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From a new animal shelter to the return of March Madness: Here's what to expect for Guilford County in 2020

News & Record reporters take a look at what’s coming up in 2020 for everything from the arts scene and government, to education and sports. Here’s what to expect in the new year:

Arts & entertainment

The biggest news is that, after more than eight years of active planning, the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts is scheduled to open in March.

The exact opening date has not been announced. But events in the new downtown venue already have been set for March: comedian Jay Leno on March 22, actress Sally Field on March 24 and the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra on March 28.

They will help to launch a lineup of touring Broadway productions and concerts, the Guilford College Bryan Series of guest speakers, Greensboro Symphony Orchestra performances, a Greensboro Opera production, comedy shows and family entertainment.

April alone will bring “The Music of Queen,” “Sesame Street Live,” “Rain — A Tribute to the Beatles,” Patti LaBelle, Matthew Morrison and the Greensboro Symphony Pops, Darci Lynne Farmer’s “Fresh Out of the Box” tour and “The Bachelor Live on Stage.”

The opening will mark the fruition of a planning process that began in 2012. That’s when a community task force began tackling the issue of replacing War Memorial Auditorium with a performing arts center.

At one time, it was expected to open in 2017.

Now, crews continue to work on the 3,023-seat, 110,000-square-foot building with an exterior primarily of limestone, glass and stucco at North Elm and East Lindsay streets and Abe Brenner Place.

Seats are being installed. Substantial completion of construction is scheduled for Feb. 9, followed by several weeks of installing custom equipment — including two state-of-the-art sound systems, said Andrew Brown, public relations manager for the Greensboro Coliseum complex, which will run the venue.

The center is named for the CEO of Tanger Outlets, who pledged $7.5 million for the project.

It will cost $90 million — $85 million for the project itself and $5 million in bond-related financing costs — shared by the city of Greensboro and private donors.

No taxpayer money was used on construction, said Matt Brown, coliseum complex managing director. The city’s portion will come from a combination of ticket fees, parking revenues and a tax on hotel rooms.

The venue already has sold more than 15,000 season seat memberships for the 2020-21 Broadway season.

The inaugural season opens May 26 with “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical.” Other direct-from-New York premieres to the Triad are “Wicked,” Disney’s “The Lion King,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away” and “Mean Girls.”

The response to the center’s inaugural season lineup “has been phenomenal,” Matt Brown said in an earlier news release. “To surpass 15,000 subscribers six months prior to our first Broadway show is an extraordinary accomplishment for a first-year venue.”

Energy

Duke Energy’s residential customers in the Greensboro area will learn in the coming months whether their electric bills are going up by about 7%. The North Carolina Utilities Commission will decide whether to grant the utility’s request for a rate hike expected to increase the average customer’s bill just more than $8 a month.

Increased costs of doing business cited by the Charlotte-based utility giant included cleaning up coal ash deposits, closing the basins where ash had been stored under water, expanding solar and other sources of renewable energy, and replacing coal-fired power production with natural gas.

Education

Guilford County Schools

The year ahead is likely to be a crossroads for Guilford County Schools and its buildings.

County commissioners and school board members face a choice on whether to move forward with a $2 billion master plan developed by consultants and endorsed by Superintendent Sharon Contreras that includes rebuilding or renovating some buildings, closing others and providing safety upgrades to schools across the district. Voters could get a say too, if the county holds a referendum on a bond to pay for the project.

Turnover in UNC schools

Expect to see a lot of new UNC System leaders in 2020.

Three campuses — East Carolina and Fayetteville State universities and UNC School of the Arts — have interim chancellors. UNC System President Bill Roper and UNC-Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois both announced in 2019 that they plan to leave their jobs June 30.

All five institutions have started searches for permanent leaders.

Higher eduncation and the state budget

All eyes in N.C. higher education will be focused on Raleigh in January, when the Legislature returns to session Jan. 14.

University and community college employees are hoping to get raises. Potential pay increases got caught up in the budget stalemate between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republicans who control both houses of the legislature.

UNCG and N.C. A&T will be watching closely, too. The stalled budget plan includes the first $10 million installment toward an $84 million expansion and renovation of UNCG’s crowded Jackson Library. The state budget proposal also contains $18.5 million for renovations of A&T’s Carver Hall, an agriculture research and teaching facility, and $15 million over two years to hire more professors and set them up with research labs.

Government

General Assembly

“Budget” is the watch word for state legislators from Guilford County as they head back to Raleigh, where North Carolina government is hobbling along without the two-year spending plan that state representatives and senators ideally should have approved to take effect July 1.

