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At last, Battleground intersection at Westridge being streamlined

GREENSBORO — After more than 10 years and one very expensive jury verdict, city residents are getting improvements at the intersection of Battleground Avenue and Westridge Road, a project they initially approved in a 2008 bond referendum.

Contractors will be working overnight Sunday through Thursday in the coming months to widen sections of both roads, provide more turn lanes at the intersection, build a half mile of sidewalks, and install medians that prevent turns across traffic in some spots.

The project had been delayed by planning obstacles that included an April trial involving the owners of an L-shaped tract along parts of both streets needed for sidewalks, green space and right-of-way.

The case did not go well for the city, ending in a $1.25 million jury verdict favoring the owners of Westridge Square shopping center and the McDonald’s restaurant at the intersection.

Now bearing a total price tag of just less than $10 million, the intersection work is the latest chapter in a series of street and highway projects that are reshaping northwest Greensboro’s transportation grid.

Others include the next-to-last leg of the Greensboro Urban Loop from Battleground to Lawndale Drive, a 1.9-mile stretch of interstate highway expected to open soon north of the Westridge intersection.

And just beyond the Urban Loop, Horse Pen Creek Road is being widened to four lanes for more than 3 miles between Battleground and New Garden Road.

Work at the Westridge intersection includes widening Battleground to six lanes for several blocks from the 3100 block to an endpoint just beyond the shopping center.

A new traffic signal has been installed in the 3300 block of Battleground at the shopping center’s northernmost entrance.

State highway officials also plan to widen Battleground from the current project’s stopping point near the new signal to the Urban Loop interchange just up the street.

Residents will have to wait until late 2023 for that work to get underway, said Patty Eason, a construction engineer with N.C. Department of Transportation.

The additional widening will dovetail nicely with increased traffic headed to and from the Urban Loop, but that’s just part of the story, Eason said.

“Battleground already has its own congestion issues with a lot of development, a lot of trucks,” she said.

Greensboro voters approved the current Westridge project as part of a citywide referendum 11 years ago to set aside $134 million for plans that also included the Horse Pen Creek Road widening and several other transportation projects.

The Westridge intersection was one of four along Battleground that were targeted in the 2008 bonds as a combined package.

The others have already been completed at Brassfield Road, New Garden Road and the three-way intersection of Battleground with Benjamin Parkway and Cone Boulevard.

Westridge took longer than the others to get underway because of difficulties reworking the stormwater drainage and sewer systems in that area, plus environmental regulations that triggered a lengthier review than initially foreseen, Greensboro officials have said.

In the meantime, construction costs ballooned well beyond rough estimates of $3.5 million that were envisioned several years ago.

“Unfortunately, the construction bids for Battleground/Westridge ended up being quite a bit higher, so we had to rebid on a few occasions,” said Chris Spencer, interim director of the city Department of Transportation.

The final construction contract that the City Council awarded this summer came in at just less than $7.6 million, Spencer said in an email.

“That doesn’t include right-of-way which was about $2.2 million total,” he said.

The good news is that while the project is under city administration, North Carolina transportation planners have adopted it as part of the State Transportation Improvement Program, which means most construction costs can be paid with state and federal highway money.

The city must provide only about $765,000 from the 2008 bonds while the federal government will pick up most of the remainder.

That option is available because in addition to its role as a major city street, Battleground doubles as U.S. 220 and, as such, is part of the federal highway system.

But the land costs also significantly exceeded the original estimates of fair market value.

Using their power of eminent domain, city officials initially put up $460,000 for the narrow strip of land necessary to widen roads and build sidewalks bordering the McDonald’s site and the shopping center’s larger fringe.

But shopping center owner Branch Westridge Associates and McDonald’s Corp. rejected that proposal and took their case to a jury.

Jurors decided after a lengthy trial last spring that city officials had low-balled the two businesses by $790,000, determining that the disputed property was worth $1.25 million.

The city also got socked just less than $101,700 for two years of interest on its underpayment to the businesses, plus $85,000 to cover what the other side had spent preparing and presenting its case at trial — for a total outlay of more than $1.4 million.

By contrast, owners of the lot that hosts a SunTrust bank across Westridge from the fast-food restaurant reached an amicable agreement with city officials in January 2017.

National Retail Properties accepted $159,000 from city government for a similarly shaped, but significantly smaller tract of land beside and in front of the branch bank, according to court records.

Residents living near the intersection in the adjoining British Woods neighborhood have mixed feelings about the project and whether it will be a plus or minus for the area.

