by Eric Ginsburg and Jordan Green
Several races for High Point City Council are shaping up to be competitive contests.
Bill Bencini, a former city council member who currently chairs the Guilford County Commission, made his candidacy for mayor official on July 7, the first day of filing. As of Monday, nobody else had filed to run for the seat, including current Mayor Bernita Sims.
Sims, the city’s first black mayor, has been embroiled in controversy stemming from a felony indictment and ties to a political-action committee that is under investigation for violating campaign-finance law.
Bencini has said he wants to unite High Point behind a single vision that transcends the parochial interests of the city’s six wards.
“We have one city, not six cities,” he told Triad City Beat last month. “It starts with the leadership. The leadership needs to understand that we’re making decisions based on not just the interest of any one ward but the overall health and vitality of the entire city.”
The two at-large seats have also attracted enough interest to ensure dynamic contests. Britt Moore, a two-year incumbent who was first elected in 2010, decided to seek reelection. Also filing at large is Latimer Alexander, a former council member who has been dissatisfied with the current council, and Cynthia Davis, a civic volunteer who has closely monitored the past two councils. Orrick Quick, a pastor who ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 1 seat two years ago, has also filed at large.
As of Monday, former mayor and current at-large Councilwoman Becky Smothers had not filed for reelection.
Moore said hiring a new city manager and figuring out a way to replace revenue lost because of legislative action in Raleigh will be priorities for the next council. Former City Manager Strib Boynton retired at the end of June, and the council appointed Randy McCaslin as interim. Moore has staked out a cautious stance on economic matters, saying he wants to keep taxes as low as possible and stressing the role of private investors in revitalizing the city.
Cynthia Davis has sharply criticized past councils, but has often found herself in sync with the current cohort, particularly concerning efforts to reduce the tax rate and root out wasteful spending.
“I’ve been available for springboarding ideas,” she said. “That relationship between me and the council has been friendly. I continue to be engaged. Many of them trust me. They seem to value my opinion and thoughts.”
Latimer Alexander has criticized the current council for allowing their differences to become personal and for what he views as micromanaging a decision in May to reassign City Project Executive Director Wendy Fuscoe, who has led core city revitalization efforts that many believe were gaining traction.
The fate of the City Project and its Ignite High Point initiative to promote urban reinvestment by making attracting street-level retail and pedestrian traffic could prove to be decisive issue in the election. Whether candidates choose to address the controversy or not, the continuing depreciation of the downtown tax base poses a challenge to the city’s economic viability that makes this one of the most important municipal elections in recent years.
“I support City Project and Ignite and all that because I think you have to do something,” Orrick Quick said. “Just sitting around not doing anything is the worst thing you can do.”
Quick said the city needs to take “drastic action” to reverse its decline.
“Other cities are moving; why isn’t High Point moving?” he asked. “In order for us to truly move you’ve got to have a plan and then you execute the plan. I have a vision for High Point. I can’t reveal what I want to do. These are my ideas; I don’t want anyone to take them.”
At least five incumbents in the six ward races have either filed or declared that they will seek reelection.
The determination of incumbents to persevere has mixed implications for the revitalization efforts undertaken by the City Project. Jay Wagner, one of the few supporters of the City Project, filed to run for reelection in Ward 4. Wagner’s ward includes the Uptowne area, which is the focal point of the Ignite High Point master plan to create an alternate downtown to compensate for the furniture market’s monopoly.
As of Monday, Foster Douglas had not filed to run for reelection in Ward 2.
Chris Williams, who ran for the same seat in 2010, had. This time around he’s running on the same platform of economic development, affordable housing and safe neighborhoods, but said in the last four years he’s worked to help develop civic engagement through neighborhood associations. Other things have changed since he last ran, too.
“I have more of a connection with some of the people in my area and have a more comprehensive plan with trying to establish more community connections to city hall,” Williams said.
Williams, who works for International Market Centers’ logistics department, added that he has been involved in food outreach and anti-violence work.
Judy Mendenhall, a former mayor and one of the strongest proponents of reassigning Fuscoe, filed for reelection in Ward 3.
Alyce Hill said her decision to run against Mendenhall for the seat was closely related to the incumbent’s handling of the City Project controversy.
“There’s been so much a focus on conflict that city council has become ineffectual,” she said. “City Project presented bold, out-of-the-box thinking, and rather than look at ways to incorporate their ideas the council found excuses to not take action and buried their ideas in bureaucracy. They engaged in distractions and division. We need a city council that will be proactive, work together to achieve a unified goal. Many other cities have done it. There’s no reason we can’t.”
Jim Davis and Jason Ewing, who respectively represent wards 5 and 6 in the northern, suburban tier of the city, have both said they plan to run for re-election. Both are committed to keeping taxes low and skeptical of public investment, although Ewing in particular is interested in exploring options for incentivizing retail investment near downtown. He favors focusing revitalization efforts in the medical area near High Point Regional Hospital, as opposed to Uptowne.
Ewing filed for reelection last week while Davis had not filed as of Monday.
Jim Corey, a retired High Point University political science professor, filed to run in Ward 6 after losing to Ewing in the last election.
“A lot of issues in north High Point need addressing, such as more sidewalks and more bike paths,” he said. “I know they want to diet Main Street and I’m very interested in that. I think it’s worth a try to do something to reinvigorate the downtown area.”
Corey said the city can’t rely only on Furniture Market, adding that supporting small businesses and green energy would be areas of focus for him.
Roger Sims, a New York Life Insurance agent, filed to run in Ward 5. In a press release, Sims said he is on the board of directors for the High Point Chamber of Commerce, which named him Small Business Person of the Year.
“Running for office has not been on my to-do list until so many people approached me, indicating that they were tired of a council that spent all of its time arguing and bickering about small things instead of focusing on job growth and basic city services,” Sims said in the release. “High Point has many challenges. We must continue diversifying our economy, aggressively seek business expansions, and continue to create a new ‘downtown’ to replace the downtown dominated by the furniture industry.”
As of Monday, he was the only candidate filed for the seat.
Jeff Golden has filed for reelection in Ward 1. As of Monday, nobody had filed to run against him.
Golden touted progress in revitalizing Washington Street and new sidewalks on Cedrow Drive in Ward 1 under his representation.
“There are a few more things I want to get accomplished,” he said, adding that he wants to bring additional resources to Ward 1.
Filing for High Point City Council closes on Friday at noon.