High Point council approves $15 million for multi-purpose stadium

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Mayor Bill Bencini (left) and Councilman Jay Wagner applaud a vote to allocate city funds for a stadium project. (photo by Jordan Green)

High Point City Council votes to spend $15 million to acquire property and pay for site design for a multi-purpose stadium conceived as a “catalytic project.”

High Point, the last stubborn holdout in the Triad’s urbanization movement, is ready to play ball.

City council voted 8-1 on Monday to spend $15 million to buy land and design a site for a multi-purpose stadium near the intersection of English Road and North Elm Street.

At-large Councilwoman Cynthia Davis cast the lone no vote against using city funds to support the project.

The president of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, a minor league that is in the process of expanding from eight to 12 teams, has signed a letter of intent expressing a desire to bring a team to High Point, said Sims Hinds, vice-chair of Forward High Point. Hines added that Forward High Point has “secured a local ownership entity that is well along in their discussions with the Atlantic League and is anxious to get into discussions with the city of High Point about a long-term operating lease as well.”

The multi-purpose stadium, which is estimated to cost $30 million to $35 million, will be designed to host baseball, football, lacrosse, soccer, concerts, religious gatherings, movie screenings and other community events.

“The nation’s largest promoter of Christian music concerts, Premier Productions, is headquartered right here in High Point,” Hinds said. “They produce over 450 Christian concert events a year all around the United States. They’ve never promoted a single show in High Point because there’s never been a venue to host one in. And they’re very anxious to start producing a Christian music series in your new stadium.”

Hinds said the stadium will draw from a market of 230,000 in a territory that runs from the northern rim of High Point to Lexington and Thomasville in the south.

“We’re looking at a modest-sized stadium a little smaller than Greensboro, a little smaller than Winston-Salem, but nicer than both of ’em,” Hinds said.

Hinds said Forward High Point officials have spoken with several local developers, who expressed interest in making investments surrounding the in four-block stadium area, which will be located one block from High Point Regional Hospital. Hinds said most of the developers said they would build a minimum of 80 to 100 apartments.

“That would give us a vibrancy to downtown High Point that we haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. “Once you get the people living downtown, then you get the breweries, you get the restaurants, you get some of the stores to follow, hotel, office buildings, and all of a sudden we have a great downtown development.”

The project was spearheaded about two years ago by the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau. The city of High Point and local business leaders set up Forward High Point, a non-profit downtown development agency, to lead the effort last year. Ray Gibbs, the agency’s executive director, has been widely credited with setting the stage for neighboring Greensboro’s downtown renaissance as executive director of Downtown Greensboro Inc. from 1999 to 2007. When he took the helm of Forward High Point seven months ago, Gibbs’ primary task was to bring the city a so-called catalytic project that will generate ancillary development and create jobs.

Baseball stadiums are a tried-and-true tool of downtown redevelopment. As Hinds noted, Fayetteville, Kannapolis and Gastonia — with populations ranging from 40,000 to 200,000 — are all slightly ahead of High Point (pop. 104,371) in redeveloping their downtowns around multi-purpose stadiums. Greensboro and Winston-Salem, both with populations upwards of 200,000, built ballparks in 2005 and 2010, respectively. The Greenway at Fisher Park and Greenway at Stadium Park apartments followed the Greensboro ballpark in 2013 and 2014, and developer Roy Carroll’s multi-use Bellemeade Village is currently under construction just to the east. In Winston-Salem, Link Apartments Brookstown was built overlooking the ballpark in 2015, and the same year an Atlanta-based developer announced plans to build a $96 million residential and retail complex around the ballpark.

Gibbs said private development lagged behind ballpark construction in Greensboro partly because the project only included the stadium site and didn’t bank surrounding properties for private development. And in both cities the 2009 recession delayed investment.

“With this project, we’re going to try to control the land around it, and we started working with developers before so we can bring them in at the same time,” Gibbs said.

City staff and Forward High Point presented the stadium secondary to the objective of creating a “downtown catalyst project.” Project leaders contend the stadium and spinoff development will meet the goal set by city council last year to produce 500 private-sector jobs, 15-20 new restaurants and shops, 250 residential housing units and a central gathering space.

“We feel like this project will accomplish that goal,” Assistant City Manager Randy Hemann said at the meeting Monday. “The most exciting thing is it will do it without a tax increase.”

Staff estimates that the project will increase the tax base of the downtown area from $805 million to $904 million, creating almost $100 million in new valuation. The city’s plan for financing the project over 20 years includes new tax revenue, annual leasing, facility fees, parking fees and naming rights.

Gibbs said he is already orchestrating two major mixed-use projects to complement the stadium and establish a nexus of pedestrian activity. He said he’s “finalizing a deal” with International Market Centers to repurpose the unused Showplace West as a boutique hotel and retail center, and he’s talking to developers about a proposed mixed-use development on North Main Street mixing retail, restaurant, office and residential with an estimated value of $16.5 million to $22 million.

“I needed to show city council that when we talk about private development, it isn’t just fairy tales,” he said in an interview. “We’re actually in negotiation with folks.”

The city council vote to appropriate city funds to pay for property acquisition and site design did not take place without controversy.

Under questioning by Councilman Jim Davis, Hemann acknowledged that a private investor recently purchased seven parcels within the area designated for the stadium from the High Point Enterprise for $400,000, and that the city plans to pay about $1.2 million to repurchase the properties. A deed executed on Jan. 5 shows that the Enterprise sold the properties to DJ Worldwide LLC. The LLC’s annual report, on file with the NC Secretary of State, indicates that the company is owned by David Payne of High Point and Jerry Lee Hill of Thomasville.

“On the surface, this looks like insider information,” Davis said.

“The heartburn I’m having is — I want to support this — but how do I answer to the citizens of this city when you have an LLC corporation that has automatically bought up property, and they got extremely lucky or they had some kind of insider information that this is going to happen?” Davis continued.

“Neither,” Hemann responded. “He was already purchasing that property for development. It was neither. He purchased that directly from the Enterprise. He purchased that for development. We’re re-purchasing from him.”

Hemann added that the $1.2 million the city intends to pay for the property is significantly less than its $2.7 million tax value. He said that the new owner signed up for the city’s brownfields program to remediate the property “months and months, long before we even looked at it,” and that DJ Worldwide LLC had the property under contract before city officials started looking at it.

“I will tell you that did cause heartburn for us,” Hemann said. “But when we looked at all the other sites and when we looked at the site that was south of this we would have ended up paying much, much more for property.”

City council ultimately approved the $15 million allocation on an 8-1 vote, with only Councilwoman Cynthia Davis, an at-large representative, voting in opposition. Davis said she supports the project, but believes it should not be financed with public funds.

Gibbs said Forward High Point will likely issue a request for proposals for a master developer in the summer. The goal is to have stadium open by April 2019.

A rendering depicts what the future multi-purpose stadium in High Point could look like. (courtesy Forward High Point)