As Costs Mount, City Officials Question Whether Manager Gives Project Special Treatment

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It’s called the Innovation Barn. And it’s meant to showcase local businesses – like a restaurant and coffee shop - that produce zero waste. 

Amy Ausseieker is the executive director of Envision Charlotte, a non-profit that’s partnering with the city of Charlotte to create the barn. She says it will highlight the potential of the circular economy. 

"So we, right now, are a linear society where we buy something, we use it, we throw it in the landfill," she said. "Circular is like a tree. It grows, it dies, it re-nutrients the ground and there's zero waste. So basically at the end of the day you want zero waste."

The City Council has approved $2.5 million for the barn and Envision Charlotte. But start-up costs are now projected to be $5.4 million, according to a city document obtained by WFAE. 

Three city officials raised concerns about the project to WFAE, but declined to go on the record because they feared retaliation. They note that City Manager Marcus Jones is on the board of directors of Envision Charlotte, and they worry he's giving the project special treatment. 

For instance, if more money is needed, the city has tentatively allocated $1.1 million from the building services department to cover added costs at the barn, which will be in a refurbished city owned garage in Belmont. 

Credit David Boraks/WFAE

Jones declined to be interviewed for this story.

His chief marketing officer Brent Kelly discussed the Innovation Barn with WFAE last week. He says Envision Charlotte may receive some in-kind contributions for things like windows, and he says the city document showing the barn’s cost has risen to $5.4 million isn’t necessarily accurate.

"What you have here is an Excel spreadsheet from somebody without a name, and I don’t know that this is an official city document, right? " he said. "So I’m looking at something that has a 5.4…I could pull an Excel spreadsheet off my desk. It’s not like this is an approved plan or concept. "

In response to a public records request, Kelly provided WFAE with a copy of the spreadsheet that shows it is indeed a city document.

[Related: With 3 Key Leaders Departing, What Happens To City Environmental Policy?]

Frayda Bluestein with the University of North Carolina School of Government says it’s not uncommon for managers and council members to serve on boards, and that Charlotte’s manager has an obligation to see the contract with Envision Charlotte is fulfilled. 

But if the city is directing money – or considering directing money - to the project without council approval, she says "there is some reasonable concern that maybe he’s not being objective about how much money should go in through it."

The city document shows several line items for services that are all under $500,000. In Charlotte, that’s a critical number, after Jones convinced City Council to give the manager the ability to spend half a million dollars with council approval. The previous limit was $100,000.

Local environmentalists support the Innovation Barn, but are concerned that it could receive millions of dollars in additional funding – while this year’s city budget contained no new money for the Strategic Energy Action plan, whose goal is to slash the city’s carbon emissions.

June Blotnick of Clean Air Carolina says cutting carbon – not the circular economy – should be the city’s focus.

"The circular economy is extremely important for us long-term to educate people about it, to reduce waste and other things impacting the environment," Blotnick says. "But with the urgency of climate change our organization is interested in seeing a well-funded SEAP."

In addition to a restaurant and a coffee shop, the barn could be home to a store in which someone takes fallen trees and turns them into furniture, as well as special event space.

Former mayor Jennifer Roberts – a member of the North Carolina Climate Solutions Coalition - says she would rather the city spend more time and money on making city buildings more energy efficient and converting the city’s cars and buses to electric.

"And the Innovation Barn is great in terms of supporting businesses that can be innovative," she says. "But it is not going to make the impact as fast or as far as the Strategic Energy Action plan would."

Even though construction work on the barn isn’t finished, Envision Charlotte says it hopes to have an opening party in late October.