Becky Smothers looks back at three decades of public service

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Becky Smothers (center) retired from public service this month.
Becky Smothers (center) retired from public service this month.

by Jordan Green

The city of High Point has experienced dramatic growth in residents, office parks and shopping centers on the north side over the 37-odd years that Becky Smothers has served on city council.

One of the final acts of the last High Point City Council on Dec. 8 was to order the demolition of the Meredith Street Apartments, a collection of austere, brick housing units in the economically depressed east side of town.

While not the most controversial or dramatic decision, in some ways it was a fitting denouement for Becky Smothers, who retired from municipal politics after serving as mayor and in other council positions off and on for more than three decades. As a former social worker, Smothers was familiar with the city’s most blighted housing, and that experience led to her appointment to the Model Cities Board, a federal program in the 1970s that was a forerunner of the city’s community development department.

When Smothers joined the council in 1977, then-Mayor Roy Culler kept a running list on a bulletin board of substandard housing units that were torn down. Smothers said she hopes that housing conditions have improved during her time in office

“That lends itself to having the perspective that this housing issue has been with us for a long time,” Smothers said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

When Smothers was first elected, the city council was dominated by businessmen — and they were men. Women served on council before, but never more than one at a time. Smothers recalls making a round of calls to line up support for her first campaign and being told by Holt McPherson, a retired editor at the High Point Enterprise, that Mary Jarrell was already running, so the council would have a woman on council. As it turned out, Jarrell and Smothers both ran, and respectively received the most votes across the city for the at-large seats.

Once she was seated, Smothers was assigned to a committee chaired by Councilman Jack Dillard. She was the only woman on the committee.

“He said, ‘We’ll need someone to keep minutes,’ and he turned to me and said, ‘Becky, would you be willing to do it?’ I said, ‘I’ll be glad to do it one time and then we can take turns.’ Of course, he was mortified. He was great to work with. I learned a lot from him.”

The city of High Point has experienced dramatic growth in the 37 years that Smothers has been involved in municipal politics. Farmland and trailer parks have transformed into new subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers on the north end. The city has grown from about 61,000 people when Smothers took office to 108,000 today, and she likes to joke that over the same period she’s put on an extra pound for every thousand additional residents.

“In 1979, we were still principally defined as a hosiery and furniture manufacturing city,” Smothers said. “You’ve heard that High Point didn’t have a middle class: It was mill owners and mill workers. We needed people.”

City leaders also considered expanding southward into Randolph County, but concluded that focusing on the north end near Piedmont Triad International Airport and Greensboro would provide a bigger bang for the buck because the geography made water and sewer investment less expensive and the population was greater. They started by annexing Oak Hollow Lake and some surrounding subdivisions. The residents fought the annexation, but a majority of council approved it over their objections.

“It was awful,” Smothers said. “That was right after the hostages had been taken in Iran. There were bumper stickers saying, ‘We’re being held hostage by the city of High Point.’ They had yellow ribbons. I never thought those yellow ribbons would come down on Eastchester Drive.”

When the annexed residents got their first opportunity to vote in the 1983 election, they punished Smothers, who was challenging incumbent Bob Wells for mayor. Smothers recalled that she received only 100 votes in the precinct that captured the annexed residents, compared to 1,600 by Wells.

The expansion of water and sewer lines continued up Johnson Street and Eastchester Drive, reaching beyond Skeet Club Road and Wendover Avenue.

“You could see it,” Smothers said. “That was the hottest growing area in Guilford County for years.”

The construction of the Piedmont Centre office park gave the city the opportunity to grow north of Wendover Avenue. The developers approached both High Point and Greensboro about annexation, and High Point acted. Considering that the land was in High Point’s drainage area, Smothers recalled that it was economical to provide sewerage, but the city invested millions of dollars in roadway and water service. The office park straddles ZIP codes in High Point and Greensboro, causing some confusion to the new corporate tenants.

Smothers recalled a 1992 meeting with Louis DeJoy, the president of New Breed Logistics, that over time has taken on an apocryphal significance as a reflection of the city’s fragmented identity.

“I was trying to help the United Arts Council raise money,” Smothers said. “He didn’t know he was in High Point. I said, ‘Never fear, your budget director knows.’”

At least one piece of the city’s expansion plan was thwarted. Smothers said the city zoned a piece of land roughly bounded by Eastchester Drive, Wendover Avenue, Penny Road and Samet Drive for a regional mall, but the owner of Belk, the anchor tenant, objected that the location would put them too close to Four Seasons Mall and Friendly Center in Greensboro. In a development Smothers characterized as a “fiasco,” Oak Hollow Mall wound up being built at the corner of Eastchester Drive and Hartley Drive. One of the last two indoor malls to be built in the United States, Oak Hollow Mall opened in 1995. It is now vacant. Smothers noted with satisfaction that Belk recently relocated to the Palladium shopping center on Wendover Avenue, not far from the proposed location of the stillborn regional mall.

Some consequential political decisions were handled more quietly.

In the early 1980s, High Point Regional Hospital wanted to relocate from the north side of downtown to a property near the intersection of Johnson Street and Hartley Drive. The mayor at the time polled council members as to whether they would support a rezoning to allow the hospital to build multistory buildings at the site. The council members were unanimous in opposition.

“You would have had an enormous exodus of the medical community — all these businesses that cluster around the hospital,” Smothers said.

Over the past four decades, High Point has experienced a massive offshoring of manufacturing jobs. Smothers said the city is fortunate to have the International Home Furnishings Market and the opening of the Buzzispace office furniture factory last week indicates the potential for growth in niche manufacturing. With the presence of design-related jobs in High Point, Smothers said, the city’s greatest challenge remains addressing shortcomings in education and job training.

Prone to self-deprecating humor in public, at heart Smothers is a shy, introverted person. She said she pleaded in vain with Councilman Jim Davis, then the interim mayor, to not hold a reception to honor her for her service.

“The honor in all of it has been the opportunity to serve,” Smothers said. “That sounds canned. But it is the honest truth.”