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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

NC trend: Greensboro lures boomerangs

In 2021, Action Greensboro launched Boomerang Greensboro, a program that has helped more than 200 people return to the city that had once been their home. The initiative is filling the Gate City with community members who can help it prosper creatively and economically.

“Greensboro’s a small enough town that you run into people you’ve helped make those connections,” says Cecelia Thompson, executive director of Action Greensboro. “To see them settled, happy and thriving in Greensboro, that’s the goal.”

Cassie Bustamante, managing editor of O.Henry magazine, talked with four “boomerangs” about what lured them back and their hopes and dreams. O.Henry is a sister publication of Business North Carolina.

APRIL ALBRITTON
The assistant to Greensboro’s city manager has big ambitions for her favorite city.


April Albritton stepped onto UNC Greensboro’s campus as a prospective student and suddenly understood what love at first sight was all about. After growing up in Charlotte, she knew the lush campus, friendly students and accepting faculty would make her feel at home for the next four years. Upon graduating in 2006, this young professional craved change and cultivated a career in college athletics that would take her all over the country. But three years ago, Albritton returned to Greensboro to plant roots without letting go of her sense of adventure.

As a UNCG undergraduate, Albritton managed the men’s basketball team for three years while studying kinesiology. She doesn’t consider herself an athlete, but loves that sports bring people together no matter their socioeconomic background. The team became her second family and some of the players remain her best friends today.

When an opportunity to be assistant director in a Seattle university athletic department came her way, she took the leap. That “rainy and gloomy” city left an imprint on her heart, but she eventually left for a job in Charleston, South Carolina, followed by Long Island, New York. 

When her dad got sick, Albritton moved back to Charlotte, which led her to a fundraising position for a Carolina Panthers player’s nonprofit.

Four years after her return to North Carolina, UNCG called and offered her a sports marketing position. “I absolutely wanted a chance to go back to the place I love that started everything in my life.”

Shortly after her return, she bought her first home, citing Greensboro’s housing affordability. “I’m making a commitment to stay down South, to stay in North Carolina,” she says. After two years as director of Spartan Club, Albritton took the position of assistant to Greensboro City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba (TY-woh JAH-ye-aw-bah). A mutual friend connected them after he relocated from Charlotte last year.  

Sports remains a huge part of her life and she holds tight to the dream of one day running an NFL team or becoming a conference commissioner. For now her “passion project” is seeing Greensboro develop into a dynamic creative, cultural and economic magnet.

Albritton finds Greensboro far from dull. She cites lunchtime walks to LeBauer Park, a steady stream of shows at the Tanger Center, UNCG athletics, giant chocolate chip cookies from Revolution Mill’s Black Magnolia Southern Patisserie and live jazz during Wine Wednesday at Double Oaks B&B.

The 2022 N.C. FolkFest marked a defining moment. Headliner George Clinton was the favorite artist of her late father. “I actually caught the sunglasses he was wearing during the concert, and then snuck backstage and got a picture, too . . . These are the things you can do in Greensboro.”

Albritton is excited for more to come. “My commitment is to watching Greensboro grow,” she says. “I want to stick around and be part of that before I say, ‘What’s next?

ETHAN JAMES
A YouTube carpenter constructs a home base in Greensboro.


Ethan James knows what it means to be a one-man show. When it comes to content creation, scripting, filming and editing for his successful YouTube channel, The Honest Carpenter, everything you see has been done using only his own two hands. His online community consists of more than 674,000 subscribers. When it came time to establish a base for his operations, he heard the siren of his alma mater calling him back.

At age 13, James began working for his builder-carpenter father in the Raleigh area. Even with the trade running deep in his veins, he vowed to never become a carpenter. He also recalls once telling a friend, “If there’s one thing I can absolutely swear to you up and down, it’s that I will never have a YouTube channel — ever.”

In 2000, James began attending UNCG, where he majored in English. He worked at the defunct Borders’ chain of bookstores while still working for his dad during breaks. “I’m book obsessed,” laughs James. “In my ideal life, I’d be an author, not a video person.”

His love of books led him into McKay’s — then Ed McKay Used Books & More — to look for work after graduation. McKay knew he might need someone with construction skills. Sure enough, the burden of hefty textbooks collapsed a set of bookshelves. James made repairs and “pretty soon they pulled me off the sales floor and I did handyman stuff for them for a few years.”

With that experience under his tool belt, James returned to the Raleigh area for seven years as a carpenter. He also teamed up with his father to create a consultancy business and started making videos, leading to The Honest Carpenter channel. “I never intended any of this. It was an accident — a fortunate accident.”

With a career almost entirely online, James can live almost anywhere as long as he has studio space, which he found at The Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship in Greensboro. He praises the city’s community feel and welcoming energy. “There’s just a vibe here and I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else, so I came back.”

These days, he’s creating videos to speak out about the missing next generation of builders. He’s distraught about the lack of messaging reaching younger audiences. “There is no Bob the Builder anymore [after the TV’s cancellation.]”

