GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – The two candidates for mayor of Greensboro walked a mostly collegial path during a televised debate Wednesday night, but sometimes they stepped on toes.
Incumbent Nancy Vaughan and challenger Justin Outling, the current representative for District 3 on the Greensboro City Council, had a spirited exchange in the WGHP studio on questions about the city’s crime, housing issues and economic development.
Vaughan has been mayor since 2013, after having served on City Council, and Outling was appointed in 2015 and re-elected in 2017. Voters will decide on July 26 who will run the city at least until 2025. Early voting started July 7, and some 3,000 votes already have been cast for mayor, seven seats on the council and five bond referenda.
During this debate, Vaughan and Outling many times offered predictable responses about crime in the city, about how to provide affordable housing and the impact of new investment by Boom Supersonic and the Toyota Battery Plant at the Greensboro/Randolph Megasite.
But the foot-stomping of the evening came about halfway through the debate, when the candidates were asked about the city’s 18% poverty rate, which Outling said is the highest in North Carolina. When talking about making this issue a priority, Outling threw a jab.
“We have to stop making decisions and prioritizing insiders as was done in 2020, when we provided incentive money to a well-connected developer who happened to have connections to the mayor,” he said. “But the project didn’t provide a single dollar of capital investment in the city. We can do it [fight poverty] and have the resources, but we need to make a change.”
Vaughan bristled at the comment and asked for a “clarification. … What you just said is completely false,” she said. “It’s one thing to make a comment that is very ambiguous, but I think you need to say the specifics and back up this relationship.”
Outling did not name names but only described a scenario. “During the height of COVID pandemic, when bars and restaurants were closed, a well-connected developer requested incentive money from the city of Greensboro,” he said. “The project for which he requested money didn’t result in a single job with the incentive. It didn’t result in any capital investment.
“Providing the incentive violated the city’s own policy. Rather than using those resources for affordable housing, for needed police equipment, that well-connected developer was able to get incentive money with the support and leadership of the mayor.
“This is an area where we have a real difference of opinion and different approach to leadership. I believe in using our vast resources to tackle our important problems, to make the table bigger for everyone, not just insiders.”
So Vaughan explained the situation with more detail, describing what she said was an $80,000 grant – an Urban Development Grant – for the Bourbon Bowl, a restaurant/bar/bowling alley at 535 Elm Street in Greensboro, to be used to enhance an outdoor space during the pandemic. She didn’t say so, but the developer was Paul Talley. Outling at the time of the grant questioned its legality and voted against the grant, as did District 1 representative Sharon Hightower, but it passed 6-2, with one council member absent.
“They had invested over $3.5 million and hired 120 people,” Vaughan said. “I’m not sure when he talks about ‘well-connected.’ … I know that a majority of council thought that it was a good investment for downtown, that it made our downtown have a little bit of a cool factor that companies and people that are looking to locate in Greensboro look for unique things like that.
“That was an abandoned appliance distributor, and it was a blight on that block. And it has helped change that part of downtown Greensboro.”
The crime issue
Vaughan blamed an increase in crime in Greensboro on “gangs and acquaintance crimes” that have driven assaults and homicides, applauded former Police Chief Brian James’ Cure Violence program for preventing crime early and cited that the numbers were down 20% from 2020.
But, Outling said, “Many in our community quite frankly are living in fear for their lives.” He said violence isn’t confined to one area. He cited crimes around the courthouse, the sheriff’s office and city hall and the “slowest police response times of any city in North Carolina.”
The candidates sparred about how the mayor has supported the police department, with Outling saying that the mayor must “make sure that officers know that we know their jobs are very difficult. When they do their jobs, we’re going to have their backs. We haven’t been doing that with this mayor.”
Vaughan disputed that and said Outling was “completely mischaracterizing those events.” She also reminded Outling that the gang unit remained alive as the Street Crimes Division and that such decisions are made by the police chief, not the mayor.
