 million forgivable loan from the city, which elected officials approved in September of that year.

The effort to pay off that loan would consume much of the next five years as museum leaders sought contributions that would retire a dollar of city debt for every dollar raised.

In the meantime, relations between city officials and the museum’s board would become icy after Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced in 2014 a proposal for the city to take over operation of the museum.

Vaughan and four council members held a news conference announcing the proposal, saying the museum was faltering financially.

The museum’s board voted quickly and without discussion to reject the city’s officer.

Jones said at the time: “It does not reflect the reality of the museum. We are stable financially, and we have a steady stream of revenue coming in — and we are continuing our effort to raise money.”

In 2016, the museum said it had turned a profit and announced in 2018 it had retired its debt to the city.

Since that time, the city has had no further involvement in the museum’s affairs and does not contribute to or audit its finances.

Vaughan said last week she considers that a closed chapter and now has cordial relations with the museum’s principals.

Swaine said the loan was a learning experience, but a necessary one.

“When we thanked the residents for the forgivable loan of $1.5 million, that was a critical investment into the infrastructure at the time by the city to move the institution forward,” he said. “It is now doing far better.”

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Alston, who is a Guilford County commissioner, said in a recent interview that the International Civil Rights Center & Museum is a success, in part, because of its close relationship with the Smithsonian.

In the 1990s, his group donated a stool and a section of the lunch counter for an exhibit about the sit-ins.

“That’s international exposure for Greensboro,” he said. “That’s why we have so many people that come here from all across the country.”

Attendance was up by more than 30% last year, Swaine said, to 75,000.

With a sense of humor borne of struggle, Swaine said it’s good to see growing interest.

“We have seen a significant increase last year, and 2018 was a remarkable year. If there was ever a time to be afraid, 2020 is it,” he joked.

But he is genuinely hopeful every year when the center’s annual fundraising gala, its biggest event, rolls around on Feb. 1.

The 2020 event is especially significant because it marks the 60th anniversary of the sit-ins and the museum’s 10th.

With a $1.5 million annual budget, Swaine said contributions are a mainstay beyond regular tourist revenue.

In difficult times, the museum operated under a collection of five partnerships and nonprofits designed to serve a variety of financial functions for its complicated funding structure.

Now, with the tax credit deal finished and the city loan over, Swaine said, the center operates under only two entities: Sit-In Movement and Civil Rights Museum LLC.

Sit-In Movement brings in about $500,000 a year from contributions and fundraising events. The gala alone raises between $300,000 and $400,000 a year.

Civil Rights Museum brings in around $800,000.

The rest of the center’s money comes from grants and other revenues, Swaine said.

The museum still faces challenges before it can become a formal Smithsonian affiliate, however.

The building’s heating and air-conditioning system needs repair as it ages.

With hundreds of artifacts and fragile displays throughout, a museum like this is always dependent on its climate-control system. Any glitches can damage everything from the original lunch counter to the KKK robe and hood in a display case.

And the inefficient system leads to what may be the center’s most unlikely big expense: $200,000 a year in utility costs.

“It’s primarily from the way the facility was designed,” Swaine explained. “I’ve written grants to try to make modifications to control those costs. We know what we have to do, but it takes some support to make those adjustments.”

A good climate-control system is crucial when the Smithsonian evaluates museums for affiliation, especially when sending out traveling exhibits — the kind that could boost attendance in the International Civil Rights Center.

Swaine said ultimately the center will have to mount a capital campaign to raise enough money to replace the climate-control system.

“That is goal No. 1,” he said. “Cut utility consumption. It’s immediate. Because the funds that we earn are really good funds that are coming in to help us meet our short-term obligations.”

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Swaine, Alston and historian Will Harris recently sat in the center’s second-floor boardroom and talked about what the museum and its outreach programs mean to Greensboro.

Harris, a former college professor who works with Swaine to plan ongoing programs, said the International Civil Rights Center represents more to the city than a tourist attraction, though that is a key attribute.

“A city that has good race relations is good for business,” he said. “This is a place that has a history of progress and you’re not coming to some backward place.”