Republican state Rep. Jon Hardister of Whitsett and Democratic state Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro both say they’re hopeful the two parties can bring about a resolution early this year. The budget has been held hostage to Medicaid expansion, which Democrats support and Republicans do not. State government has plinked along as the GOP-led General Assembly has passed “mini-budget” bills that provide money for some of the basics, and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has signed them.

But one of the big “to do’s” for the New Year is bringing an end to the impasse, which could come by way of a compromise or a vote overriding Cooper’s earlier budget veto.

An artful compromise could bring Guilford County belated, but no less welcome benefits that include millions of dollars for a mental health center and a new Career and Technical Education school curriculum, pay raises for teachers and support personnel, new initiatives at both of Greensboro’s state universities and more than $28 million in school construction money.

Greensboro

The Greensboro City Council said in the last quarter of 2019 that it has three major priorities in 2020 and has committed $1 million and the possibility of donating real estate to those projects.

Solving the hard problems of crime, mental health and housing are the goals.

Among the city’s top priorities are:

  • Cure Violence: The council allocated $500,000 for a Chicago-based program that attempts to stop gun violence before it starts. Beginning sometime in 2020, the program will hire people to work in two neighborhoods in east Greensboro where a higher proportion of people have died from gun violence. Their strategies include mediating disputes among young residents, mentoring youth who might turn to violence and attempting to quell violent events before they can happen.
  • Forming the Behavioral Health Response Program: The program would create a team of mental-health professionals who would work 24/7 to be available for any city employee, including police, experiencing an issue with a person who appears to be mentally ill. The idea is to help any of the city’s 3,100 workers, from library workers to city clerks, to deal with people who might be experiencing some kind of mental-health crisis.

The program stems, in part, from an incident in 2018 when homeless man Marcus Smith was having a mental-health crisis and died after police tied his hands to his feet behind him. Advocates and some City Council members have said if a psychologist or other professional had been on the scene, their influence might have assisted police in handling Smith differently.

  • Supportive housing: This program, which is still in the discussion phase, would use a city-owned building, likely one that now houses the Recreation Department at Fourth and Maple streets, as the shell for scores of new apartments that would be located close to a variety of social services for residents. The idea is to enable people who would be homeless to overcome their personal problems with continuing support from those service agencies.

Council members and community agencies are already laying the groundwork for the program to begin sometime in 2020.

New police chief

The city will pick a new police chief in 2020. Chief Wayne Scott announced in August he planned to retire Jan. 31. He has been chief since 2015 and with the department since 1991.

City staff and consultants from Developmental Associates met with residents to learn what they wanted in the next police chief. Some of their suggestions were used to help outline criteria for the job.

Nearly 40 people applied for the job. The applicants were a diverse group from across the country with 26 holding a deputy chief title or higher, according to Trey Davis, an assistant city manager. City officials told the Rhino Times that the list has been narrowed to two finalists.

No details were available Tuesday afternoon about the finalists or when a new chief would be named.

Davis has said the city hopes to name a new chief ahead of Scott’s Jan. 31 retirement to ensure a smooth transition.

Guilford County

It’s a building year for Guilford County government with capital projects under way that include a behavioral health complex and a new animal shelter.

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners is partnering with Cone Health, state government and Sandhills Center on the $28 million facility in Greensboro’s medical district. They broke ground in October.

And animal lovers can rejoice. After years of complaints about outdated and inefficient facilities, a new $14.8 million animal shelter also is planned on Guilford College Road in western Greensboro.

The commissioners tapped $30 million in voter approved bonds last year to help pay the county’s share of such pending construction projects, which also include an Emergency Medical Services building off Business 85 and new offices for the sheriff’s office downtown.

Meanwhile, big changes are afoot on the board. Board chairman Jeff Phillips and fellow Republican Hank Henning announced recently that they will not seek re-election in November, meaning that incumbents will not be on the ballot for two of four seats in 2020. Two current commissioners, Democrat Melvin “Skip” Alston and Republican Alan Branson, have filed to retain their seats.

Sports

Several big events are on tap in 2020.

First up are the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which return to the Greensboro Coliseum Jan. 20-26. This is the third time in 10 years Greensboro has hosted the championships, which were also held here in 2011 and 2015. Along with determining the U.S. champions, the event serves as the final step in determining the U.S. teams for several other events, including the World Figure Skating Championships and Winter Olympics.

