Forward High Point, Ray Gibbs envision downtown rebirth


Ray Gibbs, who oversaw the reactivation of downtown Greensboro from 1999 to 2007, is settling in as the executive director of the new development organization Forward High Point.

The office of Forward High Point on the sixth floor of the Radio Building has a comfortable and uncluttered feel, with an ample but not ostentatious executive desk and clean conference table.

The new nonprofit’s executive director, Ray Gibbs, has been on the job since just after Labor Day and remains the start-up’s only employee to date.

“There’s a whole floor of folks above me to support the people who come here twice a year for the furniture market,” Gibbs said, referring to the staff of the High Point Market Authority. “My job is to bring about a downtown for people who live here that operates 365 days a year so we can have restaurants, to eventually have residential housing, to have educational opportunities, just to create that whole urban dynamic.”

The new public-private partnership, which is tasked with transforming downtown High Point into a vibrant urban setting with a functioning ecosystem of residential, employment, educational and entertainment facets, is funded through a $250,000 annual allocation from the city and governed by a 21-member board that includes representatives of the business community, along with the mayor, a member of city council, the city manager and assistant city manager.

The launch of the new organization — similar in structure to Downtown Greensboro Inc. and the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership — constitutes a dramatic turnaround for a city government that effectively dismantled a similar entity, City Project, which was on the verge of executing a revitalization plan only two years ago. In the meantime, a new city manager and new city council took a friendlier approach to urban investment, and the city hired a new assistant city manager, Randy Hemann, who brought ample experience in downtown revitalization from a previous position in Salisbury.

Gibbs, who earns $92,000 a year plus benefits as Forward High Point’s executive director and lone employee, brings a distinguished resume to the position, having led Downtown Greensboro Inc. in its infancy through eight years that saw the center city transform from a place that closed after 5 p.m. to a more vibrant corridor pulsing with nightclubs, condos, restaurants and retail. Gibbs took the reins of the year-old organization from Ed Wolverton in 1999, and when Gibbs left in 2007, Wolverton was hired back to lead the organization.

Gibbs has an inspirational story to tell anyone who despairs that High Point will ever have a vibrant core or who believes that it is somehow uniquely inured to the downtown rebirth sweeping cities and towns across the state.

“When I started at Downtown Greensboro Inc., after 5 o’clock, there was no one there downtown,” he said. “We slowly brought in a couple restaurants and a couple shops. We got Triad Stage. We got a little residential [housing]. We slowly ratcheted things up. We got the ballpark. And then we got Center City Park. Now they’ve continued that momentum with the performing arts center. Even after that’s completed, there will still be work to do.”

Gibbs said High Point’s challenge today is almost opposite of what he went up against in Greensboro in 1999, when signature properties like the Kress and Meyers buildings were vacant. In contrast, the prime real estate in High Point’s central business district is monopolized by furniture showrooms, which are only open about two weeks out of the year for furniture market. Property owners can make more money leasing space to exhibit furniture two weeks per year than they can for year-round office, retail and residential uses.

“The property owners have sat back and waited, and what they’re waiting for is a showroom,” Gibbs said. “If the property’s been vacant for two years, my job will be tell that owner: ‘I have a coffee shop. Yeah, it’s not gonna get you as much as a showroom. But now you’re getting nothing.’”

Despite the furniture industry’s dominance in downtown High Point, Gibbs said the challenge of facilitating deals to reactivate the area is relatively simple, compared to successful efforts he’s undertaken to push forward the sale of buildings with multiple heirs, which often get bogged down in personal acrimony.

“If it’s simply ‘How much rent can I get?’ that’s an easy problem to solve,” he said. “We want to make this work for everybody. We want you to make money. You might have a building that’s worth $200,000. Maybe it’s reasonable for you to sell it for $220,000 to build in some profit. But you’re not getting $1 million for it.”

Gibbs said part of his job is to recruit businesses that have a strong potential for success. Over the course of his 35-year career in downtown development, he’s taken a kind of curatorial approach to cultivating business owners with ideas that will create memorable experiences. Reflecting on his experience in Greensboro, he said, “I’m not just looking for a coffeehouse; I want Pete Schroth. With Mack and Mack, I found Robin Davis. We could have had any hair salon in downtown Greensboro, but we went with Chakras Spa, and we got Sheila Paquette. She has so much energy and drive.”

Gibbs sensed a similar kind of moxie when he recently visited Miro Buzov, who owns and operates Penny Path Café & Crepe Shop.

“He gets it,” Gibbs said. “He said 50 percent of his customers come from outside of High Point. He’s attracting a lot of students from High Point University. He needs to expand. I want to help him do that.”

Forward High Point’s first order of business is putting together a plan for a “multi-purpose” field — a project that city leaders have described as potentially “catalytic.” Gibbs said the facility will likely accommodate baseball, soccer, football and outdoor concerts.

“A feasibility study has been commissioned,” he said. “We’re looking at what site looks best, how to finance it, how it will be used and what will go around it. I want to see restaurants and office space.”

He said he hopes to have the plan ready for release by early 2017, adding, “The analysis done so far has been very favorable.”

Other ideas are more tenuous, and subject to revision or being scrapped once they’re properly vetted.

“I know they’ve started a makerspace in Greensboro,” Gibbs said. “Why don’t we have a makerspace in High Point? One thing about High Point is it’s really geared towards the furniture industry. What I can give them is twice a year I can give them access to 80,000 buyers and exhibitors. That’s an advantage. Can we not do the same thing with designers?”

If people think that High Point is at a disadvantage compared to other North Carolina cities with vibrant downtowns, Gibbs argues that years of planning took place before any tangible results happened. Downtown Durham didn’t start to take off until the early aughts, even though Downtown Durham Inc. was launched in 1990. Greensboro was relatively late to the game, with Downtown Greensboro Inc. starting in 1999.

“We’ll have some announcements quickly,” Gibbs said. “It’s probably going to take three years for people really notice that we’re here. It takes five years to really notice a difference where you’re not holding their hand to get things to happen. Greensboro, when I left after eight years, I felt development would happen without me being there.”