It would be hard to imagine a more consequential election than the one before High Point voters in November.
Mayor Bernita Sims, who has served one two-year term in office, is not seeking reelection. Becky Smothers, who has done more to shape the Triad’s third-largest city than probably any elected official in the past 50 years through her service as a council member and mayor over the course of three decades, is retiring from public service. Ward 2 Councilman Foster Douglas is also stepping down, ensuring that at least three out of nine seats will turn over.
A ghastly Pandora’s box of troubles has consumed the current council. There have been racially divided votes over the renaming of a street in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and calls for Sims and Douglas, both of whom are black, to resign over financial issues. There has been closed-door debate concerning oversight of credit-card spending by city employees under the former city manager’s watch. And the city council has split over efforts to revitalize the core city, with the majority perceived by the public as aloof and out of touch.
At root, all of these controversies stem from an identity crisis in the Furniture City.
For many, High Point is a bedroom community, where residents head to Greensboro and Winston-Salem for shopping, dining and entertainment, while for others it’s an employment site that doesn’t concern them after they clock out at 5 p.m. At a film discussion in downtown Greensboro last Thursday, I met a Spanish professor who teaches at High Point University. He lives in Greensboro. [See “Eking a modest career from an appreciation of zombies and Buñuel” on page 26.] Many of the people who work at the Bank of America call center, New Breed Logistics and Pharmacore in the office parks on the north side of High Point commute in to work from Greensboro and Summerfield. High Point collects the tax revenue from the industrial investments, but the employees’ investment in homeownership, rent and personal spending leaks out to neighboring municipalities.
In the case of High Point University, the city doesn’t even collect property tax. The city closed a section of Montlieu Avenue to accommodate the university’s plans to build a new health, science and pharmacy building with an additional 100 faculty and staff jobs. How many of those new hires will live in High Point? There’s no guarantee. High Point City Council members, like their colleagues in Winston-Salem, are in the habit of pleading with corporate beneficiaries of their incentives programs to hire from within their cities. But let’s be real: Smart companies and universities hire the best and brightest, without regard for arbitrary political boundaries. And talented employees choose to live in culturally vibrant cities with appealing retail and dining.
High Point voters can elect a new council that continues the current course by holding the line on spending as a cycle of divestment increases cost burdens on individual taxpayers in a city that already holds the highest cost of government per capita in the state. Or they can elect a council that makes strategic public investments in the urban core — requiring a bond issue and an immediate, one-time tax hike — that will over time attract private investment and gradually reduce the cost of government.
Bill Bencini and Marcus Brandon, the two mayoral candidates with the highest name recognition and political viability, have so far attempted to strike statesmanlike postures by remaining above the fray and trying to unite the city. But if the eventual victor lacks sufficient vision, he will find that one of the two warring factions — the low-tax crowd and the revitalization camp — either draws him in to their fold, or pushes him aside to pursue their own agenda.
Both Bencini and Brandon are smart, capable men, but they haven’t been engaged with city business on a day-to-day basis for the past four years. Bencini, a former council member, has served for the past four years on the Guilford County Commission, a collegial body that he has chaired as a member of the Republican majority. Brandon, a Democrat with some progressive tendencies, has distinguished himself in the state House over the same period for his willingness and ability to work with that body’s Republican majority.
The atmosphere in High Point city government is probably far more toxic and petty than either man fully appreciates. If the next mayor lacks boldness, his agenda will be hobbled by inertia and a bureaucratic culture of death by a thousand committee meetings and excuses for inaction.
High Point is also ripe with promise, with a number of innovative ideas percolating thanks to the Ignite High Point initiative under the leadership of the City Project, and with a committed cadre of grassroots activists working to revitalize the city through the arts, cycling and pop-up markets. All of the momentum that’s been building over the past two years will be squandered if the elected leadership can’t figure out how to harness it or, worse, tramples it.
Who’s up for the job?