March Madness also comes to Greensboro, which will host both the men’s and women’s ACC tournaments again for the first time since 2015. Women are up first, March 4-8, followed by the men’s tournament March 10-14. The men’s tournament was a springtime staple at the Greensboro Coliseum for years, with five of six tournaments played here between 2010 and 2015, including three straight from 2013 to 2015.

The men’s tournament moves on to Washington in 2021 and Brooklyn in 2022.

Hoops madness continues with the NCAA men’s tournament first and second rounds, March 20 and March 22.

And golfers seeking to make the PGA playoffs have one more chance to qualify in Greensboro Aug. 6-9 at the Wyndham Championship.

Tourism

Visitors to the Greensboro Science Center will see several new additions in 2020 with its ongoing expansion.

The Malayan tiger breeding center will welcome its first tiger early this year, a male from the Jacksonville (Fla.) Zoo. Zookeepers expect to acquire a female later on.

And the much-anticipated carousel, featuring hand-carved animals and characters reflecting the zoo’s animals and the city’s heritage, is anticipated to open by early spring, according to Bernie Mann, who’s overseeing the project for The Rotary Club of Greensboro. The club raised about $3 million to pay for the carousel, which will be the largest in North Carolina.

Other exhibits opening this year include the Kiwanisaurus Tree House Adventure, with specialized treehouses and interactive adventure bridges, the Cole Family Butterfly House and Monarch Conservation Center and the Komodo dragon outdoor exhibit.

Transportation

The new year’s big news in local travel has to be the Greensboro Urban Loop, with the next-to-last leg opening on the next-to-last day of 2019 and extending from Battleground Avenue to Lawndale Drive. Highway contractors already are working on the last leg of the six-lane expressway that, when complete, will make a 44-mile circuit around the city.

They aren’t likely to complete that last section to U.S. 29 for about two years, but state Department of Transportation officials have said they hope to open a major chunk of it — from Lawndale to North Elm Street — by the end of 2020.


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Public Defender's Offices celebrate 50 years with Guilford County leading the way

GREENSBORO There’s a birthday in Guilford County and the entire state is invited to celebrate.

Today, the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office turns 50.

And that’s important because it was the first public defender’s office in the state.

Public defenders represent clients who are entitled to legal representation but can’t afford an attorney on their own.

“It’s so important to get a good, solid defense. A lot of these folks can’t afford it,” said Fred Lind, who retired in early December as the county’s public defender. He was only the second person to serve in that post.

With the anniversary approaching, judicial officials are planning numerous events to celebrate public defender’s offices around the state.

“Public defenders are very important in ensuring rights are protected, defendants get a fair trial and making sure no one is unjustly prosecuted,” said Susan Brooks, public defender administrator for the Office of Indigent Defense Services.

Brooks has been working with a committee to create a series of celebrations in 2020. The group includes John Nieman, a longtime assistant public defender in Guilford County who took over the county office when Lind retired.

Nieman said those celebrations, though not finalized, include proclamations, symposiums and panel discussions.

In 1969, Greensboro Daily News reported that state lawmakers wanted to open a public defender’s office to help people who couldn’t afford an attorney. At the time, those people would go before the local bar asking for an attorney to help them. But the experienced attorneys tended not to want to take away from their private practices to help indigent defendants. The defendants ended up getting younger attorneys looking for courtroom experience.

At the time, the state had paid attorneys $670,000 to help defend indigent defendants. Of that money, $52,000 went to Guilford County.

The opening of the public defender’s office saved the state $22,000 the first year.

When the office opened on Jan. 1, 1970, Wally Harrelson served as the first public defender and brought with him to serve as assistant public defenders, D. Lamar Dowda and R.D. (Bob) Douglass III. Gerald M. Teff worked as an investigator for the office and Bennie Phillips as secretary.

“We started with Wally Harrelson who was a great trial lawyer and a great defender of personal liberty, freedoms and indigent defense,” Nieman said. “And he just fought like hell.”

A year after the office opened, judges, lawyers and state leaders all deemed it a success, saying it moved cases faster, was economical and was superior to the old system. They saw it cut down on the amount of time that defendants spent in jail waiting for trial. Supporters wanted to see the office spread to other counties around the state.

Eighteen of the state’s 43 judicial districts have adopted a Public Defender’s Office.

Lind, who worked for Harrelson starting in 1974, said he never worried about whether the program would succeed despite some naysayers.

“It seemed like the judges, once they got used to it, liked the public defender system,” Lind said. “They liked the professionalism and quality of the attorney.”

In a recent interview, former Chief Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said the public defender’s office is as much of the home team as the prosecutors.

“There seems to be a public sentiment that if you’re stuck with a public defender, you’re in trouble,” Neumann said, “but nothing could be further from the truth.”