Two residents who posted comments recently on a neighborhood Facebook page said they liked what they have seen of the plan and its prospects for reducing traffic congestion.

“Long time coming,” one poster said.

But neighborhood resident Ivan Cutler said he is wary, particularly because of the way in which the current project and the additional Battleground widening planned by state DOT will limit left turns.

The net effect could be to make neighborhood access much more difficult, Cutler said.

At 98, Billy Ricketts doesn't plan to retire as a financial adviser

GREENSBORO — In her office at GCG Wealth Management, Billy Ricketts stares at a computer screen filled with a grid of tiny letters and numbers.

To most of us, these ever changing quotes from the New York Stock Exchange might look like hieroglyphics. But to this seasoned financial adviser, the numbers represent the future.

At 98, Ricketts has been in the financial securities business for nearly 60 years — 50 of those as a registered trader.

Small and thin with a halo of white hair, Ricketts is smartly dressed in slacks, blouse and jacket. With her right hand, she carefully maneuvers the computer mouse. She is in remarkably good health with no chronic conditions. She takes no prescription medications, though she does take an occasional low-dose aspirin for a headache.

“I do get a B12 shot,” Ricketts said in small voice laced with a refined Southern accent. “I haven’t had one since March, but I am going to get one today.”

Fellow GCG adviser Clay Craven, who works in the office next door, pops in to see how Ricketts is doing. The two have been a team for almost 20 years.

“She’s basically my mentor,” Craven said.

She is also Craven’s grandmother, but more on that later.

From technology to politics to wars, Ricketts has lived through the kinds of sweeping changes chronicled in history books. And through it all, colleagues say, she has maintained the same professionalism, insight and grace her clients have come to appreciate.

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A Greensboro native, Ricketts was named Cassandra by her parents, but an uncle dubbed her Billy and the name stuck.

“He said he would never be able to remember the name Cassandra. So he called me Billy,” she said.

Ricketts didn’t aspire to be a financial adviser and stock broker, though her father bought her first stock for her when she was about 10.

Her first job, while still in high school, was as a switchboard operator for the Greensboro Record. She had to get permission from her dad, a Greensboro dentist, to take the part-time job, which was mostly on weekends.

She graduated in 1942 from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNCG) with a degree in secretarial administration — what now would be called business administration. After graduating, she worked in accounting for an automobile dealership. Later, she got a job with Moses Cone Hospital as the hospital’s first collections manager.

Ricketts said the hardest part of the job was seeing the faces of people who were unemployed when they were presented with a hospital bill. She had grown up during the Great Depression and understood their challenges.

She stuck with the job for seven and half years until one Friday when she decided she couldn’t take it anymore.

“I called my husband and said, ‘Come get me at lunch,’ ” she recalls.

Her husband drove her to a job agency in the Jefferson Standard building, now Lincoln Financial. At the time, the building was a national financial hub. The employment agent told her there were two jobs right there in the building that he felt she was well suited for — both were with securities broker firms. By the time she got back to the hospital, one of the firms had called and asked her to come back immediately for an interview. She told them it would have to wait until Monday.

During her Monday lunch break, she went to the interview.

“And he hired me right then and that’s the way I got into the business,” she said.

Ricketts quickly adapted to the pace of working her new job at Equitable Securities. Stock quotes came off a ticker machine that spit out ribbons of paper with the printed quotes, the same ribbons of paper dropped by the thousands during New York City’s famous ticker tape parades.

“It went clonkity, clonkity, clonkity and we wrote the quotes on a board, not a chalkboard like Merrill Lynch had, but a homemade board that we would clip large pieces of paper on,” Ricketts said.

She wasn’t a licensed trader, but after three years she was asked to take the exam to become a trader of over-the-counter stocks, which are stocks traded directly through a network of brokers and dealers. Two years later, she took the Midwest Stock exam. After 11 years with Equitable, the firm closed. She was hired by Dixon Powell Kistler, a New York Stock Exchange firm. That meant she had to take the NYSE exam.

“It was very hard and nobody gave me anything to study,” Ricketts said.

But she passed. More remarkable, according to Craven, she was among the first, if not the first, female exchange traders in North Carolina.

Ricketts said she did her best to hold her own and did not feel particularly discriminated against at a time when the financial sector was male-dominated.

“I never tried to make a manager or anybody do something for me just because I was a woman. If we got a stock and it was a ‘hot’ stock, I accepted the way it was given to each broker or however it was divided up,” Ricketts said. “But I didn’t wear my feelings on my sleeve either.”

The ticker machines gave way to computers. Nowadays, people get their quotes from brokers by phone or by watching the CNBC scroll across the bottom of the television.

