January 28, 2010
|Skip Alston Conveys Community Threats|
It seems this proposed luxury hotel for South Elm Street, to be built with stimulus bond money, is taking over political discussions all over town.
At a meeting on Friday, Jan. 22 at the Old Guilford County Court House that was supposed to be about an upcoming joint City Council-Board of Commissioners meeting, Greensboro Mayor Bill Knight and Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan said they felt like they had gotten ambushed by a discussion of the proposed luxury hotel by Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston.
If this had been a political or governmental issue that would be one thing, but Alston is the real estate agent for the project and was speaking, not as a county commissioner but as a key player in a complex deal where Alston stands to make hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Knight and Vaughan had been meeting with Alston and Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Steve Arnold about the upcoming meeting. But when that discussion was over, Arnold left the room and Knight and Vaughan said they were blindsided and threatened by Alston, who spoke of demonstrations and even recall elections if the hotel project were brought up for reconsideration by the City Council.
The Board of Commissioners, at its Dec. 10 meeting, approved $9 million in bonds for the proposed downtown luxury hotel, but Alston recused himself from that vote because of a possible conflict of interest.
On Dec. 15, the City Council, by a 9-to-0 vote, approved $17 million in bond funding for the hotel project, although the council had been misled by city staff and had no idea what it was actually doing. Because of the problems with staff, some councilmembers have talked about bringing the topic back up for reconsideration. The council did have a briefing on Jan. 19 on the project, but once again were misled and didn't take a vote.
Alston said he didn't make any threats and was just relaying what he had been hearing in the community. However, both Knight and Vaughan said that they were there to do the city's business and Alston was supposed to be there in his role as chairman of the Board of Commissioners, but suddenly they found themselves facing real estate broker Alston, and that they felt threatened by Alston, whether he meant to be threatening or not.
Vaughan said that Alston talked of a recall election being held for Knight, Vaughan and Councilmember Danny Thompson.
She said that Alston indicated it would be hypocritical for Knight and Vaughan to attend the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum if they intended to vote against the hotel.
Knight said, "He [Alston] said he might take the mayor's participation out of the ceremony."
Knight said he found the whole thing wrong. "I'm an elected official doing what I think is right for the city and he is the chairman of the county commissioners and we are sitting in his conference room." Knight said it was not the place for Alston to be discussing a private business project, much less to threaten other elected officials.
Knight said that he told Alston he didn't respond well to threats and told him, "I am not intimidated."
Knight agreed that Alston said that he was conveying what he was hearing in the community, but it was the place and the manner in which it was being conveyed that was wrong.
If Alston didn't have a financial stake in the deal it would be one thing, but according to someone familiar with this type of real estate transaction, Alston stands to make between $250,000 and $450,000 on the $12.5 million sale of the Elm Street Center to the Urban Hotel Group. But his commission could be higher depending on the deal Alston has worked out.
Vaughan called Alston's bluff and said she told him that she would like to meet with the neighborhood group that was planning all of these protests and recall elections. She said she called Alston back to find out where the neighborhood group was meeting but didn't get a response.
The neighborhood group in question is the Ole Asheboro Neighborhood Association, which has been promised a percentage of the hotel by developer Bridget Chisholm of the Urban Hotel Group. So if the neighborhood were to protest it would not be about race, but about money.
Vaughan also said that when this meeting was taking place she didn't know that the other elected official playing the race card, Guilford County Board of Education member Deena Hayes, also has a financial stake in the hotel. The man that Hayes lives with, John Greene, head of JCG & Associates, is in the deal and was introduced to the City Council as one of the contractors who would be building the hotel.
Hayes has repeatedly refused to divulge whether she and Greene are married, but it has been established that they live in the same house.
Vaughan said that Alston told them that Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson would be in town for the opening of the civil rights museum and they would participate, giving the demonstrations national exposure.
She said, "It was the threat of being tarred as a racist nationally that bothered me."
Knight and Vaughan told the same story of the meeting but Alston said that they had it all wrong and he didn't threaten anybody. He said he just told them what he had been hearing in the community, but he did say that he thought the only reason there was opposition on the City Council was because Mike Weaver and Dennis Quaintance, who own the O. Henry and Proximity hotels, were against it.
Alston, who meets with people all the time, found something wrong with Knight and Weaver meeting for lunch.
Alston said, "Mike Weaver and Dennis Quaitance are good friends of mine. I have had a relationship with them for over 20 years." He noted that Weaver, through his construction company, had gone out of his way to help them with the construction of the museum.
Alston said, "I know that they are not racists." He said, "This is totally business." He said that they don't want the competition from another hotel downtown and added, "I don't think their opposition is based on race. I think it is based on greed and self preservation."
Weaver said he got involved because he is concerned about Greensboro and the downtown. He said he knows the hotel business and has seen what a failing hotel can do to an area. He said he thought it was the responsibility of the City Council to make certain that the projects it approved were financially viable, particularly in the case of hotels, which in the worst-case scenario could have a detrimental effect on the area.
