by Jordan Green
High Point City Council members, taken aback by firestorm of protest, struggle to justify decision to slash funding to City Project and reassign employee as nonprofit leaders try to figure out their next move.
The volunteer board of directors of the nonprofit City Project planned to meet Tuesday afternoon to discuss the initiative’s future in the wake of a recent decision by High Point City Council to reassign Executive Director Wendy Fuscoe and reduce funding.
Fuscoe had previously received $100,828 from the city to lead City Project, an initiative to promote an urban style of living that is governed by a group of volunteers. The position is the equivalent of the presidents of Downtown Greensboro Inc. and the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, organizations that are autonomous but receive significant funding from their respective cities.
The organization raised private funds to enlist architect Andres Duany and others to create a plan for revitalizing the core city. Project leaders settled on a plan to invest in the Uptowne neighborhood as a focal point for restaurants and retail, considering that the real estate in downtown is virtually monopolized by the furniture market.
The city council decided during a finance committee meeting on May 19 to redirect Fuscoe to coordinate development of the larger Core City, and reduced the organization’s funding to $70,000, including $35,000 for a façade grant.
“It looks like what has happened is they’re trying to eliminate us or downsize or take us out and shoot us,” said Richard Wood, a financial advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors who chairs City Project’s board of directors.
Wood indicated the organization’s future is in doubt, adding that he doesn’t expect that any volunteer will want to administer the façade-grant program.
“I don’t know who’s going to run it,” he said. “I’m not going to run it. I don’t want to sound like a big shot. I’m not a detail guy. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the City Project.”
Many observers reacted with shock to the council’s decision, particularly given that the vote took place immediately following a presentation by an Asheville consultant who argued that by slowing down traffic, making zoning changes and investing in streetscaping, the city could increase property values and tax revenue.
Council members made little effort to hide their disinterest as consultant Joe Minicozzi presented data that projected economic development metrics based on similar public-sector investments in Greensboro, Asheville and Charlotte. Minicozzi also highlighted a recent study by High Point architect Peter Freeman indicating that High Point real-estate values are low compared to virtually every other city in the region, and continued to fall after 2011 while other cities rebounded.
The vote was taken in a conference room that has minimal public accommodations, attended mostly by staff with no reporters present.
Hours later, Councilman Jay Wagner — one of only two who opposed the vote to cut City Project loose — told project supporters that if they wanted transformational change they would have to elect a new council.
Council members on the majority side of the vote have responded to the uproar in a series of guest editorials in the High Point Enterprise, at the same time defending and minimizing the decision.
Councilman Jim Davis, the Ward 5 representative who made the motion to cut ties with City Project, wrote in a guest editorial in the Enterprise on Sunday that he was “disturbed over the lack of truth with facts that are getting twisted and construed to make the reader get a very different perception of action taken by council as it relates to City Project.”
He wrote that City Project loses “the exclusive use of our city employee, which the city currently pays. By no means should anyone assume that this decision by city council is a personal attack against City Project or any individual but just a smart business move to gain efficiencies and be more accountable for taxpayer dollars.”
Several council members have expressed misgivings that City Project has focused its efforts on Uptowne rather than a broader initiative encompassing other core city areas such as Southside.
“This council has been accused by some as being against revitalization,” Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall, who represents Ward 3, wrote in the Enterprise. “Nothing could be further from the truth. It is anticipated that the reassignment of the staff person will allow for revitalization efforts in the entire core city, which a priority for this council. By working with a variety of groups such as City Project and other concerned individuals to address needs within neighborhoods throughout the whole area much can be accomplished.”
Fuscoe said in an email to City Project supporters last week that she understands the council’s concern about revitalization in all areas of the core city.
“That said, I believe there does need to be focus — and that focus should be on creating an area that is walkable and urban and functions like a ‘community living room,’” she wrote. “A gathering place for all of High Point to come and walk, shop, live, work and celebrate. A place that is for everyone, even those who live in north High Point!
“Without focus, I feel like funding a position that simply coordinates work in the core city area is ill spent unless project funding is targeted and has an end goal,” Fuscoe added. “The city has limited dollars and limited resources, and it is up to our elected leaders to guide those very difficult funding decisions.”
Fuscoe continues to work in her current capacity as executive director of City Project on the city payroll. A grassroots effort called Save the City Project is lobbying city council to rescind the decision to cut City Project loose. Fuscoe declined to comment on whether she would continue to work for the city in a reassigned role in the next budget year.
Councilman Jason Ewing, who represents Ward 6, defended council’s decision in a May 21 Facebook post, noting that the city does not have the legal authority to fire any city employee other than the city manager, outlining the history of discussions leading up to the vote, and listing several revitalization initiatives that are underway.
The post prompted a chiding response from Elijah Lovejoy, who unsuccessfully ran for city council in 2012.
“I don’t see any way around the conclusion that High Point City Council has handled this situation spectacularly poorly,” Lovejoy said. “The public (as well as some city council members) are finding out about city council core city changes through internal emails, rather than direct and honest communication with the public. I’ve seen no public evaluation process or explanation of City Project pros and cons, successes or failures.”
Lovejoy contrasted the High Point City Council’s relationship with City Project to efforts by the Greensboro City Council to redirect Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s efforts, which he characterized as hard, but done “in a spirit of moving forward together and transparency.” He also noted that High Point City Council declined to take up a recommendation by outgoing City Manager Strib Boynton for third-party mediation.
“Then after the decision to dissolve City Project Inc. is made the city completely loses control of the narrative, has no press release ready to go that I’ve seen and shoots itself in the foot as appearing to be ‘anti-revitalization,’” Lovejoy said. “The self-inflicted wounds are so great, it’s hard to count them all, even if one is not a supporter of City Project Inc.”
Lovejoy said he appreciated Ewing’s case that the city council is not “anti-revitalization.”
“What I, and I suspect others struggle with is the dissonance between scale of the problem and the scale of council’s response,” Lovejoy said. “While High Point property values continue to decline, businesses steadily leave the core city and signs of urban decay continue unabated, the High Point City Council seems not to have grasped what other councils have successfully grasped.”