Ricketts laments the loss of the social aspect of the culture, when bankers and people from other offices would come into the firm to drink coffee and chat while they hovered near the ticker machine waiting for quotes.

“It was very public,” Ricketts said. “Greensboro was small back then.”

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Just like his grandmother, Craven was about 10 when he bought his first stock. It was General Motors.

It happened because a bronchial infection got him a pass from school one day. His mother needed a sitter and asked Ricketts if Craven could spend a few hours with her at the office. The firm was in the old downtown Belk building.

Craven was fascinated by stock quotes coming in via computer.

“He worked that machine all day and he would ask me for a symbol for a quote and I’d tell him and he got so interested,” Ricketts said.

By high school, Craven was hooked on trading.

“We had to do senior projects. You know, you gotta work maybe with the newspaper or something like that. I worked with her (Ricketts) for a month or two and then I had to go give a presentation to the class,” Craven said.

When Craven was in college, he’d call Ricketts and ask how the market was doing.

“I used to trade in between classes in college during the dot-com bubble,” Craven said.

After college, Craven joined Ricketts, who had moved on from Dixon to Wheat First Securities where she settled in for more than two decades. Craven and Ricketts have been inseparable ever since. That was 20 years ago.

“He’s a great analyst. He can see things on a stock that I never think about,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts still subscribes to financial publications, which she reads voraciously. Craven does a lot of his research via the internet and prints out the information for Ricketts.

“We bounce stuff off each other and come to a consensus usually,” Craven said.

The two have weathered some transitions.

Wheat First Securities merged into First Union Securities, which then merged into Wachovia Securities which was bought by Wells Fargo Advisors.

In April, Ricketts, Craven and three of their colleagues left Wells Fargo to open a Greensboro branch of Charlotte-based GCG Wealth Management. For Ricketts, it ended a 46-year career with the same firm. On a small table in her new office, she proudly displays her 45th anniversary gift from Wells Fargo: a miniature model of the company’s iconic red stage coach.

“She’s inspiring,” said financial adviser George Harris, one of the Wells Fargo colleagues who migrated to GCG.

Harris, who has worked with Ricketts for about 13 years, said he admires her work ethic.

“She’s here before I am every morning. She’s on the phone talking to customers all day,” he said.

He said he trusts her intuition on trading.

“If I walk by her office and hear her say ‘I like Home Depot,’ I think, well that might be a good idea,” Harris said and laughed.

Janet Allen, another Wells Fargo colleague, now serves as business manager for Craven, Harris and Ricketts. She has worked with Ricketts for about 13 years but has known her for nearly 46. They met when their firms were in adjacent buildings. Sometimes, Allen would reach out to Ricketts.

“When you needed something on a bond or to borrow a book or something, you called your friends. Ms. Ricketts was the expert,” Allen said.

Allen admires Ricketts’ grace.

“I’ve learned by watching her that you treat people with respect. You do what’s right for your clients,” she said.

Ricketts said working with clients is the best part of her job.

“After you get to know a client, sometimes they’ll tell you things that they won’t tell other people,” she said.

She’s outlived most of her clients.

“I had one that just passed away and she’d been a client probably since the early ’80s. Her mother had been a client before her. Her husband was a client. He died about five years ago,” Ricketts said.

Sometimes clients will call Ricketts just to talk.

“We have one client that has health problems and he called me Friday afternoon and he said, ‘Billy you haven’t called me all week!’ And I said, ‘I apologize. Tell me how you’re feeling.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s why I called you. I’m feeling better and I wanted you to know it,’” Ricketts said.

Ricketts was recently profiled in the trade magazine “Financial Planning.” Craven said a financial adviser in San Diego read the story and called Ricketts.

“He just said, ‘I wanna see if this is real,’ ” Craven recalled. “He was about to turn 84 and said he was thinking about retiring and she basically said, why would you do that lightweight? But not exactly those words.”

Craven said Ricketts’ doctor told him she would probably live to be 110.

She shows no signs of slowing down though, with 40-hour weeks that begin each day before the 9:30 a.m. start of trading on the stock exchange. But she said she’ll slip out a little early on Fridays.

These days, when she’s not advising clients on what stocks will grow and which will wither, she enjoys tending to her yard.

“We’ve got a front yard and backyard full of azaleas,” Ricketts said.

Craven said the spring bloom is the envy of the neighborhood.

When asked if she has any wisdom on trading in the year ahead, Ricketts responds: “Well, I would say be very choosy. I think we’re gonna have a volatile market, probably the whole year till after the election.”

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