“One thing I knew that was important to police officers is something called take-home car,” she said. “All municipalities around here have this. … It took three times through City Council to get it through.” She also said she supported the civilian traffic enforcement program that legislators are considering, for nonsworn officers to handle traffic flow and wrecks, saving thousands of man hours in directing traffic and writing reports.
The housing issue
Greensboro long has had a problem with affordable and reliable housing, something both candidates acknowledge. Recent figures show that the city has more than 4,000 families in need of affordable housing, a figure that may nearly triple, to around 11,000 in the next decade.
Vaughan talked about how members of City Council had met with builders to see what they could contribute. She mentioned the $30 million bond referendum on the ballot, that 1,400 units were opened last year and that 100 renters were converted to 900 families as first-time home buyers. She said the council also had approved 5,000 zoning units in the past year.
“We do have developers from all over the country looking at Greensboro and Guilford County to build houses,” she said.
But Outling said this was an example of the “status quo. How we’ve done things in Greensboro the past 10 years is leaving too many people without affordable housing. We need to do things we haven’t done before and have a greater focus.”
He advocated for a “rental security deposit insurance” to replace expensive deposits, and he talked about holding slumlords accountable.
“We can’t spread our resources a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said. “Our most persistent problem that will continue to hold Greensboro back is for those who make 30% or less of our area median income. We should focus there.
“We have had an affordable housing shortage for a very, very long time. Make sure we focus on that as a City Council … making sure we have a strategy long-term to make sure that property owners are held accountable for the poor standards that they keep their properties in that may result in blight.”
Then there is the city’s longstanding East-West divide, with some feeling that East Greensboro has many problems that aren’t given attention.
“East Greensboro has suffered the last few years,” Vaughan said. “We are working with developers, property owners, code enforcement officers to make sure housing we have already is brought up to code so that we can subsidize housing that is needed. … West Greensboro has been the beneficiary of an awful lot of investment. East Greensboro needs to be the beneficiary.”
Vaughan said the best way to fight poverty is to ensure that companies are paying a living wage. She noted how several years ago that City Council moved the hourly minimum for wages to $15 and hoped that set an example for the schools, the county and others. She said that was starting to happen.
She also talked about the economic impact of announcements by Boom and Toyota that they were investing billions and bringing in thousands of good-paying jobs.
That “didn’t just happen overnight. They were 5- and 10-year successes. … For every job that somebody like Toyota or Boom creates, there is an expected spinoff of five jobs. So that number really multiplies quickly.”
She talked about supply chains for those companies, how companies already were looking for space at the airport to be near Boom, how the city was working with workforce development to ensure that area residents had the skills to fill those thousands of jobs that will pay good salaries.
Outling said he was proud that City Council could contribute to bringing those companies. But, he said, “Those are regional job opportunities. Jobs located outside the city of Greensboro.” He said the transportation system and job training were important to ensure that, “when jobs do come, we don’t have ‘donut-hole prosperity,’ a prosperous region surrounding Greensboro with continued high poverty, where we lead the state, regrettably.”
The pair sparred over how to attract corporate headquarters, with Outling saying that there needed to be “a regular leader roundtable where we are in contact with largest employers in our community, making we do everything we can to stay here and continue to grow here. We have seen status quo.” And he cited the loss of VF’s headquarters and what he said was “the future loss of the ACC.”
But Vaughan returned to Boom and Toyota and said, “These companies wouldn’t have come if they didn’t know that we have a plan, that we would be able to upscale our employees, that they know that we have great colleges and universities here and wonderful CTE programs through our high schools.
“They didn’t come here hoping we would have employees. They knew we had a commitment to workforce development and transportation.”
Vaughan said she had been honored to be mayor for 8 years. “We have done tremendous things together, and I know we can continue to move the city forward,” she said. “Being mayor is a full-time job, and I think I have the best job in Greensboro.”
Outling said that “Greensboro is a wonderful community full of opportunity and promise, but there are significant gaps.” He said the city was falling behind Raleigh, Charlotte and Durham and that the gap between East and West Greensboro is wide and getting wider. We have all that we need to close those gaps, but we need a change in status quo. I am that change.”