James, who has published five fantasy books for kids already, has a plan to solve that problem. He introduced a cartoon character —  James the Honest Carpenter — on his show with a goal of finding a publishing partner to create books that “help kids become aware that the world they’re walking in was actually built by someone.”

BRANDI NICOLE JOHNSON
The UNCG grad and leadership development pro finds that all roads lead back to Greensboro.


As a little girl growing up in Butner, Brandi Nicole Johnson was clear about what she wanted from life, to the point of planning her own birthday parties a year in advance. The natural leader with a strong sense of self first landed her in Greensboro in 2005.

Johnson’s college search included “really weird requirements” including not having to share a bathroom. UNCG ticked off many of her boxes, although she didn’t get a room to herself. She  joined a friend, who was a fellow Girl Scout.

During her senior year at UNCG, Johnson had a work-study job with the National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad, which launched her career in leadership development.

She later became membership services manager for Girl Scouts Carolinas Peaks to Piedmont. She’d grown up in the organization and credits it with helping her realize the importance of leadership development.

“It’s in the [Girl Scout] commitment of making the world a better place,” says Johnson, “and I think for the world to be a better place we need to have better leaders.”

After a year-and-a-half at Girl Scouts, her “dream job” opened up at Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership. She didn’t land that role, but the hiring manager told her about another position that hadn’t been posted. She got the job and spent several years at the famed center before leaving for an executive director position in her hometown.

It turned out to be her “most painful career experience,” prompting her exit. “I was tired, so I took four months off.” She watched Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, binged on Chick-fil-A waffle fries and finally said to herself,  “Brandi, you need a job. You gotta figure this out.”

Johnson founded her people development brand, Estella Elaine (named after her grandmothers). She’s also worked for Red Hat, WeWork and DoorDash, and took on an on-call role at the Center for Creative Leadership.   

When a potential relocation to New York for a corporate job didn’t come to fruition, Johnson weighed her living options and returned to Greensboro. She cites the competitive cost of living as a big draw. “The people here have a different vibe. There’s a warmth that I love.”

In 2021, Johnson purchased her first house, which she jokes that she never needs to leave, because so many of her favorite restaurants will deliver to her front door.

As a bonus, the Gate City is ripe with opportunity for Johnson to put her skills to work. “I can see myself becoming more of a philanthropist, getting involved in venture and whatever that looks like here, really thinking about how we invest in talent development and growth in a meaningful way.”  

ELIJAH CONE
A digital-media pro seeks a more rounded life in the city made famous by his ancestors.


Like many young people born and raised in one place, Elijah Cone couldn’t wait to venture out upon graduating from Greensboro Day School in 2010. After living in New York and Los Angeles as he started a successful career in digital media, he ultimately chose to return to his childhood roots for lifestyle opportunities that he couldn’t find elsewhere.

As a teenager, Cone learned how to edit video on his computer shortly after YouTube emerged as an online platform. After earning a degree in film, cinema and video studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 2014, he has edited and produced video at the NBA and Fox Sports. But his current role as Crooked Media’s director of digital development enabled his return to Greensboro to be closer to his family.

As the fifth hire at Los Angeles-based Crooked Media, Cone has worked on podcasts such as Pod Save America almost from the company’s inception. In 2020, he says, the pandemic “made remote work a necessity for a lot of places and for my company for a long time,” which meant he could work easily from Greensboro. “The [film editing] industry has changed so you can do it anywhere with your own tools.”

With a soon-to-be bride by his side, he moved back to Greensboro in search of a more “rounded life.” Cone and Daixi, who is also from North Carolina, wanted to start a family. Envisioning life with small children in California, he says, “You’re in this big, expensive city that’s great, but you can’t really experience it.”

“My hope for my life in Greensboro is much more family — not just starting my own,” says Cone, who recently bought a home. He looks forward to spending time with his parents, Ed and Lisa. “My mom went through a very long battle with cancer and now she’s on the other end of that . . . [My dad] was there taking care of her. It feels like they’ve been through a lot.” He adds that being back in the Gate City might provide the perk of “getting free childcare.”

With Greensboro’s growing entrepreneurial spirit, Cone recognizes that he could start his own business that would benefit other small business-owners. “Giving people who are super talented around Guilford County an option to stay here and not have to go out of state would be great.”

He also wants to give back “in the most literal sense, in the charitable, volunteer work capacity.” Cone, who is the great-great-great-nephew of textile magnate Moses Cone, acknowledges that Greensboro has been “incredible” to his family. “It feels kind of selfish to
get all the great things from this city, then pack up and leave.”

Plentiful parks, quality of family life and opportunities for business and philanthropy helped pull Cone back back to Greensboro. “Look, if you have a great option of living in a place like this where your life is well rounded, why not try? Who knows if it’s the right call, but I am comfortable taking that bet.”  

   

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