Friday, September 25, 2015

City Management and Economic Development in Greensboro, NC


I devote my time on this blog to interpretations of classic books related to economics. However, I think it is also important to focus on tangible applications of economics. After all, economics boils down to real people making decisions about real things (roads, buildings, i-phones, banks, etc.). To that end, I'd like to spend some time on my own town of Greensboro, NC. The current City Manager, Jim Westmoreland, was kind enough to sit down with me for lunch, where we discussed many of the recent economic developments in Greensboro. I'm going to combine our discussion with some information on the city's institutions to give an overall picture of how Greensboro is run and in what direction(s) it seems to be headed.
North Downtown

Some Institutions of Greensboro 

The Council-Manager Form of Government

The first characteristic of Greensboro's government than an ordinary citizen would need to understand is that there is a separation between political leadership and the city employee leadership. This is a specific style of city government called the "Council-Manager" system. Under this system, a city council and mayor are elected by the citizens, but this council then appoints a City Manager to oversee government services (water, sewer, roads, police, etc). This differs from the other common system, where the Mayor is both the political and administrative head of the city government. Mr. Westmoreland, in this case, is appointed by the Council and serves at their pleasure. 

The Greensboro City Council

The City Council is a unique governing body, which has been the product of decades of referendums and compromises. It currently consists of nine people. Five are elected from districts that span the city, while the rest (including the Mayor) are elected by the general population (which is called At Large). In the past, the entire council and mayor were elected by the At Large method, and it wasn't until the 1980s that a hybrid district/at large system was set in place. The question of the balance between district and At Large representation remains in flux to this day.

City Departments

Lake Brandt Reservoir
While this isn't meant to be exhaustive, the City has many departments under the purview of the City Manager. They are funded largely by user fees and property taxes, and I will list them by size according to the Budget. In 2016 it was about $488 millions dollars or about $1,700 per resident based on a population estimate of 290 thousand. 
  1. Infrastructure: This is 53% of the budget, and consists of Water, Sewer, Road, Garbage, and Transportation expenses. It's funding comes primarily from user fees e.g. water bills.
  2. Public Safety: 27% of the budget consisting of police, fire and 911. Greensboro's fire department has a Class I ISO rating, which translates into lower insurance costs for homeowners and landlords. 
  3. General Government and Debt Expense and Other: The remaining 13% funds administrative functions and interest/principal payments on debts from bond referendums as well as other borrowing. Greensboro's bonds have a AAA rating, which means borrowing costs are low. 
  4. Community Service: 7% of the budget, goes towards the library system, park system, human relations, and neighborhood development. Greensboro has a major library downtown and six satellite branches. Also funded are six major parks, three lake parks, and numerous neighborhood parks and greenways. 
Education

UNCG Campus
The city of Greensboro is unique it terms of the structure of the education system and the large number of higher education institutions. It should be noted that there is no separate City school system (it was absorbed by the county in past decades). In terms of higher education, there are two major public universities within the city limits (UNC Greensboro and NC A&T), and three private institutions (Bennett College, Guilford College, and Greensboro College). In terms of specialty educational institutions, Elon law school and Guilford Technical Community College also reside near or within the city limits.

The Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro (CFGG)

CFGG is a non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen the Greensboro community. This mission sounds purposefully broad, because it engages in almost every imaginable area of Philanthropy. Education, the arts, hunger, women's health, parks and recreation, and many other areas are the target of this large endowment fund. 

