“When you talk about conservative or liberal, I don’t feel like I’m on either end of the spectrum,” said Tony Collins, a candidate for the District 4 seat on Greensboro City Council, “and I hope I’m not vanilla.”
A general contractor with six years of experience heading the city’s zoning commission, Collins is seeking a gentle course correction in city politics: a more positive tone, more focus on long-term planning and more cooperation with the city’s economic development partners in the nonprofit sector.
Collins has the good fortune of going up against an incumbent that has ended up in controversial positions on both the White Street Landfill and redistricting, although Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw has been known to pull out victories by thin margins against qualified opponents. A significant and vocal segment of citizens who live in District 4 — a relatively affluent central-central west swath of the city — have come out in opposition to plans to reopen the landfill. And Rakestraw antagonized the politically active neighborhood of Lindley Park by proposing a plan to jettison them into another district — some way to punish them for not voting for her in the last election.
But Collins also has to feel his way around a second challenger, Nancy Hoffmann, who has created a visible campaign emphasizing themes of inclusion and sustainability with the help of a well organized network of supporters, including past District 4 candidate Joel Landau and former Councilwoman Florence Gatten.
Collins said in a recent interview that if the current council has done anything right, it has been cutting spending to make city government more efficient.
“There comes a time when you can’t get yourself out of economic woes with budget cuts,” the candidate said.
Collins views investment in the public sector somewhat similarly to the way he sees his own industry, which has been eviscerated in the three-year-old economic downturn.
“You’ve got to tighten the belt, but you also have to ask: How are we going to generate more money for ourselves?” he said. “How are we going to generate more money for the city?”
When it comes to job creation, he said he is not opposed to the use of incentives in certain circumstances. But he comes back repeatedly to the importance of investing in what’s called infrastructure — translated into plain speak: water and sewer lines, and roadways. He faults the current council — with Rakestraw voting in the majority — for using a legal settlement from communications giant MCI to finance a water-rate reduction.
“That money should have been set aside so that it’s there if there’s something impactful and if we need to move on something,” Collins said.
In all the discussion about cost savings to taxpayers through the proposed reopening of the White Street Landfill, Collins said, “What’s been lost is the impact on people.” He’d like the city to get beyond the division caused by the controversy so that its elected leaders can focus on job creation.
“We’ve got a good place to live, work and play,” he said. “We’ve got a good product to sell.”
The city’s primary marketing arm, Collins argued, is the Greensboro Partnership, an economic development nonprofit that functions as an umbrella over the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, Action Greensboro and the Greensboro Economic Development Alliance.
“I get tired when they want to beat up on the partnership,” Collins said. City council voted to cut the nonprofit’s funding this year.
Like fellow challenger Hoffmann, Collins faults incumbent Rakestraw on her habit of explaining her decisions incompletely, belatedly or not at all.
“As it relates to the landfill issue, if you’re not going to select the low bidder that responds to your criteria, tell me why,” he said. “With the redistricting plan, tell me where it came from.”
In recent weeks the landfill battle has been consumed by legal maneuvering over recusals as the two sides seek to shape the outcome of the vote by determining who can vote.
As co-owner of Collins & Galyon General Contractors, Collins said his company has exchanged building waste for cash in transactions with DH Griffin, a company whose principals are part owners of a solid waste company that has been pre-selected to contract with the city to operate the White Street Landfill. Collins said he doesn’t think that would constitute a conflict of interest, but would check with the city attorney.
During his six years on the zoning commission, Collins said he had to recuse himself three times. One instance involved a deal his company was involved in to build a Walgreens drug store at the corner of Lawndale and Cornwallis drives. In a discussion of the topic, he mentioned Walgreens and other corporate franchises as examples of unwelcome projects, adding, “That was one we probably shouldn’t have gotten involved with.”
Collins took pains to say that his company was one of several involved in the project, and that his company was not responsible for putting together the deal or advocating the plan.
He chafes as the perception of builders, developers and real estate brokers as “bad guys.”
“My grandfather was a carpenter,” Collins said. “My father was in building supplies. That’s where I started, and then I became a general contractor. It’s a foundation industry of this country.”
Pertaining to his involvement in the building industry, Collins suggested he would bring a level of expertise to council on land-use decisions, but insisted he also has the ability to consider rezoning cases from the standpoint of neighborhoods.
“You’ve got some people who say, ‘I’m for neighborhoods,’ and some people who say, ‘I’m for economic development,’” he said. “We’re all the same people.”
Collins said that to get the city back on track he would like to leverage the talents of staff and civic volunteers, and take an outward approach to corporate recruitment.
“Right now, we’ve got to let our people feel good,” he said. “A lot of this is person to person.”
Council members also need to break out of their personal and ideological comfort zones, he suggested, to the extent of forging quiet relationships with other political leaders even while publicly disagreeing.
Collins recalled a time he played golf with Mike Barber, a former city councilman and former county commissioner. Collins said he had been irritated that Barber kept breaking away from the game to talk on his cell phone. The person on the other end turned out to be with Skip Alston, a powerful and sometimes controversial county commissioner.
“I thought you hated Skip,” Collins remembers saying.
To his surprise, Barber responded, “We work pretty well together.”
Collins suggested his flexibility would extend to the dais at city council meetings. During his tenure on the zoning commission, he said he generally knew how he was inclined to vote after researching a case, but that it was important to always keep an open mind.
“You might hear a good idea,” he said. “You’ve got to listen for it.”
Economic development would be his first priority, if elected, and Collins indicated he would emphasize quality of life to attract investment.
“We’ve got to take care of people,” he said. “We’ve got to take care of basic services. We’ve got to get out there and promote our city.”