Other voices: Museum proposal — yes, with asterisks

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 24, 2022

Time was when the home of the sit-ins was also the object of a standoff.

The International Civil Rights Center and Museum and the city of Greensboro were locked in a war of wills and words over money and transparency.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan and four City Council members even proposed that the city assume management of the then-struggling museum. Museum leaders chafed at the notion, one of them describing it as a hostile takeover attempt. The museum’s board rejected the offer.

Though it seems eons ago, that was in 2014.

Today, the civil rights museum is on firm ground financially and on much better terms with the city. In fact, it hopes to buy a neighboring property that would allow it to grow its space and exhibits. A five-story commercial building at 100 S. Elm St. seems a perfect fit for the museum’s plans. The former home of the downtown branch of First Citizens Bank is next door to the museum and located on a prominent corner at South Elm and Market streets. It’s big and noticeable, with a red-brick façade and reflective windows.

But the window of opportunity is a small one. Museum CEO John Swaine says he’ll need to make a $5 million down payment toward the total sales price of $10.25 million by March 31.

So Swaine is asking for taxpayers’ help: $1 million each in grants from the city of Greensboro and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners — plus another $200,000 apiece annually from the city and county for five years.

The building at 100 S. Elm would make a stunning addition. It also would make good sense.

Why not grow and nurture a key attraction in downtown Greensboro with enormous historic significance? It preserves the old Woolworth five-and-dime where four N.C. A&T freshmen staged the seminal Feb. 1, 1960, lunch-counter sit-in, but features other exhibits as well. Why not make the room for more?

Swaine also said the expansion would help qualify the museum as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, World Heritage Site, a distinction held by only 24 sites in the nation. The museum’s principal scholar, Will Harris of the University of Pennsylvania, described that designation as “the gold standard” in remarks to the county commissioners at their retreat last week.

No better example of constant growth and updating than another important city attraction, the Greensboro Science Center.

As for the civil rights museum’s finances, they appear healthy. In 2018, the museum retired a $1.5 million forgivable loan from the city.

The News & Record’s AnnetteAyres reported Sunday that its current outstanding debt includes a 2021 Small Business Administration loan of $150,000 to be repaid over 30 years. Also, like many nonprofits during the pandemic, the museum sought and received a federal COVID-19 relief Paycheck Protection Program loan/grant totaling $86,466 that may be forgiven.

Further, current tenants in the building at 100 S. Elm St. would continue to pay rent until their leases expire, providing extra income for the museum.

The commissioners already have voted unanimously to fast-track the terms of an agreement that would provide a grant. (As he should have, the board’s chairman, Melvin “Skip” Alston, not only recused himself from the vote, but left the room during the discussion. Alston is a co-founder of Sit-In Movement Inc., the nonprofit that established the museum.)

But any effective business deal requires more than good will and good intentions. It also requires due diligence. So, at the suggestion of Commissioner Frankie Jones, the county’s agreement to assist the museum should rightly include these provisions:

That the funds would be used only for their intended purpose.

That the agreement include a contingency for repayment of the funds if the project is not completed and maintained for a reasonable period of time.

And that the museum meet certain requirements for transparency.

The last proviso is especially important, because taxpayer money would be involved.

Certainly, the museum is an asset for the city, the county and the state, and the possibilities for expansion are tantalizing.

But a fast track shouldn’t mean a careless one.

A terrific idea is only as good as its execution.

The city should follow the county’s lead with an airtight agreement of its own with the proper strings attached to protect taxpayers’ interest.

— Greensboro News & Record