He said CEOs worry about whether their families will be comfortable in a city where they locate an operation.

“They’re going to feel comfortable here because this place is thought to be a progressive community,” Harris said. “We can certainly argue about what’s left to be done and what hasn’t worked and what has. This institution right here is a magnet ... for business expansion in Greensboro.”

Alston said the tour counts don’t tell the entire story of attendance. Every day, he said, people come to the museum for meetings, public forums and discussion programs.

He said the roughly $93 million Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, which opens downtown in March, will be a draw “but it’s not the draw that this center right here is. Every day.

“We’re getting ready to host a meeting with the candidates who are running for House District 6. That’ll pack that auditorium. We don’t count those people.”

The museum is also a must-see for national candidates as well. Presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke came to the museum while on the campaign trail, as did U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Harris said the museum is a vital community anchor for history that many people who are still living experienced in 1960.

“We actually have people come through here who say, ‘Oh, I was part of it.’ ”

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For Swaine and the museum’s board, future financial support is never a given. That’s why he said he works hard to write grants and reach out to the many donors who have contributed over the years.

Yet, he still believes something is missing, something that public support could provide.

Harris, who has worked in academic settings around the world, said he believes the museum is a gift to the community that should be appreciated.

“With all of the effort that John and his staff have put into this place, that ends up being a gift to the city,” he said. “This is private, not publicly funded. As an outsider I look at the effort that’s made here, the hours that are put in, the dedication and spirit of all the ways this benefits the city of Greensboro and Guilford County — that’s mostly a gift. And at least it needs to be celebrated and acknowledged.

“That’s what private organizations are supposed to be doing for their cities, but often they get a lot of public support.”

Swaine is looking to the future.

“This museum needs to grow,” he said. “It needs not to just sit here and think that we have arrived, because that’s just not the case. We do need ongoing support so that we can look forward and make bigger plans.”

Vaughan said she can see a case where the city might support the museum again.

“They are not only an important piece of our history,” she said, “but they represent an important piece of our future.”

Swaine’s wish list is very specific: an updated heating and air-condition system and, ultimately, a space to grow and add exhibits.

It’s the smaller things that could come more quickly. He has kept the staff small to rein in costs.

The museum employs four full-time employees compared with 14 when it opened and nine part-time workers compared with 14 when it opened.

“I had to just pare it down to the most talented staff I could get my hands on,” he explained.

The museum’s guides can get overwhelmed, and he is looking for ways to fill the gap between guided tours and self-guided tours. To that end, Swaine would like to acquire audio equipment so more people can get the full experience the museum has to offer at any time.

“The audio tours can go along with the guided tour at the same time,” he said.

Also, keeping the museum’s name in front of the public is key, Swaine stressed.

So the museum has acquired the money needed for a billboard on Interstate 40 as well as an advertisement at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

“The work that we do here is about economic vitality in the downtown area and in order for us to thrive we’ve got to advertise,” he said.

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Swaine is well-versed in the mechanics of the museum. But it’s the effect on the people who walk through its halls that brightens his face.

Swaine reflected on the museum’s impact on students.

He said that all of Guilford County’s eighth-grade students tour the museum every year. And he has worked there long enough that he now sees some of those former students as adults, bringing friends and family members.

He said the museum’s reach goes beyond Guilford County into places where news of historic civil rights struggles may not be so well-known.

A teacher from Davie County who had accompanied some students on a tour said they were changed after their visit to the museum. She wrote Swaine a letter, he said.

“They don’t see a lot of African Americans there,” he said the teacher told him. “And some of the words that were used previously in the classroom are not used anymore.”

The impact goes both ways.

“I’ve had African American students to tour here and many of them did not know that white people were involved in the civil rights struggle,” Swaine said. “If we’re having those kinds of impacts on the minds, we’re helping the schools turn out better students.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Toll, please: Cameras looking for I-77 drivers who exploit provision exempting high-occupancy vehicles. Page A5

City shows staying power as host for U.S. Figure Skating Championships

GREENSBORO — When the week ends with the made-for-TV Skating Spectacular exhibition tonight, the city will have done something no place else has done since cars had tailfins and “I Love Lucy” ruled prime time.

