by Jordan Green
More than six months after city council voted to re-assign the person tasked with downtown redevelopment, High Point’s new city manager is re-evaluating the position.
More than six months after High Point City Council voted to re-assign the executive director of the city’s primary downtown-development agency to a position with different responsibilities, the new city manager is re-evaluating the position with plans to bring a proposal back to council.
The previous city council took an official vote to adopt a new Core City Action Plan in July, supplanting a previous effort known as City Project that was leading the Ignite High Point revitalization initiative inspired by the ideas of urban planner Andrés Duany. Under the previous arrangement, City Project had operated under an independent board of directors while its executive director, Wendy Fuscoe, received a city salary. With the city council’s decision to disengage with City Project, Fuscoe was reassigned to a new position: core city administrator. The changes were implemented by 7-1 vote, with Councilman Jay Wagner in dissent. Fuscoe retained her salary of $100,828 in the restructuring.
Among the essential tasks for the core city administrator, as laid out in the job description created by then interim City Manager Randy McCaslin, were working with city officials, nonprofits and community groups to establish priorities and promote development and revitalization of the core city.
“I’ve talked to Wendy and some other people about how the City Project features and how we best use all the assets we have,” said City Manager Greg Demko, who came on as the city’s top administrator in January. “I haven’t decided on anything.”
Demko said he expects to have a proposal to present to city council in the next three to four weeks as part of planning the next fiscal-year budget.
Demko added that the plan is not isolated to City Project or the core-city development function within city government.
“I’m working on all relationships with all groups in the community and just learning about each one and how we fit them together to get the best results for the community. It’s not isolated to City Project. I’m working with the Market Authority, the chamber, the High Point Partners — every community group we have to see how we can bring all the community interests together.”
The core city administrator position could potentially be affected by not only the city manager’s review but also the politics of the new city council, which was elected in November. The city has a new mayor, with four new members joining council, in addition to Mayor Bill Bencini. At-large Councilwoman Cynthia Davis has long taken a skeptical stance towards the City Project’s efforts, while at-large Councilman Latimer Alexander has so far staked out a neutral position. Councilwoman Alyce Hill, the new representative in Ward 3, has championed City Project’s vision. The constituents in Ward 2 have largely remained aloof from the controversy, making its new representative, Councilman Chris Williams, something of a wild card in the emerging alignment.
Councilman Jason Ewing, a veteran representative of Ward 6 who carried over from the previous council, said members of the new council will likely discuss their priorities during a retreat in Washington DC, where they will attend the National League of Municipalities meeting.
“It really hasn’t come up, to this point,” Ewing said of the core city administrator position. “I think everybody has differences of opinion on certain things. Clearly, on the new council you have one or two that may have supported the previous method more than the change the previous council made. It hasn’t been a hot enough topic that we’ve discussed it.”
The subtext for much of the controversy surrounding the City Project last year was the emphasis on Uptown as a strategic focal point for redevelopment efforts. Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall in particular, who lost her re-election bid in November, expressed a desire to have the core city administrator distribute her attention more equally among the neighborhoods that comprise the core city.
As executive director of the Hayden-Harman Foundation, which is engaged in an ongoing effort to redevelop the Washington Street business district and surrounding residential areas, Patrick Harman holds a unique vantage point to observe the impact of city council’s decision to redefine Fuscoe’s job.
“She hasn’t been around as much; she’s been around a little less than when the position was at the City Project,” Harman said.
Harman said prior to Fuscoe’s reassignment, she wrote a grant to obtain funding from the High Point Community Foundation and the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau for renovation and furniture. He added that he should probably research Fuscoe’s new position to see if it includes assisting community groups through grant writing.
Harman and Fuscoe have been working together on an effort to address hunger, called the Greater High Point Food Alliance.
Fuscoe declined to comment for this story.
Among the nine council members, Ewing has worked the closest with Fuscoe. As chair of the city council’s prosperity & livability committee, Ewing has been developing a program to offer tax benefits to businesses that locate in the core city. Fuscoe is the staff member assigned to the project, although her supervisor, Assistant City Manager Randy McCaslin, reports directly to Ewing’s committee. Ewing expressed dissatisfaction with the manner in which the legal department has been engaged in the initiative.
“It might just be an administrative issue that the manager needs to take care of it,” Ewing said. “If there’s anything that has to do with law and administration or changing policy it needs to go through the legal department first. It could have gone through the legal department before it was created as a policy. I’m hopeful [City Attorney] Joanne [Carlyle] will say, ‘You’re good to go.’ If she comes back and says, ‘This would require a change in state law, then the time staff took putting it together will have been wasted time.’
“The only person in the city that reports to us is the city manager,” Ewing continued. “At this stage it’s an opportunity: We’ve got a new city manager to lay the ground rules. It should be his direction to determine what needs to be done. Maybe that direction was never there in the past.”