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'This is going to be transformative to this area.' Music-maker, performance space coming to downtown Greensboro.

GREENSBORO — Come late summer, music will fill a building on the eastern side of downtown.

If all goes as planned, what was once a refrigerated meat storage facility at 800 Pastor Anderson Way will become Rhythm Works, where musicians can create and perform.

“Greensboro has a long history as a musical city,” said downtown developer Andy Zimmerman, who owns the property with Stu Nichols and Linda Spitzen.

“Rhythm Works will be the place where established and aspiring musicians can come to play, practice, record and perform,” Zimmerman said.

The Rhythm Works building is near the intersection with East Washington Street. It occupies the same block as Studio 503, a 2018 Zimmerman project where artists rent 16 renovated spaces at 503 E. Washington St.

The 12,000-square-foot brick structure of two stories and a space below ground level now sports a new roof and new windows.

Zimmerman has hired city native and musician Mike Hooks as executive director. Hooks, an acoustic guitar player and singer who produces multi-track recordings, has worked as a sales and marketing executive.

“He brings a business mind and artist’s and musician’s mind to the table,” Zimmerman said.

Advocates want to see more creative projects in the city’s eastern section.

“This is going to be transformative to this area,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman has dubbed the Rhythm Works and Studio 503 area Down East Downtown. He wants it to join the city’s Downtown Business Improvement District — even though it will raise his taxes.

His other development projects have bolstered the Lewis Street and South End areas, just as developer Marty Kotis grew the Midtown area along Battleground Avenue.

“Expanding (downtown’s) footprint is critical to our city’s future,” he said.

He sees his Down East Downtown developments as a connector between downtown and N.C. A&T, which is within view.

“These projects are additional bridges connecting the communities,” Zimmerman said. “What better connector is there than music?”

The three partners bought the building last summer from adjacent United Institutional Baptist Church, which had used it for storage.

Back in the 1930s, it was the former M. Lieb & Son Gourmet Foods building. Heavy steel walk-in refrigerator doors remain.

Now it’s empty and ready for transformation into its next life.

Zimmerman displays drawings that show preliminary plans for where recording and podcast studios, an internet radio station, video production, classes, a café and taproom, restrooms, patios and performance spaces — indoors and outside — will go.

Even the rooftop will become a gathering and performance space.

Zimmerman is pleased that Andreao “Fanatic” Heard, a Grammy Award-winning music producer who has moved to the city, aims to start a record label there.

Zimmerman estimates that the project will cost $1.5 million, between the property purchase and renovation. That’s half the cost of building if new, he said. He soon will submit building plans to the city for guidance and approval.

Zimmerman drew his inspiration for the operating model from The Forge, the nonprofit maker space he co-founded at 219 W. Lewis St.

There, people gather to work on projects while sharing ideas, knowledge, equipment and tools.

At Rhythm Works, aspiring and established musicians can become members and rent studio, recording, practice and performance space when needed.

That part will run as a for-profit operation.

The nonprofit side will be the educational arm, offering clinics, lectures and guest teachers who will teach music and its business side. Hooks is exploring working with Guilford County Schools and Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club.

“There are other places in town to get instruction,” Hooks said. “There are bars in town where you can hear live music. There are recording studios. Good rehearsal spaces for bands are scarce. This will be everything housed in one area in a collaborative environment.”

Just like at The Forge, Zimmerman said, “People will mentor each other, teach each other, practice with each other. I couldn’t find anything like it in the United States.”

Zack Matheny — president and chief executive officer of Downtown Greensboro Inc., an economic development organization — likes Zimmerman’s plans.

Matheny will submit Zimmerman’s request to the city for his east Greensboro developments to become part of the downtown Business Improvement District, which DGI manages. The City Council must approve the measure. Matheny said he expects that to happen in June.

That designation will cost Zimmerman and his partners about $250 to $275 more a year in property taxes, Matheny estimates.

This year, about five property owners have petitioned to join the Business Improvement District. That will expand it on the east, west and north sides.

That furthers growth not only for center city, but the city as a whole, Matheny said.

“They want to be part of the growth, the excitement, the vibrancy, the energy of downtown Greensboro,” Matheny added. “What better way to celebrate the vibrancy and energy than with live music?

New Guilford schools transportation director looks to improve customer service, decrease driver vacancies

GREENSBORO — Just three days after Marlon Watson started work as Guilford County Schools’ executive director of transportation, he got word of a potential bus driver walkout.

“I was, I guess, surprised,” he said. “My other reaction was I wanted to speak with the drivers to see what their concerns were and to understand their challenges.”

Watson took over the department on Nov. 12 from Curtis Stacey, the assistant transportation director. Stacey had been acting director since the March retirement of Jeff Harris, who served as transportation director for the past dozen years and had been with the district for just over 30.

Watson joins the district at a time when attention on the transportation department is increasing, partly because of the narrowly avoided walkout. Guilford County Schools also grapples with a bus driver shortage, like many other districts around the country, and that has contributed to students sometimes arriving to school late, school leaders have said.

The district’s transportation department has about 790 employees, of which about 515 are bus drivers. About 35 vacancies remain, Watson said in an email, but it was unclear if those are driver vacancies or vacancies throughout the department.

Watson, who came from Union County Schools, sees the biggest challenge for him as just learning the job here. Improving communication and customer service, and cutting down on staff vacancies are all equally critical goals, he said.

