To varying degrees, many candidates for High Point City Council agree that the city is in decline. The feeling is stronger among challengers and first-time candidates. The pushback to that idea tends to come from incumbents or those who have previously served on the council.
In the course of my reporting on the at-large race I asked candidate Latimer Alexander how he would respond to those who say the core city needs to become more attractive to reverse the city’s decline, citing a couple High Point University professors I’ve met who commute to work from Greensboro.
The question clearly struck a nerve with the candidate, who served on council from 2002 to 2012.
“How do you answer the question that High Point is the fastest growing city in the Triad?” he riposted. “I don’t see High Point as an unattractive place to be…. I don’t agree with the premise of your question.”
There are several ways to weigh whether High Point is in decline or not, but since Alexander cited population growth, that’s a good place to start.
I don’t know which figures Alexander has been looking at, but the official Census records a population of 85,839 in 2000 and 104,371 in 2010, reflecting growth of 21.6 percent. That’s slightly higher than the population growth of 20.4 percent in Greensboro over the past decade, but less than the 23.6 percent growth in Winston-Salem. Considering population estimates for the three cities in 2013, High Point remains in the middle of the pack.
Alexander told me that all six wards in High Point have experienced growth except Ward 4, covering the central-western area that includes Emerywood and surrounding neighborhoods. The Census website doesn’t provide data allowing for a granular comparison of population changes across the city, but I suspect that much of the growth has taken place in the northern suburbs, where proximity to Interstate 40 and the airport has driven a boom in office parks, shopping centers and new residential subdivisions.
Other hard data point to significant structural challenges for the city.
Most notably, the 2012 property-tax revaluation in Guilford County reflected a loss of aggregate real-estate wealth in High Point, while values slightly increased in neighboring Greensboro and across the county as a whole.
The assessed valuation of the city dropped from $9.19 billion in 2011 to $8.88 billion in 2012. In other words, the revaluation wiped out $310 million of wealth in High Point. That decline reflects shrinkage in the biannual furniture market whose showrooms monopolize downtown. A study published by Triad City Beat in July found that tax collections from downtown properties dropped from $5.6 million in 2009 to $4.7 million in 2014 based on declining real-estate values.
The loss of value in the showroom district is troubling enough, but the trend is not isolated to the furniture industry. A recent study by the local architecture firm of Freeman-Kennett found that residential real estate values in High Point have failed to rebound since the depths of the recession, in contrast to comparable cities such as Hickory; Chattanooga, Tenn., Greenville, SC, Roanoke, Va.; and Asheville.
One consolation for city leaders is that the city’s budget office estimates that assessed valuation rebounded to $8.92 billion in the past fiscal year, and expects an almost complete recovery to $9.17 billion in the next nine months.
Whatever the numbers mean, there’s a perception about High Point’s relative desirability that is hard for the city to shake.
A 2011 study by the local public-relations firm McNeill Communications found that 15 out of 31 executives who were offered jobs in High Point chose not to live in the city. The respondents interviewed by the PR firm included people working in the fields of manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, telecom and trucking. The purpose of the findings in the report were “to create a strategic plan to help reverse the trend of the executive drain we are facing.”
In a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis, the report concluded that “Emerywood is a beautiful community,” but “there is a lack of multiple charming neighborhoods.”
“The private schools are impressive,” the report continued, but “High Point public schools do not measure up with those in Greensboro.”
Among the city’s strengths were affordable real estate, northern suburbs that are “well planned and convenient,” High Point University’s vibrancy and expansion, and beautiful parks.
The list of weaknesses also makes an impression. Among them: “Main Street center city is unacceptable with exposed power lines, vacant, boarded-up buildings, and a lack of trees and flowers.”
One respondent said, “We’ve fallen in love with the people here, but if we weren’t connected with my company, we probably would not stay here. We would be in Greensboro or Winston-Salem because we enjoy good restaurants, culture, doing things on the weekend, the Fresh Market.”
Still another verdict: “It’s a desert. It’s an abandoned city. There is nothing viable, growing there. The energy is stagnant.”