Weaver named four hotel operations in Greensboro that had been white elephants: the Golden Eagle, across the street from the News & Record; the Voyager, across the street from Greensboro College; the Royal Villa off Randleman Road; and University Place, also near Greensboro College.
The Golden Eagle was torn down. The Voyager was a Hilton for a while and is now University Square student housing. University Place is also student housing, and the Royal Villa is currently a condominium complex, but has been a senior center and a hangout for drug dealers and prostitutes.
Weaver said that when hotels can't make it, the only thing to do is drop the grade and drop the price, and if that doesn't work you drop the price again. He said lowering the price affects the competing hotels in a similar price range. Then he said it becomes student housing, or elderly housing, and in the worst-case scenario, transient housing.
There should have been no rush to get the hotel approved because there are at least two more rounds of funding, Weaver noted.
Weaver said that the deal "didn't pass the blink test." He noted that the Elm Street Center property had a tax value of about $5.5 million and was being sold to the Urban Hotel Group for $12.5 million. Weaver said, "I don't know of any properties that have sold for nearly three times tax value." He said, "They can pay more for the property than it is worth because it is not their money. It's other people's money."
Weaver said the City Council had a responsibility to look out for the welfare of the city and didn't need to be part of a big mistake downtown.
When Alston called him up to tell him about the possible protests at his hotels, Weaver said they had a convivial conversation and he suggested to Alston that all publicity is good publicity and that a big protest might just help their hotel business.
The threatened demonstrations over opposition to the proposed luxury hotel project on South Elm Street on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins, in an odd way, demonstrates just how far we have come. Fifty years ago the demonstrations were real and were about racial equality, now they are just threats and are about money.
Then they were led by students who thought it was their right to eat at the lunch counter. Today demonstrations are being threatened by elected officials – the chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and a member of the Guilford County Board of Education – who both stand to make a considerable amount of money if the hotel project goes through.
Alston is serving his second term in a row as chairman and is one of the most powerful elected officials in Guilford County. Alston has made certain that every black member of the Board of Commissioners has been chairman, and he has had the clout to do it.
Alston seemed convinced that the bonds for the proposed luxury hotel were going to be brought back before the City Council for another vote, and it could be. But Thompson, who said he was going to bring it up in order to rescind it, now says that he is in favor of the hotel going forward, which defeats the purpose of bringing it back up.
Three stimulus bond projects – a downtown Deep Roots store, the Miller furniture store apartments and the luxury hotel (which was then proposed for Lee Street) – passed the City Council with a 9-to-0 vote. The vote was 9 to 0 because the council thought it was voting to get in line, not to approve the projects. It is unlikely that it would pass again 9 to 0.
Thompson has been all over the map on this one. He met with folks involved in the hotel project and was in favor of it. Then he met with Weaver and Quaintance and was going to make a motion to rescind the earlier action and had looked up how to rescind action in Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised. Then he met with Alston and decided he was in favor of the project and that is where he stood on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
Things could change, but most members of the City Council are not in favor of bringing the hotel funding back up since it clearly has the votes to pass. Some councilmembers think if Thompson were to make a motion it would not get a second.
The next issue to come before the City Council is the parking garage that the Urban Hotel Group wants the city to build at a convenient location for the hotel.
Councilmember Zack Matheny said he was not going to vote for a parking garage for the hotel. Considering that the city staff misled the City Council and then withheld valuable information from the City Council to get the hotel approved for bonds, it seems unlikely the council would vote for a parking garage for the hotel, unless of course the city staff tells the council they are voting on whether to have chicken or beef at their next meeting and instead the staff slips a parking garage on the agenda.
City Manager Rashad Young, according to Vaughan, still has 100 percent support from the City Council, but Young has promised transparency and openness in government and so far people who work directly for Young have not even been open and honest with the City Council. It would appear there is a long way to go for citizens to expect to get information.
The comment by Vaughan was prompted by accusations made by Alston that the city councilmembers were using the term "city staff" as code for Young, who is Greensboro's first black city manager. The councilmembers have been using the term "city staff" to refer to several city staff members who are in the doghouse with the council, and Young is not one of them.
First, the council was completely misled by Assistant City Manager Andy Scott on what it was voting for when it voted on the three bond projects. Long after the vote the council found that they had approved the projects for private bond funding when they had been told repeatedly they were just voting to hold a place in line and could make a decision about the projects at a later date, when they had more information.
Then councilmembers discovered that Scott has presented a feasibility study, requested and paid for by the city unbeknownst to the council, to the Urban Hotel Group and Quaintance, prior to the Jan. 19 City Council meeting. Reporters who requested the report also received copies, before it was provided to the City Council.
In fact most of the councilmembers were unaware of the report until it was written about in the Triad Business Journal and they started getting calls from journalists about the report.
According to the report, which the council didn't have during its Jan. 19 briefing for the sole purpose of discussing the proposed luxury hotel, the downtown hotel project does not have a very good chance of success. It would have been useful information for the council to have had during the discussion, and if the report was not commissioned to help the City Council make a decision, then it is hard to justify spending thousands of tax dollars on a report.