Nineteen sixty-four, according to demographers, was the last year of the baby boom. April Harris was born that year. She describes a “very boomer” childhood in Greensboro’s Starmount Forest neighborhood in walking distance to Sternberger Elementary and her dad’s job at Burlington Industries. Mom was a teacher.
Harris recalls that her favorite school lunch was the North Carolina classic, pinto beans, collards and corn bread and—aside for a brief stay in Delaware after college—she’s been a Greensboro “believer” most of her life. She speaks in a local accent that has a contagiously optimistic lilt. It’s the voice of a leader who makes everything sound possible…and fun.
In 2001, when Harris walked into the offices of the newly organized Downtown Greensboro, Inc., then-CEO Ray Gibbs was impressed by the energetic masters candidate studying public administration at UNCG. She was looking for an internship, but there was no budget for it.
No problem. Within a few weeks, Harris had secured a grant from the Weaver Foundation to underwrite a salary for what would become her first paying gig in an energetic civic career.
From this start, Harris went on to be the City of Greensboro’s first special events manager.
“Downtown was becoming more exciting and it was the place for a lot of special events, but they had no one to coordinate it,” says Harris.
It was Harris’ job to wrangle all the events into a cohesive, non-conflicting schedule and maintain strong relationships with downtown stakeholders. She did this so well, that Action Greensboro, the umbrella organization for a variety of public-private initiatives funded by six local foundations, recruited her as their second executive director.
A pattern was starting to emerge for Harris: she excelled when directing multiple, diverse community endeavors.
As the Action Greensboro executive director position was phased out, Harris was asked to stay on as manager of select projects.
“Action Greensboro had started Opportunity Greensboro, which involved collaboration of all the colleges and universities, so they asked me to stay temporarily and work on the new Union Square Campus project,” says Harris. “At the same time, the Greensboro Partnership also needed help with their entrepreneur programs.
“While I was thinking about my next step, I wondered if I could do this for a living, on my own.”
In March 2014, Harris launched New City Ventures, a consultancy for community development.
“I absolutely love it more than anything thing else I’ve ever done,” says Harris. “I think it’s because I live in a community I love and I’ve chosen a career path I love. So I’ve gotten 99% of what I need professionally checked off.
“We need to major in the majors and minor in the minors,” says Harris. “Get the major decisions made—where we’re going to live and what kind of work we’re going to do—and the rest will fall in place.”
New City Ventures has taken an active role in establishing the latest nexus of downtown entrepreneurial creativity on Lewis Street. Harris is a cofounder of HQ Greensboro, an innovative co-working space, and she advises as administrative manager for The Forge, Greensboro’s Makerspace.
The Hamburger Square area of South Elm Street in Downtown Greensboro is also getting a lot of Harris’ attention. Here, she’s a champion of developing bike lanes and small parks with benches for everyone—including the homeless—and consults with Arts Greensboro on downtown public art projects.
Leading the city she loves toward new goals can be a challenge.
“I heard two college presidents that had just moved here say, ‘Greensboro has the biggest inferiority complex of any city I’ve ever lived in,’” says Harris. “I do think we second guess our decision making or we’re so polite we take the path of least resistance. We’re so afraid of what might happen.
“Instead, I think we need to believe in ourselves.”
If anyone can make Greensboro believe in itself, it’s Harris. The 1982 Page High graduate has no plans to leave. She and her husband Jay are parents of two college students and one college-bound student. When not running New City Ventures, Harris serves on the boards of Grandfather Mountain, Greensboro Beautiful and Greensboro Police Foundation.