The Greensboro Coliseum has hosted the U.S. Figure Skating Championships for the third time in a 10-year window.

No place — not New York, not Boston, not Saint Paul or Minneapolis or any other traditional skating town — has done that since Colorado Springs hosted four between 1948 and ’55.

“To host the championships three times in 10 years is really quite amazing,” said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist and ambassador of all three of Greensboro’s events. “And I know (U.S. Figure Skating) is glad to have a city that wants nationals so badly and appreciates the entertainment value and the athleticism.”

The truth is U.S. Figure Skating rolled the dice in 2011, and the gamble on the Southeast paid off.

Greensboro’s paid attendance for that nine-day event was a record 110,787, with another 50,805 at the FanFest and practice rink in the Special Events Center. It earned the return trips for the 2015 and now 2020 nationals.

But it’s more than cold numbers, says Bob Dunlop, figure skating’s director of events.

“It’s been a very positive experience,” Dunlop said. “What we saw in the initial bid, and what we’ve seen in all three events, is a local involvement. We’ve felt really good about the volunteer network. We’ve felt very good about the arena’s perspective, that the Coliseum wanted to be involved. There was a willingness to work through all the little details that go into planning a big event.”

It’s an event that has changed radically in the last 10 years.

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The first time Greensboro hosted, there were national championships in five divisions: senior, junior, novice, intermediate and juvenile. There were skaters of all ages everywhere. It was a cumbersome event.

This year, only the seniors and juniors compete in Greensboro. The lower three divisions, populated by the youngest skaters, were moved to developmental camp in Indian Trail outside Charlotte. Greensboro’s local organizing committee is responsible for that elite camp, which will be held this week, as well.

The change — which took effect for the first time last year in Detroit — streamlined the event, but it also set back Greensboro’s organizing efforts.

Instead of two years of lead time to prepare and sell tickets, Greensboro had just 13 months this time. Attendance has been decent this year, but it will fall short of 2011 and 2015 says Hill Carrow, chairman of the local organizing committee for all three of the city’s bids.

“It can wear you down,” Carrow said. “The process for landing it doesn’t get any easier, even though you have success. Our first one in 2011 was really over-the-top success. … That actually gave us the interest and momentum to ask for it back.”

Where the lost time in advance hurt was in selling all-event passes.

“If you’re a pro sports team, you try to push your season-ticket sales as hard as you can. For us, that’s our all-event passes,” Carrow said. “As soon as you start selling weekend packages, then all-event sales drop off a lot. And then as soon as you start selling individual session tickets, all the other packages drop off. So the more time you have to push those packages, the better base you build. Then when everybody gets the fever as the event gets here, those individual tickets become a bonus.”

Even so, Carrow was encouraged by the numbers.

“We’re on a trajectory, where if we’d had all 24 months (of lead time), we would at a minimum be between where we were in 2015 and 2011,” Carrow said. “We’re not going to reach (the sales total) we did in 2015, but on a month-by-month basis we’re on a better trajectory.”

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U.S. Figure Skating would like Greensboro to bid again, although there might be a longer wait than four or five years before the next nationals here.

“When we see something that works, good people in a good place, it makes sense for us,” Dunlop said. “… It’s as much us wanting to come back as it is the local community wanting to bring the event back. Hopefully, we’ve forged a really good relationship between U.S. Figure Skating, the local organizing committee and the Greensboro Coliseum. When we end an event here, it’s always, ‘Hey, that was great. When are we coming back?’ I still see that playing out here. Is there a No. 4 on the horizon? I would say absolutely. Could I say when? No way.”

Greensboro’s staying power is really based upon the Coliseum itself.

Terry Gannon played basketball in the building for N.C. State in the 1980s. He’s been a TV broadcaster of figure skating events since 1996.

“It’s a natural, really,” Gannon said. “It’s a perfect fit for the national championships. There are really two things: No. 1, Greensboro really wants this event. I’ve talked to the organizers on both sides, and they love it coming here. No. 2, the city, the area, the state really embraces it. … You want to go where you’re wanted. And the building plays a part. They’ve kept updating the Coliseum, and that’s important.”

