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Greensboro Banking On Campus To Jumpstart Downtown

'Downtown University Campus' latest attempt to anchor economic development

“Game changer.” “Anchor.” “New brand for Greensboro.” “Cool.”

If these terms describing a forthcoming project in Greensboro sound familiar, it’s because the Gate City seems to have a lot of similar plans under way these days.

As the City of Greensboro is tying up loose land-acquisition strings so it can begin construction on its $65 million, taxpayer-subsidized downtown performing arts center, another major project appears to be in the works on the south side of Elm Street.

Tentatively named “Downtown University Campus,” local officials say the mixed-use development, which among other things will provide a presence for the city’s seven colleges and universities, along with Moses Cone Healthcare, “will be a great place to live, work, play — and study,” said Mayor–elect Nancy Vaughan.

“It’s more than an academic collaboration. It’s a business opportunity, and economic development opportunity,” said Ed Kitchen, former Greensboro city manager who now serves as board co-chairman of Opportunity Greensboro.

Opportunity Greensboro, an offshoot of the nonprofit downtown booster group Action Greensboro, is spearheading the project, but the city’s three biggest academic institutions — the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, N.C. A&T State University, and Guilford Technical Community College — are billed as partners in the project, as is Cone.

“This is going to be a game-changer for this part of Greensboro,” said Tim Rice, Cone’s chief executive officer.

Rice serves on the Downtown University Campus board of directors, along with UNCG chancellor Linda Brady, A&T chancellor Harold Martin and GTCC president Randy Parker. The first phase will be a 100,000 square-foot building that will be owned and operated by a future nonprofit that will run the campus. Cost estimates for that first building are $40 million.

But before construction can begin, the two-acre tract of land on the corner of South Elm Street and Lee Street must be purchased from the city. The tract’s appraised value is $914,000.

Initial plans call for the cornerstone building to house education programs dedicated to all levels of nursing, from two-year degrees to UNCG’s doctoral nursing program.
Space will be allocated for classrooms, an auditorium, a student support center, and a “state-of-the-art medical simulation lab.”

Long-term plans call for the campus to expand into a mixed-use development where — as Vaughan put it — people can live, work, play, and study.

Officials say funding sources will be lease payments by the universities, a mix of federal and state grants, private donations, assistance from the city (mostly in the form of infrastructure improvements), and, last but not least, private donations.

“We still have a lot of money to raise,” Kitchen said.
Greensboro has long sought development for this parcel of land, which is across four-lane Lee Street (soon to be Gate City Boulevard) from the city’s thriving downtown.

It was the first choice when the city was searching for a site for a new downtown baseball stadium. But that deal went sour when the land was found to be contaminated. (The city used a $3 million federal brownfield grant to remediate the contamination.)

There was brief talk of a mixed-use development with the Guilford County Schools administration building serving as the anchor. But — possibly after anticipating taxpayer response to such a project — it died a quiet death.

Not so much for the next project — a luxury hotel that was supposed to be built with federal economic stimulus funds. If the proposal alone wasn’t enough to prompt outcry from taxpayers, things got even more interesting once Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston got involved.

Alston proposed a site closer to center of downtown — across the street from the International Civil Rights Museum, on which Alston served as board chairman.

When it was revealed that Alston would receive a broker’s fee, the deal became hotly politicized. But turning economic stimulus funds into real money is easier said than done, so that deal went south. Even so,a new plan is in the works for a hotel on the site — which may depend on $750,000 in incentives before it breaks ground.

After all that, the Downtown University Campus announcement seemed especially sweet for outgoing Mayor Robbie Perkins, who was defeated by Vaughan — a fellow City Council member — in the November election.

As a member of the City Council for 16 years, Perkins has had a front-row seat as the projects for the south side of downtown have come and gone.

As mayor, Perkins spearheaded the push for the performing arts center on the north side of downtown. Funding proposals for that project have not been without controversy. Plans for call for the city to split the cost with private funds raised through another local nonprofit, the Community Foundation. Once it’s built, the city will operate the center, named the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts after its largest individual donor.

But the subject of entertainment venues is a bit touchy with many Greensboro citizens, given that the Greensboro Coliseum runs in the red while its director, Matt Brown, is the city’s highest-paid employee.

It’s hard to say if Perkins’ push for the performing arts center contributed to his defeat, since his bankruptcy and divorce issues came to light during the election.
Still, he seemed satisfied that he was going out on a high note.

“We want to establish a new brand for Greensboro,” Perkins said. “We needed an anchor for this side of downtown. This is cool. Cool is what you need when you think about engaging students.”

Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.