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Sexton: What're they smoking at the Winston-Salem City Council?

It was a moment of levity in a regularly scheduled meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council’s finance committee desperately in need of something to break the tedium.

But it’s worth taking note of, particularly when put in the proper context.

Council members, some who sit on the finance committee and others who do not, gathered last week around a round table in the rectangular City Hall to discuss things upon which the larger body might wish to fire-hose cash.

Mostly routine items, grant applications, purchase orders and the letting of contracts, dotted the agenda. Farther down, Item G-3 on Page 4 looked intriguing: the committee needed to recommend whether the full Council should spend an additional $500,000 on a state-of-the-art hydroponics farm that’s already cost nearly twice that.

More than $1 million … for a crop of wet tomatoes.

But that wasn’t the punchline.

That came later after Councilman Bob Clark, the committee’s chairman, jokingly tried begging out of a short discussion about whether the hydroponics operation could grow hemp — basically, a cousin of marijuana without the buzz.

Detailed presentation

To get the full context — there’s that word again — it’s best to jet back to the place where all good stories start: The beginning.

Seeing an opportunity, the Goler Community Development Corporation pitched to the city council the construction of a hydroponic garden. That’s where farmers grow crops in water rather than dirt; it’s George Jetson-type stuff.

Building such a thing, the thinking went, would accomplish two things: provide economic opportunity and job training in a futuristic industry and help combat food deserts.

Who’s against providing fresh vegetables to hungry kids?

Since the City Council has little problem spending money — and attempting to see that it’s distributed more or less evenly — members bit. Only Grumpy Bob Clark, the board’s sole Republican, voted no; Clark has this thing about fiscal responsibility.

In August 2016, the Council approved a deal in two parts: the city would lease to Goler a 3-acre section of Kimberley Park for $1 a year for 25 years, and it would provide in the form of a one-time grant some $962,000 to pay the construction costs for the hydroponic farm.

“I assume we should be up and running by the summer of 2017,” said Michael Suggs, the president of Goler, in September 2016.

Except that it wasn’t.

Cost overruns, unforeseen expenses accumulated. Who knew that a hilly, 3-acre section of park would need to be graded? Or that an access road should be accessible to the handicapped?

Anyhow, the council was asked late last year to consider dropping another $500,000, which it’s slated to do tonight.

“It cost more than we thought,” Suggs told the finance committee last week while detailing some of those unforeseen expenses.

The finance committee meeting, available here for your viewing pleasure courtesy of the city’s website, was cordial and rich in detail.

No one has ever accused anyone at Goler of doing a rush job, financial malfeasance or hiding anything. Suggs’ pitch was detailed and presented well; there was always going to be a learning curve with something new and different.

Even Grumpy Bob agreed. “I’m not a fan of the project, but I think you’ve gone about it the right way,” Clark said last week in the finance meeting.

Will it work?

Most of the hydroponic operation finally was built over the summer. It’s got four walls, water lines and industrial fans installed. A smattering of construction debris and equipment last week lay on the floor inside and on the ground outside, but that’s to be expected on an incomplete job site.

The bigger question, the one no one can answer yet, is will this thing work?

Goler is working with local farmers’ markets and groceries to get hydroponic vegetables on shelves and has partnered with Project H.O.P.E. (Help Our People Eat), a thriving nonprofit that provides healthy food for underprivileged kids and families. And those are good things, OK?

But as things stand now, the hydroponics operation will have one full-time and two part-time employees to start — roughly a half million per job, if Council approves the additional $500,000.

So people at the finance committee meeting weren’t wrong when someone wondered aloud whether the water garden could be converted to grow hemp if tomato futures went belly up.

CBD oil — a byproduct of hemp production — is hot, hot, hot these days. Users swear by its therapeutic qualities for treating everything from seizures to balky knees to diabetes and problems sleeping.

“A lot of people are interested in … hemp growing,” Suggs said. “It’s a big thing these days. And this facility could allow it, if that’s something that the Council would support.”

Cue the comedic relief.