One of the biggest areas of pride for Guilford’s public defenders is the lack of turnover. Assistant public defenders tend to stick around for a long time. And in its 50-year history, Nieman is only the third person to lead the office.

“Some of the best criminal defense lawyers in the state have been through this office,” Nieman said. “It is a real source of pride that we have for the Guilford County office.”


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An interesting article in today's paper

In Savor: Finding calm in the kitchen isn’t always easy. Some tips on how to start. Page D1


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Judge blocks state’s voter ID law, calling it racially biased

WINSTON-SALEM — A federal judge has officially blocked North Carolina’s voter ID law, saying she found compelling evidence that state Republican legislators acted with racially discriminatory intent in passing it.

The ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs late Tuesday afternoon means that voters will not have to present photo ID when they cast ballots during the March 3 primary elections. Biggs kept intact a provision in the law that allows a larger number of poll observers who are appointed by both the Democrat and Republican parties.

The N.C. NAACP and several local chapters, including Winston-Salem’s, filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law, which was approved in December 2018. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the legislation, but state Republican legislators, who still had supermajorities in both the House and Senate, overrode Cooper’s veto.

On Dec. 3, Biggs heard arguments from both sides in a hearing in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem on whether to temporarily block the law. She indicated that she would grant an injunction.

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said Monday that the N.C. Department of Justice must seek a stay in the case.

On Tuesday, Berger’s office issued a reaction to Biggs’ decision.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that the judge would accuse the bill sponsors — including an African American Democrat — of being racist,” Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for Berger, said of the ruling. “The voters saw the need for voter ID and approved the constitutional amendment. The legislature, acting on the will of the people, enacted one of the broadest voter ID laws in the nation. Now this lawsuit, and last-minute ruling, have sowed additional discord and confusion about the voting process.”

In a lengthy 60-page decision, Biggs said that North Carolina has a long history of racial discrimination in voting and that cannot be disentangled from how this latest legislation was passed. In fact, Biggs said in her ruling, the state’s most recent history is also instructive in analyzing whether the voter ID law has racially discriminatory intent and whether it would have a disproportionate impact on minority voters.

North Carolina Republicans have tried several times, first in 2011 and again in 2013, to pass a photo ID law. In 2013, a limited photo ID bill sat in a committee for months until after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required certain states and counties, including 40 counties in North Carolina, to get prior approval before passing election laws.

After that decision, state Republican leaders rapidly approved House Bill 589, which not only required photo IDs but also eliminated same-day voter registration, cut the number of days for early voting and prohibited county elections officials from counting out-of-precinct ballots. Opponents of the law said the very measures Republican legislators either curtailed or eliminated were used disproportionately by black voters. That law was challenged in federal court, and in 2016, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law, finding that Republican legislators had racially discriminatory intent in passing the law.

Biggs said that many of the same Republican leaders who pushed House Bill 589 also supported the new voter ID law. She said they also publicly opposed the 4th Circuit’s 2016 ruling against House Bill 589 and made statements that they wanted to push a new law, which could withstand judicial scrutiny.

State Republican legislators argued in court papers and in public discussions that both laws were necessary to combat potential voter fraud and restore confidence. The road to the recent law was somewhat different. State Republican legislators scheduled a November 2018 referendum on requiring photo ID. Voters approved the proposal, and then state Republican legislators introduced legislation to implement the requirement.

Attorneys for the N.C. Attorney General’s Office argued that this new voter ID law was different from the 2013 law — more photo IDs were acceptable, student IDs were also accepted and people without a photo ID could get a free one from either the county board of elections or the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. They also contended that there was a reasonable impediment component in which people who did not have a photo ID could still cast a ballot.

In short, their argument was that there was no way that people would be kept from voting with the law.

Biggs largely rejected those arguments. Plaintiffs had presented enough evidence to show that black and Hispanic voters were less likely to have photo IDs than white voters. And because black and Hispanic voters are more likely to be poor and lack transportation, they will have more obstacles in obtaining the free IDs, Biggs said in her ruling.

She also found it suspicious that certain types of photo IDs that blacks and Hispanics were more likely to have were specifically excluded from being acceptable forms of IDs at the ballot box. The reasonable impediment exception also didn’t have any guidelines outlining what standards a board of election should accept or reject on voters’ explanations for why they couldn’t get a photo ID, Biggs argued in her ruling. She noted that in the March 2016 primary, when photo ID was required, blacks made up a disproportionate number of voters whose provisional ballots were not counted, despite having a reasonable impediment provision.