High Point council members back revitalization partnership

High Point City Council discusses downtown revitalization.
High Point City Council discusses downtown revitalization.

by Jordan Green

The city of High Point moves forward with a plan to reboot downtown revitalization efforts while considering a proposal to expand bus service.

“Success begets success,” Assistant City Manager Randy Hemann told members of High Point City Council during a briefing on Monday afternoon.

Arguing for a public-private partnership funded in part by the city to promote downtown revitalization, Hemann told them that new investment has transpired in cities and towns across North Carolina. It can and eventually will happen in High Point, he said, adding that it’s time to get started.

Hemann has some credibility on the matter, having led successful revitalization efforts in Salisbury. Councilman Jason Ewing, a conservative holdover from the previous council that pressed the pause button on revitalization efforts two years ago, has expressed support for Hemann’s plan. Even Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis acceded after posing a pointed question.

“To me the most key member of this team is the executive director,” he said. “How do we ensure that we get the right person?”

“I’ll be very keenly involved in that,” Hemann said. He added, “They answer to us because we’re on the board.”

A key factor in the progression of the initiative will be funding by the city, and the council is still in the preliminary stages of developing its budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

After the briefing, Mayor Bill Bencini expressed measured support for the initiative. He said he’s backing the plan “because our professional staff has recognized we need to implement a structure to move from a big vision to individual project implementation.”

Touting the public-private partnership model during the briefing, Hemann said, “Downtown Durham’s tax base went from $100 million to $800 million. That’s pretty doggone extreme; I don’t know if we can do that.”

Bencini chimed in hopefully: “There was a time when Durham’s downtown was worse than ours.”

As council members reasoned that they can always withdraw funding if the partnership doesn’t produce results, City Manager Greg Demko cautioned: “We’ll see results in three years, but they won’t be monumental.”

Hemann reassured skeptical council members: “I can tell you this is the proven model that everybody uses that’s successful.”

Councilwoman Cynthia Davis, one of the board’s two at-large members, sounded the only dissonant note on the plan.

“Constituents are concerned that the person should be employed by the city, so there should be accountability,” she said.

The previous council reassigned Wendy Fuscoe from her role as executive director of City Project, the current downtown revitalization agency, and instructed her to handle a more generalized set of duties as core city administrator. Davis supported that move, which took place before she was elected to council.

Hemann has proposed that the city eliminate Fuscoe’s position, with the new agency hiring an executive director who will answer to a semi-independent board instead of the city manager.

Davis said some constituents are also concerned that the new agency is “going to do what they did before — abort, jump ship,” adding that City Project didn’t accomplish much beyond adopting a master plan developed by urban planner Andrés Duany.

In fact, the previous council put the brakes on implementing the Duany master plan by removing Fuscoe from City Project and voting down an elementary recommendation to slow vehicular traffic on North Main Street to make it more amenable to pedestrian-scale commerce. The previous council also voted against a recommendation in the master plan to create a public plaza in front of the library, favoring a redesigned parking lot instead. But the new council reversed the decision and approved the plaza concept, with at-large Councilman Latimer Alexander tipping the balance.

In other business, council members heard about a plan to expand bus service through a $265,000 investment. Hi Tran Director Angela Wynes said the investment would allow the system to extend evening service from 6:15 to 9:30 p.m. on select routes, establish a Palladium/Deep River circulator through a partnership with the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transit and extend service one hour earlier and one hour later on Saturdays.

Wynes said stretching weekday service to 9:30 p.m. will help some second-shift workers employed by senior assisted-living centers, who can at least use the bus to get to their jobs, even if they have to arrange transportation back home with family, friends or coworkers. She added that the extended service could also help service workers who are finishing up restaurants shifts and people who work part-time.

City Budget & Performance Manager Eric Olmedo said the cost of the investment would equate to 0.265 cents per $100 of evaluation, but the city could shift the funds from another area of the budget rather than raising taxes. City Manager Greg Demko has not proposed a source for the funding, and council has not discussed options yet.

Under the proposal for expanded service, the city would also raise fares from $1.00 to $1.25 to cover the cost of the investment. Wynes cautioned against hiking fares beyond the proposed rate; she said studies have shown that for every 3-percent increase in fares, ridership tends to drop by 1 percent.

The proposal to expand transit service drew no objections from council members.

“Every year it is a constant drumbeat of people that want this,” Alexander said. “Quite frankly, I’m amazed that there are so many people that have only one car per household or who use public transportation.”