September 27, 2012Tuesday, Sept. 25, the Greensboro City Council spent another afternoon listening to vague and rudimentary presentations from city staff and consultants about economic development.
The work session on Greensboro's economic development plan in the plaza level conference room in city hall was the third such meeting this council has attended this year, and the council appears no closer to taking any action to increase economic development.
Central to the meeting was the concept of "return on investment" (ROI), or the idea that the city should net benefits from the money and resources it spends. This idea ran through the two main presentations given to council.
Director of Water Resources Steve Drew gave a presentation on economic development through water and sewer partnerships with other towns as a way to share the risks and cost of development.
"Key issues" identified on a slide in the presentation were that potential partners would have to be "willing participants," future city water and sewer capacity would have to be shared with said partners, and that investments should provide a "reasonable ROI" to Greensboro. "There has to be some give and take," Drew explained to councilmembers.
As examples of possible partners Drew listed the towns of Sedalia and Pleasant Garden, but said that it was unclear at this time what benefits Greensboro could get from providing water and sewer to either municipality, but that it was something worth looking into.
Assistant City Manager Andy Scott said that the two towns were examples only, and that he knew of no current formal talks with the small towns about partnering with Greensboro for water and sewer service.
The presentation on broader economic development strategy given by consultant Tom Ticknor of Ticknor & Associates also emphasized the importance of return on investment. He presented several recommendations for "raising the game" of economic development.
One of his recommendations involved improving the city's "branding and communication" by "owning and articulating" an economic development mission statement. He recommended that the city also improve its website to bring economic development to the forefront and make information more accessible.
Mayor Robbie Perkins agreed. "We need to take our website and buff it up, because our website is not particularly helpful if you're looking for anything to do with economic development; you get lost," he said.
Economic development is the primary focus of the Greensboro Economic Development Alliance (GEDA), which the city funds, and information is provided on the GEDA website. The Greensboro website is more focused on city services.
Ticknor also advised the council to look towards initiatives that would attract, retain and expand business. He recommended heavy investment in education and training centers, and in businesses on the verge of growth.
Although the City of Greensboro does not fund or control any educational institutions, Ticknor said the city does control a lot of the space in which educational facilities operate, and influences the quality of life of the students through public services like transportation and parks and recreation.
Ticknor advised councilmembers to apply the "ROI framework" with the help of city staff to determine which businesses would give the highest return on investment, so as to "separate the dry cleaners from the HondaJets of the world." In other words, the city should invest more resources in companies that would create more higher paying jobs.
The presentation included a section on acquiring "shovel ready sites" to attract new industry to the area.
Shovel-ready sites had been a major topic at the City Council's last economic development work session, where Mike Solomon of the Timmons Group presented more than 70 sites around Greensboro for the council to consider for buying, grading and then offering as incentive packages to businesses
At Tuesday's meeting Solomon had narrowed the list of sites down to 16. He said that a major determinant of a site's potential use to the city is the number of current owners, since multiple owners raise the parcel's price.
Councilmember Jim Kee took the opportunity to give his own presentation on land for economic development. He presented a map of undeveloped land around White Street Landfill, some of which the city already owns, that he said should be looked at by the city for acquisition and development.
Kee said that the methane gas produced by the landfill, which can be sold, could be offered as an incentive to companies if the city would invest in the infrastructure to harness the gas. Now about 60 percent of the gas is burned off and the remaining 40 percent is piped for free to the International Textile Group at the old Cone Mills White Oak Plant. The gas is estimated to be worth about $2 million a year, which the city burns and gives away year after year.
Together with the projected construction of a section of the new urban loop nearby, Kee said the potential of the area was "just enormously great."
"We have to start taking the lead because the days are gone when a private developer is going to come in and invest their money in a risky venture like developing land," Kee said. He added, "we can, because we have the ability to tax, so we have money coming in."
Kee also talked about a stretch of land along East Market Street that he said had the potential for infill development.
Perkins showed general skepticism toward the presentations given throughout the meeting, saying that the myriad of potential investments were overambitious given the city's resources.
"We are going to dilute ourselves until we get a big fat zero," Perkins said, adding that the city should focus its economic development resources on the airport area, downtown and at the Gateway University Research Park in the immediate future.
"The rest of this stuff can be done over the next 20-plus years, and it ought to be done over the next 20-plus years," Perkins said.
Councilmembers also discussed the two-month food truck pilot program, which is meant to test the viability of allowing food trucks downtown.
During Tuesday's meeting the council reached a consensus that the pilot program wasn't really necessary. Citing the potential benefit from and public support for downtown food trucks, councilmembers expressed interest in just changing the ordinance to allow the trucks permanently.
"To me we're going through a lot of machinations for nothing," Perkins said of the pilot program, which will designate space on Commerce Place for food trucks to operate on a rotational basis during October and November.
Councilmember Trudy Wade had made a motion to simply allow food trucks downtown at the meeting Tuesday, Sept. 4, where the pilot program was approved. At that meeting Councilmember Zack Matheny also supported lifting the ban on downtown food trucks.
However citing the time it will take to craft and approve an ordinance to allow the food trucks, the council gave staff direction to go forward with the pilot program in the meantime.