GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – A contract signed by the Greensboro Coliseum manager in 2020 with a company that had hosted gun shows at the Coliseum has become a focal point in the 2022 Greensboro mayoral race.

The issue about the city and gun shows dates to 2018, when Mayor Nancy Vaughan had suggested the city no longer allow guns to be sold on city property as a response to the mass shooting at Parkland High School in Florida. Then-City Attorney Tom Carruthers told City Council that it could not prevent gun shows under state law.

But Carruthers retired, and his successor, Chuck Watts, determined in 2020 that programming decisions at the Greensboro Coliseum were the purview of Coliseum Managing Director Matthew Brown.

The end of gun shows at the Greensboro began with a contract between Brown, Gun Show Inc of Stokesdale and its owner, Rodney Sorrel Sr. In the agreement, Sorrel turned over the rights to the show and its name in exchange for $400,000—$80,000 a year through 2025—for a 5-year period.

In exchange for the 5-year deal, “the prior Owner also agreed not to produce another Gun Show within the City of Greensboro limits for five years,” Brown wrote in a memo to Vaughan, members of City Council and then-City Manager David Parrish, dated Dec. 15, 2020.

With the gun show officially under the ownership of the Greensboro Coliseum, the city discontinued the staging of gun shows on city property.

Did they use taxpayer money?

Watts said in an email late Friday that the agreement did not use taxpayers’ funds and that it did not require approval of the City Council. He explained in a follow-up email that Brown and the Greensboro Coliseum as an entity had the discretion to make the deal on their own.

Watts wrote:

“The Greensboro Coliseum has a certain amount of autonomy from the city itself. Matt Brown has a contract that allows him to make unilateral decisions about which shows and performances are produced at the Coliseum without getting approval from the [city] Manager nor council.

“That contractual understanding has been in place since 1994. He also manages an enterprise fund that I believe is generated from revenues from performances and activities in the Coliseum Complex and is used to promote Coliseum activities.

“I am pretty sure that the money that was spent to acquire the gun show along with its rights to certain dates on the Coliseum calendar was purchased using that money, but I am quite confident that taxpayer money was not used to make that purchase.”  

Since that agreement

Vaughan, who said she is not anti-gun and has a carry permit, told WGHP in April that the deal worked well for both parties. She said it gave the city more control of dates each year and that, in her opinion, it worked out well for the gun show owner. The gun show operator had netted “about $11,000” from shows at the coliseum, and this deal provided revenue in the pandemic years when the events wouldn’t have been staged anyway.

“Matt’s the ultimate yay or nay [on events at the coliseum],” she said, and this deal allowed him “to pursue more youth sports events on those dates.”

Vaughan told WGHP that other gun-show organizations had contacted members of the Guilford County legislative delegation in an effort to get them to intervene and force the city to allow gun shows on city property.

“They [members of the Guilford County legislative delegation] told them that this wasn’t their concern,” Vaughan said. “They told them that the coliseum can operate as he [Brown] sees fit.”

Not the first time

Vaughan told WGHP that this wasn’t the first such buyout the city had made on an organization, and Brown’s memo to Council confirmed that.

“This agreement marked the third time that the Coliseum Complex has purchased the rights to one of its long standing Consumer Show Clients,” Brown wrote, “the first being in 1999, when it acquired the Central Carolina Fair from the Hamid Family and again, in 2003, when it acquired the rights to the Super Flea Market owed by the Smith family.”

An email sent to Brown with questions about this process did not draw immediate response.

Mayoral candidate calls deal ‘corruption’

Greensboro business owner Eric Robert last month had sued the city because he said it was moving too slowly in responding to his request for public documents about the end of gun shows

Robert’s suit named Vaughan and City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba, and, in a press release, he specified the City Council and one of its members, Justin Outling, who also is running for mayor in a four-person primary that includes Vaughan, Robert and former judge Mark Cummings.

On Friday, he released documents he had received and complained that the city had taken illegal action to eliminate gun shows in violation of the Second Amendment. He called the entire plan “deceptive and fraudulent.”

Robert circulated the purchase agreement drafted and executed by Brown in which the city agreed to pay Greensboro Gun Show at Greensboro Coliseum $80,000 a year through 2025 for the rights to the event and its name.

Robert said in his release that his lawsuit against the city “is not just about the Gun Shows, it is about the systemic corruption manifested by the deceptive and fraudulent maneuvers employed by Mayor Nancy Vaughan, with the complicity of city staff. Collectively, they continue to blur the lines between ethical and legal all while refusing to be transparent and held accountable.

“The Gun Shows involved hundreds of vendors and small business owners. The City’s actions took their livelihoods away while doing nothing to combat violent crime in our city as we have now the highest crime rate in the nation for a municipality our size.”