Gannon still gets wistful when he works an event at the Coliseum, he said, even though the building is much different than it was when he tried to guard Muggsy Bogues or Dell Curry at the ACC Tournament.

“It’s been remodeled and updated so many times since then,” Gannon said. “The reality is you have to keep updating if you want to keep attracting events like this one. … But no matter how much they change it, how much they update it, it does still have the same feel. I know I’m walking into the Greensboro Coliseum when I come through the doors. And that’s cool.”

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The Coliseum’s versatility comes into play for figure skating.

In addition to the competition rink in the main arena, there’s a temporary practice rink set up on the Special Events Center as well as a FanFest area. Several host sites have stopped doing FanFests, which are not a bid requirement, Carrow said.

“Their field-of-play set-up here is the best in the nation,” Dunlop said. “Having two rinks under one roofline allows flexibility, especially for the coaches, who are often coaching multiple athletes. A coach can come to the rink with one athlete or team, and 20 minutes later can be at the other ice with another athlete or team instead of running all over the place.”

It’s a selling point that enabled the Gate City to become Skate City.

But will Greensboro bid again? Definitely maybe.

“It needs to be something that’s workable for everybody,” Carrow said. “… The festive atmosphere and the competition and the TV exposure, that aspect every community would like no matter what. Then it’s whether you can make enough in return on investment for it to be good for the community.”

For its part, U.S. Figure Skating hopes it’s more “definitely” than “maybe.”

“It goes back to people and relationships,” Dunlop said. “We hope we’ve cemented a home here in Greensboro.”

On the rise again: Rural Rockingham County optimistic about future growth

ROCKINGHAM COUNTY — Folks in one of this county’s small towns spent last week cobbling together enough money to hire a drone pilot videographer and a banjo picker to help them tout their rural burg’s promise.

In fact, nearly every municipality in Rockingham County is racing to meet an early February entry deadline for a national HGTV contest that promises a prize of a top-to-bottom town makeover.

Despite discouraging statistics that count this rural county as having lost about 3% of its population between 2010 and 2018, people here are proud and optimistic about the chance for a population, industry and tourism boom for Rockingham in the next few years.

Data already show a rebound in population, with the county now having close to 93,000 residents according to the county economic development director. That’s just shy of the 93,640 recorded in the 2010 census.

New access to interstates, relatively low property taxes, easy living with low crime rates and light traffic, quick commutes to major neighboring cities Greensboro and Winston-Salem, three rivers, two state parks, and more house for the dollar are the best Rockingham has to offer, say economic development officials and business and community leaders.

Yet, the departure of mainstays over the past decade, like textile industries, MillerCoors, and Ball Corp., has indeed depressed the economy of the county where the poverty rate of 18% is four percentage points above the state average.

Long-shuttered downtowns are slowly but surely drawing shoppers back to historic main streets in Reidsville, Eden, Madison, Mayodan and Stoneville with the additions of quaint shops, the county’s first microbrew pub, novel activities and local boosterism.

But too many handsome old storefronts remain dark as dollar stores and big-box Walmarts thrive.

Phillip Stone, however, said he sees indications for growth, both residential and commercial. Stone is a real estate agent and member of the Rockingham County Planning Board.

“It’s a highly competitive market space,” said Stone, 35, a co-owner of New Dawn Realty in Stokesdale in the county’s west. For instance, when houses priced at $250,000 and below are listed for sale, “they can go in a couple of days, if not quicker,” he said. “We’re seeing very short days on the market for a lot of properties.”

Stone has seen a trend in homeowners from Guilford County’s Oak Ridge and Summerfield communities choosing to sell and move to Rockingham County once their children are off to college. Moving a little north gives them “a little more acreage, a little more privacy, room to spread out,” he said.

Rockingham buyers also find property taxes lower than those in Guilford and Forsyth counties, too, statistics show. Rockingham County homeowners on average pay less than $800 a year in taxes, while those in Guilford County shell out roughly $1,500. In Forsyth County, the average is about $1,770.

