For years, representatives of the local business community have complained about “Greensboro Disease.” The diagnosis goes something like this: If only we had bolder leadership, greater investment in private property development, and less bureaucratic red tape, Greensboro could be bigger, better and more prosperous. According to these boosters, it’s only this “disease” that prevents Greensboro from fulfilling its destiny … to be more like Charlotte.
But there are many who have a very different diagnosis of what ails our city. We believe that the focus of our investment should provide support for our communities, not just incentives for national corporations and downtown property owners. Downtown Greensboro is vitally important to be sure, but market forces are sufficient in most cases to attract private resources and maintain steady job growth. The engine of sustainable (and marketable) development comes from within, fueled by homegrown entrepreneurs (think Triad Stage, Scuppernong Books, Jerusalem Market, and numerous coffee shops, galleries breweries, and restaurants).
Put another way, the marginal neighborhood and the struggling family should be the target for taxpayer dollars rather than the companies looking to build office towers and hotels. In keeping with the medical analogy, we need to heal our internal wounds instead of seeking miracle cures from outside the civic body.
Consider the multi-million-dollar commitment by the City Council to build new parking decks. These new decks will directly benefit a few property owners and developers, but fly in the face of evidence that a) existing parking is adequate to meet public needs and b) the devotion of prime downtown real estate to parking is a drag on attractiveness and walkability, keys to downtown health.
If the City Council wants to improve downtown, one significant problem that it could address is the neglected and under-utilized spaces that property owners are sitting on in anticipation of a Charlotte-like boom. The Good Repair Ordinance that the Council has been considering for a long time (some elements of the law were being discussed when I served on the city Planning Board more than two decades ago) would go a long way toward reducing the number of derelict properties and vacant storefronts.
Greensboro is hardly unique in this backward view of economic development. As a nation, we seem to view investments in public services (including education, health, criminal justice, the environment and Social Security) as peripheral, to be made only when there is a budget surplus, but we accept multi-million-dollar payouts to corporations and developers as “business as usual.” As a result, our “bottom line” says we are prosperous even as our schools, infrastructure and many neighborhoods crumble.
In addition to a Good Repair Ordinance with strong enforcement benchmarks, there are other steps we can take to prevent further spread of Greensboro Disease.
The first step is an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses. Planning efforts, including Greensboro Visions, Forecast 2015, and the current PlanIt Greensboro have pointed in the direction of greater citizen participation, building on the foundation of our local colleges and universities, and nurturing homegrown talent. The Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship is one of several incubators that provide invaluable training and support for emerging businesses.
It is also essential that we acknowledge the role of race in the physical and psychological layout of Greensboro. All it takes is a quick drive around our city to see that patterns of development established in the Jim Crow era are still in place, limiting opportunities for people of color. If we don’t concern ourselves with the welfare of all of Greensboro’s residents, we not only reveal a lack of compassion, but fail to develop our greatest asset: human resources.
Health, not wealth, should be our goal. When we take that approach, it becomes clear that the “disease” we suffer from is poverty. Thousands of people who live in our communities are struggling to meet their basic needs. Scandalously, approximately half of the children in Guilford County live near or below the poverty line. The homeless population is growing, encompassing not just those who are destitute, but many hundreds who are holding down jobs but do not make enough money to pay rent. They are living in shelters, in their cars, and on the sofas of family and friends.
Throughout our local and national history, we have been guided by an unshakable belief in progress, but we have failed to define what we mean by the term. As a result, we have grown but in a manner that is unsustainable and inequitable. We are creating a few billionaires and thousands of poor families. The old model of economic development — corporate welfare, exclusionary zoning and tax breaks for private property developers — is not a cure for Greensboro Disease, it is Greensboro Disease.