The Republican incumbent and Democratic challenger in the District 6 Guilford County Commission race differ on the future of Rich Fork Preserve, with slightly different points of emphasis in governing philosophies.
In 2012, a new Guilford County Commission district map imposed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in Raleigh upset the Democratic advantage on the local board and gave the GOP an edge.
Hank Henning, an Iraq war veteran who is employed by the heating and air company Brady Services, prevailed over a tea party opponent in the primary and went on to defeat his Democratic adversary to win the District 6 seat as a first-time candidate.
Now, Rick Forrester, a lawyer with a practice in downtown Greensboro, is looking for a chance to bring a new perspective to the county commission by challenging Henning for the post.
While insisting that representing constituents comes before party affiliation, Henning trumpeted the progress of the current commission, which took office in late 2012. As part of the new Republican majority, Henning served as chairman in 2015.
“We’ve lowered the tax rate because we have a lot of people on fixed incomes,” Henning said. “We’ve got to have an attractive tax rate to attract business. We also increased funding to schools. We released over a hundred million in bond products. The previous five years the schools got zero increases in funding.”
Henning acknowledged that the county benefited from a rebound in real-estate values and increased tax revenues in 2012 when he took office, but said the current commission should get credit for working together in a productive manner.
“I think what a lot of people can agree on is that the county board didn’t have the best reputation in the state, with a lot of name calling and a lot of screaming on TV,” he said. “From a starting point, that’s what we’ve created. The nine of us on the board seem to work together well. We don’t always agree, but I think the public expects us to act professionally, and that’s what we do.”
Forrester, the Democratic challenger, said the county commission needs to make schools a higher priority, and he criticized the county’s policy of downsizing through attrition while the local population has grown.
“We need sensible growth and jobs that will attract people to come to this county and state,” he said. “Companies don’t come just because taxes are low. They come because of a quality of life for their people. They come for solid schools. We need to be good stewards of our infrastructure.”
Forrester said the county revenues lost through tax cuts in 2013 and 2015 could have funded more positions for teacher assistants in public schools and the repair or replacement of a deteriorating parking garage at the county courthouse in High Point.
The issue that most dramatically separates the two candidates is the future of the Rich Fork Preserve, a 114-acre tract of undeveloped land on the west side of High Point that was acquired under the county’s open-space program. For nearly two years, mountain bikers and conservationists have butted heads on whether mountain biking should be allowed in the preserve, with the parks and recreation commission and the county governing board dragging out a decision.
Forrester said he opposes mountain biking in the preserve, both because it violates the trust of citizens who sold their property to the county at a discount and because he says it’s unsafe.
“I think the county should honor the original premise that they acquired the property under,” he said. “They acquired it at reduced value under the premise that it would be preserved. It’s a critical watershed for the Yadkin and Pee-Dee rivers and its preservation will prevent flooding downstream.”
Henning said that with more than 100 acres, there’s enough room to meet the needs of both parties.
“I believe there’s enough acres to have a compromise between the younger folks who want to have outdoor activities and the older folks who want to preserve the homestead,” he said. “There are two groups that are both environmentally sensitive.
“I want our young people to be active,” he added. “If riding a bike is going to get them off the couch, I think that’s great.”
Henning said the current commission deserves credit for forging partnerships with local city governments, including creating the Family Resource Center with the city of Greensboro, which he credited as an initiative of Commissioner Kay Cashion, a Democrat, as well as the Guilford County Economic Development Partnership and the Say Yes to Education campaign.
Forrester faults Henning for his handling of a crisis at the Guilford County Animal Shelter in the aftermath of revelations about widespread neglect and abuse, calling the episode a “failure of oversight” on his campaign website. Ironically, Henning as a self-described conservative participated in a decision to bring the animal shelter back under the control of county government after it had been privatized.
“We inherited a contract with [United Animal Coalition] that was flawed,” Henning said. “They hid the evidence quite well. We appointed [Commissioners] Jeff Phillips and Ray Trapp to sit on their board, and they saw the smoke and eventually the fire. We did the right thing, and we brought it all in house.”
Both Henning and Forrester live on the affluent north side of High Point on either side of Oak Hollow Lake. Republican-leaning District 6 forms a wedge at the western end of the county, collecting several northerly precincts in High Point, along with the rural but voter-rich areas flanking Interstate 40 surrounding Sandy Ridge Road and Colfax. The disparate constituencies in the gerrymandered district include Quaker Village Shopping Center in Greensboro and half of the Adams Farm neighborhood, along with Oak View Recreation Center and Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in High Point. As a first-time candidate with limited name recognition, Henning won with 53.1 percent of the vote in 2012.
“My guy that I hired to look at the numbers said, ‘It looks like an uphill fight,’” Forrester said. “I said, ‘Yeah it does, but someone’s gotta fight it.’”