“And for the record, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Clark to a roomful of laughter.

“Yeah, but you did go to college in the ’70s,” Councilman Jeff MacIntosh offered helpfully.

It’s funny, but don’t laugh or wonder what they’re smoking during those 90-minute committee meetings.

Hemp production, specifically the annual sales of CBD oil products, passed the $1 billion mark in 2018 and is expected to double by 2022. Some 39 states, including this one, allow some form of hemp farming. North Carolina has licensed more than 6,100 acres of farmland and 1.6 million square feet of greenhouse production.

The little hydroponics operation in Kimberley Park might fit in nicely. And it never hurts to have a Plan B.

Even if it’s something only Cheech or Chong would love.


Local
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley talks about justice on MLK Day

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley of the N.C. Supreme Court called for a re-imagining of what justice looks like. She spoke Monday at the MLK Noon Hour Commemoration at Union Baptist Church.

Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Winston-Salem

“I would submit to you that where justice doesn’t serve everyone, then it is not justice,” she said.

Beasley is the first black woman to serve as chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary. She had served as an associate justice on that court since 2012, and last year, Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Beasley to serve as chief justice.

Monday marked the 40th anniversary of the MLK Noon Hour Commemoration, an annual event founded and organized by Mütter Evans. Evans started organizing the event in 1981, when she was 27. She became the second black woman to own a radio station when she bought WAAA.

During the celebration, she was honored for her many years of service in organizing the event. She was quick to remind people that it takes a team of people, not just her, to pull off a commemoration of this magnitude every year.

Before the event, about 200 people marched from the Benton Convention Center to Union Baptist Church, with the Carver High School marching band out in front.

Speaking in front of thousands gathered at Union Baptist Church to remember the life of civil-rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Beasley was upfront about why she has the position she has today.

“There is no doubt that I would not be sitting on the Supreme Court without the life and legacy of Dr. King,” Beasley said.

Beasley, 53, told the audience that she was 2 years old when King was assassinated on April 4, 1963 in Memphis, Tenn. What many people don’t know, Beasley said, is that King was planning to come to North Carolina on the day he died. Eva Clayton was running for a Congressional seat, and Clayton and others had invited him to come to North Carolina to help get out the black vote.

King, however, went to Memphis, Tenn., where he was working to improve labor conditions for sanitation workers.

Beasley reminded the audience that progress has been made, noting 20 black sheriffs in North Carolina. That includes Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough.

But embedded in North Carolina’s constitution is a requirement that voters read and write and that they read and write in English, Beasley said. That’s a remnant of racist laws put into place to exclude black people from voting, she said.

She also said people should ask why some children misbehave or act out in school instead of automatically putting those children into the juvenile justice system.

Beasley referred to the theme of the noon hour commemoration, which encompasses a quote from King: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

That’s what King had in mind when he wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963 that was addressed to white religious leaders. Those religious leaders wanted King and other civil-rights activists to “wait on the Lord,” but King opposed the idea of being passive, Beasley said.

Today, Beasley said, that includes talking about race and racism. Not everything is about race, but many things are, she said.

She and other speakers encouraged people to register and vote. The Rev. Alvin Carlisle, president of Winston-Salem’s chapter of the NAACP, told the audience that voters will not have to show photo ID because a federal judge had issued a temporary block on the law.

“We’re going to continue to fight to make sure (there’s) no more voter suppression, no more gerrymandering,” he said.

Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Winston-Salem

Local
Racial progress, but racial problems remain, King Day speaker says

The United States has achieved racial progress, but the persistence of racial problems is something that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. feared during his life, a historian said Monday night during his speech at Wake Forest University.

Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Winston-Salem

“This is the nightmare that King talked about in 1967 when he said my dream has turned into a nightmare,” said Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history and international relations at American University in Washington, D.C.

“We talk about King’s dream, and we talk a lot about racial progress,” Kendi said. “Indeed, there has been racial progress. But we also must talk about King’s nightmare, which was the progression of racism.”

Kendi, 37, was the keynote speaker in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest for the 20th annual celebration by Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State University to honor King’s legacy. About 1,200 people attended the event.

