Downtown Greensboro Inc. (DGI) President Ed Wolverton wants to revitalize the downtown by adding 110 hanging baskets at a cost of $500 each. As Wolverton explained to the incredulous City Council on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at the council work session in the plaza level conference room, the $500 doesn't include the cost of the plants themselves, having someone plant the plants in the basket or watering and maintaining the basket.
It was too much even for this free spending council, but it's par for the course for Wolverton and DGI, who now want to implement piecemeal the Downtown Design Manual, which was completely rejected by downtown property owners who are required to pay a special tax every year to support DGI, but who have no say in how DGI spends the money.
DGI and the city now plan to divide and conquer. Each part of the Downtown Design Manual doesn't have near the opposition that the entire plan had. We foolish downtown property owners thought when we defeated the plan that was it. But with the current city staff, the fact that the citizens hired an attorney to prevent them from doing something they want to do, just means they find another way.
If the City Council is sincere in its desire to do something to help the downtown, it would be much more effective to fire Wolverton and hire Joey Medaloni to be the head of DGI, and to return as the unofficial mayor of downtown Greensboro. Medaloni brought more life to the downtown than 10 Wolvertons.
When Medaloni owned and operated the NClub, young people came downtown, not to shoot each other, but to have a good time. If you attract thousands of young people to one area to drink and party you are going to have some problems, but those problems were kept to a minimum because Medaloni enforced a strict dress and behavior code. He didn't hesitate to throw those who misbehaved out of his club, and his security didn't stop at the front door; he kept people in line in the area around his clubs. He wasn't called the mayor of the downtown for nothing. In fact, his employees ended the night or early morning by picking up trash in the entire block around his club.
The City Council should take a look at downtown Greensboro before the NClub and then after the NClub. Does anyone other than Wolverton and City Manager Denise Turner Roth believe that 20-somethings looking for a good time are going to come to downtown Greensboro to see the hanging baskets. Does anyone ever come to downtown Greensboro to look at hanging baskets? The taxpayers must have spent millions of dollars over the years on hanging baskets downtown. Has this made the downtown better? DGI thinks the hanging baskets are essential to the success of businesses in downtown Greensboro, but not all businesses get hanging baskets – only certain chosen businesses get the hanging baskets. If they are as great as DGI thinks they are, shouldn't all businesses in the downtown area that are taxed to pay for the baskets get a basket?
Wolverton and company also want to remove all of the newspaper boxes from the downtown. This is something that Mayor Robbie Perkins has been trying to do for years, and now that newspapers have been reporting about how he refuses to pay child support and refuses to even pay the mortgage on the home where his wife and child live, but manages to pay the mortgage on the condo in Center Pointe where he lives, Perkins is hot after newspaper boxes again.
There are huge First Amendment issues involved and the Raleigh-Durham airport recently spent over $500,000 in legal fees and lost a case where it attempted to control the Raleigh News & Observer newspaper boxes. Since it lost the case, RDU also had to pay the News & Observer's legal fees, which were about the same. So the taxpayers spent about $1 million on a losing legal battle to restrict the freedom of the press and freedom of the press won.
The First Amendment issues surrounding newspaper boxes are not settled, but the US Supreme Court has ruled on restrictions on newspaper boxes several times and established the fact that newspapers do have a right to distribute newspapers in public spaces.
In more enlightened cities, where things are not done by fiat, an organization such as DGI has gotten together with newspaper publishers and come up with voluntary rules. In Greensboro, newspaper publishers are not even consulted. People who know nothing about the industry and have no experience with newspaper distribution simply come up with ordinances that they want passed.
Along with $55,000 worth of hanging plants, one of the big improvements to the downtown that is going to bring people in from all over the world are more planters. George Santayana said, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." In the 1970s the city put huge planters all up and down Elm Street. The city also widened the sidewalks and eliminated almost all on-street parking in the center city. The result was that businesses fled the downtown until Love Wig and The Mantleworks were about the only businesses left.
It appears that Wolverton and Roth want to repeat that episode in history.
The city just passed an ordinance to make it almost impossible to legally panhandle, but part of this new downtown initiative is to allow street musicians to beg for money. So we don't want non-musicians begging for money, but if you can sing or play a piccolo we want you to come beg for money. No doubt it will be another huge enhancement to the downtown. Actually street musicians can be entertaining, but for that matter so can panhandlers. Some of the most interesting conversations I've had this year were with panhandlers. But perhaps that's because I mostly hang out with panhandlers and politicians.
There are some things the city and DGI could do that would help. Making Greene Street two-way instead of two-way/one-way/two-way would be a huge help to those visiting the downtown, as well as those attempting to do business downtown.
Food trucks, which take customers away from downtown restaurants, are not going to help those businesses, but if Lincoln Financial closed its cafeteria the downtown would become a different place at lunch. In Charlotte, Hugh McColl closed the Bank of America cafeteria and it made an enormous difference. It's simple. It's a proven strategy and it wouldn't cost the taxpayers a dime. It also in the long run would be a cost saver for Lincoln Financial, since I'm willing to bet the cafeteria is not a profit center.
Before spending all of this money to add more things that need to be maintained, why not maintain what the city has already done? All around town the fake brick sidewalks have lost their paint and now it looks like pinkish asphalt with lines stamped in it. It's not an enhancement.
But the city and DGI are not interested in doing things that the city should be doing or things that work. One of their other plans to bring life to the downtown is to close off more streets at different times so that the city can put tables and chairs in the street for people to sit in the street. There is no talk of food or beverage service, but according to Roth and Wolverton, people in Greensboro will flock downtown to sit at a table in the street. It's hard to see how this will be remarkably different from dragging a table out of your own home and putting it in the driveway.
At least sitting at a table in your own driveway you could drink a beer, a glass of wine or a cold bottle of water. Of course, drinking beer or wine in the street would be illegal, but probably Roth and Wolverton have the clout to keep the police from enforcing that law. However, if they are going to waive the alcohol in public law they had better get them to waive the public urination law also, because people who drink beer have needs, and the last time I checked there were no public restrooms in the streets downtown.
Hiring Joey Medaloni would be a far more successful plan. Unlike DGI and the city, Medaloni actually knows how to make things work.