Folks from outside North Carolina are also taking notice of Rockingham, Stone said.

“We are actually seeing people moving not from just other cities but also from other states. People from the Midwest and Northeast are coming for milder winters,” he said

Another trend local real estate agents have seen is extended families moving together — adult children and their parents choosing the region to resettle close to one another.

With 17 years in the industry, Stone said more large developers from Greensboro have begun to take serious notice of Rockingham County in the past two years, particularly along the Interstate 73/U.S. 220 corridor since its completion last year.

“Some developers are expanding newer neighborhoods and looking at commercial possibilities,” he said. “Seems like I’m having more and more conversations with people looking to do something here on the commercial side.”

The opening of I-73 means quicker commutes to Greensboro’s Piedmont Triad International Airport and easy drives to workplaces and shopping in Greensboro, Stone said.

Industry tends to court counties with access to interstates within 5 miles, studies show.

And on the eastern side of the county, its second-largest city, Reidsville, population 13,500, will see major transportation veins open up over the next 10 years. Set to begin this year is a $206 million project that will bring U.S. 29 up to interstate standards and create an interchange that connects the Greensboro Urban Loop near PTI to the Virginia state line. The work includes a 16-mile span of U.S. 29 that begins at the Urban Loop near Hicone Road in Guilford County and runs to the U.S. 158/N.C. 14 interchange in Rockingham County.

“What makes Rockingham County positioned well for future growth is our position and proximity to the Triad,” said Leigh Cockram, the county’s director of economic development. While I-73 and I-785 connect the county to major metropolitan cities, Rockingham’s “still far enough away to maintain that rural character we have and a lower cost of living and doing business,” Cockram said. “That’s very attractive and why a lot of companies choose to locate here.”

To draw industry, such as Pella, a major window and door manufacturer that invested $20 million in a new Reidsville plant last year, the county must continue to bolster its skilled workforce, too, Cockram said.

“We’re doing a lot to invest in our workforce and we know we have to stay ahead of the challenge,” she said, citing the success of a 2-year-old apprenticeship program, Rock-A-Top, which has county schools, Rockingham Community College and local industry getting kids into manufacturing settings and earning credentials before they graduate from high school.

Over the past two years, several dozen of those students have partnered with about 10 county manufacturers — from brick-makers to builders of concrete highway buffers — honing skills they need to fill a talent-starved labor market.

Program counselor Lydia Craddock with Rockingham County Schools said the program sees students through a cost-free associate’s degree in manufacturing technology from RCC and gives them the opportunity to concurrently earn a prestigious work credential — a journeyman certificate. Work-based learning on real manufacturing sites can lead to good jobs that pay about $50,000 a year, economic forecasters for the state say.

And by landing a good job with a home-county company, a young person might choose to stay in Rockingham and raise a family rather than leave for a more urban area after high school. That would be a welcome infusion to a county with an older population, where the average age is 44, community leaders agree.

Another way Rockingham County can stimulate growth is by trumpeting its natural resources for tourism, Cockram and others said. With the Dan, Mayo and Smith rivers as complements to the handsome red-clay landscape, county officials are working to brand a “Blue Way” system of various river treks, with put-in and takeout points.

David Myers, the mayor of Madison agrees. He is banking on his town of 2,200 along the Dan River becoming a top destination for people who enjoy kayaking, canoeing and laid-back shopping and dining in a cozy village.

To that end, he and other town leaders have secured millions in grant money from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality over the past 18 months to create a recreational river landing at the Lindsey Bridge Dam site.

The project, which includes repair and restoration of the dam along the Dan, includes establishing weirs to protect an endangered fish species. The final project would increase handicap access to the waterway, restrooms and other amenities.

Myers and downtown developers in Madison are hopeful boaters will row downstream to a takeout point along Water Street at the easternmost end of town and then come in to the historic downtown to enjoy a cold microbrew, coffee or boutique shopping.

“Quite frankly, not many other places have as many of the resources as Rockingham County has been blessed with,” Cockram said. “We’re very optimistic.”