This year’s theme is “On Common Ground: Lifting as We Climb.”

King, a civil-rights activist, was killed April 4, 1968, by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tenn. He would have been 91 on his birthday on Jan. 15.

Kendi is also the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. He is the author of “The Black Campus Movement,” and “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” and “How To Be An Antiracist.”

Kendi has published essays in The New York Times, The Guardian, Time and The Washington Post, according to his biography. He has published 14 academic essays in books and journals.

In his remarks before Kendi’s speech, Chancellor Elwood Robinson of Winston-Salem State University described Kendi as a great thinker and a rising star among U.S. historians.

During his 48-minute speech, Kendi quoted from King’s speeches and portrayed the civil rights leader as a radical revolutionary.

As a historian, Kendi considers the most shameful moment of his life to be when he won an oratorical contest as a senior at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va. At the age of 17, he had been selected to deliver a King day speech in 2000 in Prince William County, Va., to nearly 3,000 people. The audience was mostly black people.

“I spoke about why black people haven’t been able to seize King’s dream,” Kendi said. “I though the central racial problem wasn’t white supremacy. I though the central racial problem was black people.”

In those remarks two decades ago, Kendi belittled and degraded black people, especially black youths, he said. Kendi’s statements fed into white stereotypes of black people that were prevalent during the 1990s.

At that time, Kendi believed that he wasn’t racist, he said.

“In many ways, we are united in our denial,” Kendi said. “The heartbeat of racism itself is a heartfelt, deep denial.”

He defined the terms racist and antiracist. To Kendi, a racist is someone who believes that a racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group. An antiracist sees cultural differences among racial groups, and that various ethnic groups practice difference cultures, he said.

White Europeans see their culture as a standard for humanity and judge the cultures of blacks, Latinos and Asians by their culture, Kendi said.

“No racial group has a monopoly on positive and negative behaviors,” Kendi said. “To be antiracist is to recognize that racial groups are the same.”

Kendi mentioned the tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country who rallied peacefully Monday at the Virginia Capitol in Richmond, Va., to protest plans by the state’s Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation.

The protesters, mostly white men, often believe they need their guns to protect themselves and their families from people of color, Kendi said. However, statistics show that suicides are also on the rise, especially in rural parts of the country.

“Tens of thousands are rallying to advance policies that they feel are going to protect white America,” Kendi said. “But those various policies are killing white America.”

Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Winston-Salem

Local
Man found shot to death in a road is Winston-Salem's first homicide victim of 2020

A Winston-Salem man is the first homicide victim in the city for 2020, the result of a shooting. His body was found in the 2400 block of Willard Road on Sunday afternoon.

Winston-Salem police said Antonio Moran, 22, of the 1700 block of Mansfield Street, was pronounced dead at the scene by Emergency Medical Services workers.

Officers were called to the scene by EMS officials. They found Moran unresponsive in the road near Willard’s intersection with Green Oaks Drive.

Detectives with the Criminal Investigations Division are investigating. Moran’s next of kin has been notified.

Detectives said the shooting appears to have been isolated. No other injuries were reported to police.

Police shut down Willard Road between Sprague Street and Interstate 40 for almost seven hours as part of the investigation.

Winston-Salem had no homicides at this point in 2019.

The city had 31 homicides for all of last year, making 2019 the city’s deadliest in the past 25 years, according to police statistics.

The city’s 2019 homicide total exceeded 2018’s total of 26, the fifth year in a row the city’s homicide total has increased over the previous year. Last year’s total was the city’s fifth highest since 1912, according to police data, and is 10 behind the city’s worst year on record, 1994, when 41 people were killed.

An increase in gun-related homicides accompanied the city’s increased homicide total, with 25 of the city’s 31 homicides gun-related in 2019. In 2018, there were 20 gun-related homicides, with 19 in 2017.

Police request that anyone with information regarding Moran’s death contact Crime Stoppers at 336-727-2800 or go to the Facebook page of Crime Stoppers of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County.