High Point considers reboot of revitalization program

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The imminent opening of Brown Truck Brewing, owned by John Vaughan (left) and Britt Lytle, is one of the few bright spots in High Point’s effort to revitalize its core city. 

by Jordan Green

A proposal by a newly hired assistant city manager would reboot revitalization efforts in High Point’s core city.

The city of High Point is drafting a plan for a new public-private partnership to lead downtown revitalization efforts.

“The impetus was that we’re not getting done quite what we’d like to do in downtown,” Assistant City Manager Randy Hemann said. “We’ve done some planning, but now it’s time for implementation. This is very similar to what’s going on in Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Salisbury.”

Hemann led revitalization efforts in the city of Salisbury prior to taking joining the city of High Point’s executive team in November.

Under the proposal, the new downtown agency would have an 18-member board with representation from the mayor and city council and several outside institutions such as High Point University and the convention and visitors bureau. Other seats would be set aside for property owners and at-large members. The organization would operate as a 501c3 nonprofit in tandem with a new 501c6 that has the authority to acquire property for redevelopment purposes. Hemann said the city would contribute funding to support the organization, although the exact amount is still being worked out. He said he expects a proposal to come before city council before July, when the next fiscal year budget begins.

The plan could mark a pivot point in downtown revitalization efforts dating back to the late 1990s that have foundered over the past two years in organizational disarray and political infighting. The turmoil peaked in early 2014, after the completion of a master plan by eminent urban planner Andrés Duany, when city council voted to reassign Wendy Fuscoe from her position as executive director of City Project to a position within city government. Denied a full-time employee, City Project has struggled to maintain momentum, although the organization launched a summer concert series that will go into its second year in 2016.

The seeds of a course correction were sewn with popular discontent over city council’s handling of revitalization efforts and Fuscoe’s reassignment in 2014. Voters elected a new council, with new Mayor Bill Bencini and a governing majority that was friendlier to City Project.

Richard Wood, chairman of the board of City Project, said he has been working with Hemann for three months to develop the plan for the new revitalization organization, describing his agency’s role as “instrumental.” Wood said he expects that two to five members of the City Project’s board of directors will carry over to the board of the new agency, which will likely adopt a different name. Some key figures in the city’s revitalization efforts, including Wood, will step aside, assuming that city council approves the restructuring plan.

“Ever since my tirade in front of city council, we’ve kind of been on the bench ever since,” Wood said, acknowledging that his vocal advocacy alienated some on council.

Wood said he remains disappointed about the pace of revitalization in High Point’s core city.

“We’ve got to do some things to entice investors to High Point,” he said. “I’ve been a little disappointed that the real-estate developers have not come forth. I hear about it happening in other communities. I think they’ve got to know that the city council supports them and that the city management supports what they’re trying to do, and I think [the new structure is] a better way to get a handle on that.”

As bright spots, Wood citied the impending opening of Brown Truck Brewing and relocation of Sweet Josephine’s bakery — both in Uptowne — and the opening of Persnickety, a high-end furniture consignment shop in the old Lyles Chevrolet building on North Main Street. Plans to build a multifunctional athletic facility that would provide a home to the Hi-Toms baseball team and a venue for amateur sports are also promising, he said.

In tandem with creating a new revitalization agency, the plan under development by Hemann also eliminates the position of core city administrator, where Fuscoe landed in mid-2014 with a salary of $104,397. Last year, Fuscoe crafted a plan approved by city council to create a municipal service district uniquely designed without enhanced taxes that allows the city to pay out financial incentives to defray the cost of improvements to downtown properties. Fuscoe said several people have expressed interest in the incentives, but no one has applied yet.

Fuscoe completely supports the move to eliminate her position, she said, despite the progress she had made on the city’s behalf.

“It’s the only way to do it,” she said. “I believe 100 percent that it does not work to have a city employee working inside City Hall leading a revitalization initiative. It has to be a public-private partnership working in conjunction with the community.”

Come the end of June, Fuscoe said she will be “looking around, finding a job,” but she is not interested in leading the new revitalization agency.

“For a variety of reasons it’s time to step away,” she said.

Aaron Clinard, a former chairman who still serves on the board of City Project, said the word “ecstatic” best expresses his feelings about the plan to restructure the city’s revitalization effort.

The plan under development by Hemann, who started working for the city about four months ago, brings the city’s revitalization efforts full circle, Clinard said, although he prefers the term “vitalization.”

When Clinard chaired City Project, he took the board on trips to neighboring cities to gather ideas to take back to High Point. Leveraging a family relationship with then-mayor Susan Kluttz — their children are married — Clinard arranged a trip to Salisbury. (Kluttz now heads the state Department of Cultural Resources.)

“I asked her if we could take a look at what they were doing down there,” Clinard recalled. “She said, ‘Absolutely,” and she planned a full day of activities. She began with Randy Hemann, who was the head of their revitalization organization. He was able to show us facts and figures about monies and what the results were with capital improvement and taxes. We met with him privately later — me and Wendy — and he said, ‘You really need a master plan.’ We raised money to do that and found an urban planner, who ended up being Andrés Duany. It’s come full circle. Randy has set us on the path to having a master plan.”

Like Wood, Clinard said he does not plan to continue on the board of the new organization.

“I would be more than willing to step aside if it helps heal the wounds or smooth the way for members of council who have long memories,” Clinard said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s time for fresh faces and fresh words. There are a lot of people in the city who want vitalization. I want to make sure that this is as easy as possible for city council with the funding mechanisms they need to do. The next step is finding someone to fill the executive director role.”

Clinard and Wood said they expect that the new revitalization agency will pursue parts of the Duany master plan.

Clinard said the city has been taking small steps since former mayor Becky Smothers asked him to pull together a volunteer downtown committee in the late 1990s.

“Now we’re at the point where we need to do implementation,” he said. “I think that’s what this plan is meant to accomplish. What I’m trying to say is there’s a lot of good work that’s been done and good people who have put in that work. Now’s a good time to renew, refresh and step back, and start doing some things with measurable outcomes. Randy Hemann is the man to do it.”

 

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