Efforts like the “Here Comes the Bus” app, which just debuted districtwide, will help the district be more transparent to parents, Watson said. He stressed the importance for leaders to dig through the data they receive on complaint calls, to better understand what’s going wrong, and whether and how problems are being resolved.

He also said the district just went live with new transportation job postings on Indeed.com, a popular job search website. He’s also working on putting hiring banners on parked buses. Watson’s even planning to speak to staff about asking their pastors to announce the need for bus drivers to their congregations.

Basically, he’s looking at anything to get people thinking about taking the job who might not otherwise.

As a child growing up in the Raleigh-Durham area, Watson said, he never thought he would work in transportation.

He wanted to be either an investigator or a doctor.

“I like to figure things out, like to try to bring resolution, that’s the investigative part of me,” he said.

However, a high school bus driver in Johnston County, Vicki McClain, made a lasting impression.

Watson remembers how she would smile at every child who got on the bus, speaking to each by name. And he remembers her as effective at discipline, sometimes stopping the bus till everyone was quiet or having a conversation with a student’s parent if there was an issue.

“Ultimately, she showed you love; she really genuinely cared about every student that got on and off her bus,” he said.

After graduating from college in Alabama, Watson came home to North Carolina and took a job as a driver’s education instructor via a recommendation from a relative.

Watson also ran a small logging truck company with his uncle, hauling logs with a large commercial truck.

From there he got a job with the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles as an instructor. Teaching and working with bus drivers became his passion, he said.

The first time he talked to a transportation director, he walked away from the conversation feeling that the job might possibly become his ultimate goal.

Watson served as a transportation supervisor in Cumberland County Schools from 2008 to 2013, then as director of transportation for Durham County Schools from 2013 to 2016 and as the director of transportation for Union County Schools from 2016 to 2019 before coming to Guilford County.

He’s gone from transportation director at the eighth largest school district in the state to the sixth, and now, to the third.

Watson walked in as an outsider to Guilford County Schools. But he was familiar with the situation the school district was facing with the potential walkout.

He said he’d just come from resolving a one-day walkout of about 20 bus drivers in Union County a couple of months earlier. That was the first time he’d seen a walkout or threat of a walkout in more than a decade’s work as a transportation supervisor or director, he said.

“I can’t speculate on if it’s one of those things that’s a trend,” he said. “What I will say is that drivers are very passionate about what they do, and they feel as though they should be compensated for what they do each and every day.”

He paused, then amended that to “compensated and supported.”

Watson said he visited staff, including drivers, at each of the district’s school busing zones to hear their thoughts. Ultimately, bus drivers called off the plan after Superintendent Sharon Contreras met with representatives of the potential walkout effort. County commissioners then backed a plan to pay for a raise for bus drivers, with details still being worked out.

Meanwhile, Watson is trying to sell his home in Union County. He and his family plan to move to Guilford County once it’s sold.

For now, he drives 90 minutes or so to work.

The work brings him joy, he said. And it reminds him of how McClain used to make him feel — like he and the other students were her own children.

“It’s stuck with me all these years,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to see drivers get up at 5 o’clock in the morning because they feel as though our kids’ education is so important, getting them back and forth to school.”

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‘A growing public safety issue’: Budget stalemate limits law enforcement programs

RALEIGH — Because of the state budget stalemate, it’s taking longer to certify new law enforcement officers and investigate potential misconduct. And a new scholarship program for future law enforcement officers is in jeopardy.

The two programs depend on funding provisions in the N.C. Department of Justice’s section of the proposed budget. But Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the plan last summer, and Republican legislative leaders haven’t put out a new budget responding to the Democratic governor’s call for higher teacher pay and Medicaid expansion. Instead they’ve passed a series of mini-budgets.

The Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Education and Standards Commission needs the budget’s $383,000 allocation to fill four vacant positions. The division is missing about 10% of its staff now, and that’s slowed down its work, Attorney General Josh Stein said.

The division handles certification for law enforcement officers, and Stein says the staffing shortage means it’s taking longer for new officers to get credentialed and get to work.

“The person may end up slipping through the cracks and they lose out on the hire,” he said. “When you’re down 10%, it just starts to gum up the works.”

The division is also seeing delays in investigations of misconduct to determine if an officer should lose their certification; it received about 300 of them last year.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to resolve these investigations as quickly as possible, so that we can make sure that the wrong people are not in law enforcement and the right ones are back out in their communities keeping people safe,” Stein said.

The division is also seeing a backlog in its periodic audits of law enforcement agencies, which ensure that agencies are conducting background checks and required officer training.

Roxboro Police Chief David Hess, who serves as president of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said his group is “gravely concerned” about the funding issue.

“This funding problem needs an immediate solution whether in the pending state budget bill or other legislation,” Hess said. “The funding deficiency for this agency is a growing public safety issue statewide.”

Hess explained that the program’s funding is tied to court fee revenue, which has been declining. The vetoed budget bill would increase the fees in order to fund the additional staff.

Without a budget soon, problems and delays from the staffing shortage “will exist for all state law enforcement officers (Highway Patrol, SBI and others) as well as local police departments,” Hess said.

The relatively new Criminal Justice Fellows program is also in limbo because of the budget battle. Modeled after the Teaching Fellows program, it helps pay off student loans for community college criminal justice programs as long as the student works in law enforcement for at least four years.

The goal is to help alleviate a shortage of police officers, particularly in rural communities. The program is still taking applications, but no new participants will get paid unless the $332,000 budget allocation to fund 100 students per year becomes law.

“That makes it hard for us to generate the enthusiasm and get the applications,” Stein said.