Economic Development in Greensboro

The list of institutions certainly isn't exhaustive, and neither are the many projects designed to increase the wealth of the city residents, but discussing a few of them with Mr. Westmoreland left me with an impressive picture of what the next few years could bring. 
  1. The Greensboro Urban Outer Loop: A North Carolina Department of Transportation Project: The Loop has been decades in the making, and its purpose is to complete a major four lane highway that circles the City of Greensboro. At present, major interstates I-40 (East-West) and I-85 (North-South) funnel a great deal of traffic close by downtown. During rush hour, this area can be come quite congested. Part of the loop has already been constructed, with another major round scheduled to be completed in 2018, and a final round sometime in the early 2020s. This will make Greensboro one of only three major cities in NC with a similar highway loop. It should ease overall traffic and make access to the airport and other areas of the city quicker. 
  2. Greensboro Airport (GSO)
  3. The Tanger Performing Arts Center and Lebauer Park: Two large adjacent projects are in the works downtown, the Performing Arts Center and Lebauer Park. The city is overseeing construction of the Arts Center, while CFGG is managing construction of the park. These facilities sit next to each other downtown near the bottom right of the image above. The Arts Center will increase the space downtown for large arts events such as plays and festivals, while the park will allow more space for community enjoyment in general. 
  4. Craft Brewing and Burgers: I've personally been impressed with the number and quality of craft beer and burger joints that have been springing up in the city over the past few years. To name a few: Natty Green's, Gibb's Hundred Brewing Company, and the Pig Pounder have been some of my favorite breweries, with Hops Burgers and Burger Warfare some of my favorite newer burger spots. 
  5. Downtown Development: Aside from the Arts Center and Lebauer Park, there are plans for continued development downtown. Some projects that Mr. Westmoreland mentioned included a Wyndham Hotel, which would dovetail nicely with the Wyndham Championship by connecting visitors with the tournament to downtown. There are also plans for continued construction of high-end apartments near the relatively new Grasshopper Stadium, as well as an additional hotel. With hotel occupancy rates near all-time highs, these appear to be wise investments. 
  6. Airport Expansion: Outside of Raleigh and Charlotte, the Piedmont Triad International Airport (GSO) is another asset of the city that continues to receive attention. The completion of the loop should make it easier to reach, it is the corporate headquarters of HondaJet, and there are plans to add an expanded shopping and dining center close to its location. 
  7. Say Yes to Education: As of September 2015, Guilford County was selected to be a Say Yes community. This will create an endowment to help provide after school activities for children and to provide last dollar scholarships for those accepted to institutions of higher education. Given the large footprint of higher education in Greensboro already, this should bode well for the community overall. 
  8. Revolution Mills: I visited this location, which was a major manufacturing center of the Cone Mills empire. It was abandoned in the past several decades as manufacturing moved overseas, causing Greensboro to struggle as other cities did with job losses and a declining tax base. However, this large set of structures is being renovated for apartments and office space. Not only do I think the history of the space will give it a unique flavor, but it may also serve as an example of the ability of Mill towns to finally recover from the economic damage of the 1980s and early 1990s. 
My Lunch Lessons

I could describe my lunch with the City Manager with one word - formative. I don't mean that he covered every topic I've mentioned here in detail (some of it I've actually heard him cover at other events), but there was definite value in sitting down and listing all the things going on in the city. Some of my observations were the following:
  • Notice that most, if not all of these developments are not the sole initiative of the City of Greensboro. They are composed of an entire orchestra of non-profits, private corporations, state entities, schools, churches, and private individuals. 
  • Many of these projects have been decades in the making, and are the result of not one person or one career, but many people over many careers. 
  • While some of the projects are complete or nearly complete, many are still under construction.
  • They are not the only projects that are currently possible, nor should we forget what they will make possible for the city in the coming decades.
  • Individuals in City Government will sit down and talk to you if you ask. 
  • I wonder what Greensboro is going to look like in 2025!?
Mr. Westmoreland underscored the importance of communication between all these groups, and a hope that they will be able to work together to keep Greensboro moving in a positive direction. This brings me back to a fundamental economic lesson, which is that: real wealth is built among individuals freely engaging in mutually beneficial transactions of goods and services. Even at the small level of a City, one can see the incredibly complex structure of public and private entities that these individuals act through to make this wealth building possible (material as well as cultural). For those who participate in or lead these institutions, I hope knowing this will serve as a reminder that no one body or interest has all the answers or knows the whole story of the community, and that they are far more effective when they peak over the fence every once in a while to see how their neighbors are doing. 

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