by Jordan Green
At-large candidates think High Point’s permitting process needs to be addressed to make the city more business friendly. The most proven candidates hew to a conservative line, while newcomers offer a hodgepodge of ideas for jumpstarting revitalization.
Eight candidates are taking a shot at the two at-large seats on High Point City Council when voters go to the polls on Nov. 4. While the retirement of Councilwoman Becky Smothers leaves one open seat, many of the hopefuls are familiar figures, either as former council members or candidates.
Several candidates cite a need to reverse High Point’s economic decline and retain young people by making the core city more appealing and enhancing cultural offerings, but few if any have expressed any real appetite to modify the city’s basic formula for economic development and urban planning. The most proven candidates are running on decidedly conservative and cautious platforms.
Real-estate manager Britt Moore, who is seeking his third term on council, has earned the second spot in the past two elections, running strong in the affluent northern suburbs, the west-central corridor along Westchester Drive and in elite Emerywood.
“All that the government can do at our level is try to create the efficiencies by keeping the tax burden as low as possible while supplying the amenities the citizens want and expect as efficiently as possible,” Moore said.
While Moore is the only incumbent in the race, based on past performance no at-large candidate has a deeper and wider base of appeal than Latimer Alexander. The fabric-company owner wants to return to council after serving from 2002 to 2012, when he retired to pursue an unsuccessful bid for state Senate. Alexander was the top vote-getter in the 2010 election, carrying precincts from the Wendover Avenue corridor down to the industrial southwest, from Emerywood to working-class Five Points.
Alexander said he wants to restore stability after two years of turmoil on council over a host of issues, including the leadership of former Mayor Bernita Sims, who was convicted of check fraud last month.
“The first priority is that council become a more unified body, a body that communicates with each other, with the professional staff, and with the citizens,” Alexander said, “so that body regains the confidence of the citizens.”
Edward Squires, who owns a nutrition business on North Main Street, finished third in the balloting two years ago, drawing much of his support from the predominantly African-American east side between Lexington Avenue and Green Drive. The election of Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney in 2008 demonstrates that, when activated, the black electorate can swing an at-large election in the city.
Cynthia Davis, who chairs the planning and zoning commission, is, like Moore and Alexander, a fiscal conservative. She ran strong in her home precinct of southwest High Point while splitting the vote with Moore in the northern suburbs. She finished last in the 2012 at-large race, albeit in a tight cluster with Squires and another candidate. And Regina Chahal, who owns a trucking company with her husband, placed last in the balloting for the at-large race in 2010.
Rounding out the at-large ballot this year are the Rev. Orrick Quick, a pastor who placed second in the Ward 1 race two years ago; David Rosen, a professional photographer with ties to We “Heart” High Point; and Michael Holmes, a “lean manufacturing expert” for furniture retailer Ikea.
Squires and Davis are emphasizing a concept called “seamless city.” The candidates argue for equal services and infrastructure, pushing back against the notion that High Point needs to invest strategically, beginning with a single catalytic project to reverse the city’s perceived decline.
“’Seamless city’ means that the quality of life is the same across High Point,” Squires said, “so that if I drive on South Main Street and Eastchester Drive, the infrastructure and quality of life is the same. All parts are taken care of, there are no rundown areas. The infrastructure and the sidewalks look the same. We should give incentives to small businesses, give them free utilities and free curb appeal for a period of time.”
While also emphasizing the seamless city, Davis said she wants to promote more citizen engagement.
“I would like to see more people coming forward on that first Monday of the month [when city council meets] letting us know their ideas, letting us know what’s hindering them in their neighborhoods. Some people say, ‘I want Cynthia Davis to be my councilwoman, and I expect her to represent me.’ I will represent them, but I need to hear from them.”
Davis rarely misses a council meeting or a finance-committee meeting, where many public-policy decisions are hammered out in advance.
“There are people in this race that haven’t been in a finance committee meeting,” Davis said. “There are people who haven’t attended a city council meeting since they ran.”
Asked to clarify, she said her comment was not directed at any particular candidate.
Squires is taking a different tack to separate himself from the competition. He said his experience as a business owner and community service as a volunteer distinguishes him, despite not winning his past election.
Davis also decried what she termed “special interests,” acknowledging that a proposed street diet on North Main Street “would be one example.” Prodded to be more specific, the candidate did not name any candidates who might have a financial conflict related to a project under consideration.
Alexander also distanced his campaign from specific revitalization initiatives within the city, although he said he wants to establish a regional task force to promote business along the I-85 corridor.
“You hear from a lot of different constituency groups,” Alexander said. “One of the loudest would be City Project and We ‘Heart’ High Point. They want to see revitalization in Uptowne. You’ve got folks in the southwest revitalization effort. There are different people all clamoring for attention. Throughout the election process those candidates that feel strongly about that will look for their support.”
Rosen entered the race as an innovator in the mold of Elijah Lovejoy, who ran at large two years ago. Lovejoy promoted a strategic investment in urban revitalization as a means of reversing the city’s decline, but finished fourth, between Squires and Davis.
Rosen emerged earlier this year as a founder of We “Heart” High Point, a citizen group supporting street dieting — reducing lanes to make the roadway more pedestrian friendly and create a more vibrant retail and dining corridor. Lovejoy, who now lives in Greensboro, is an active volunteer with We “Heart” High Point.
Since launching his bid for city council, Rosen has begun to distance himself from the street-dieting initiative, expressing frustration in an interview that he is continuously asked about it.
While arguing that dieting would help small businesses by slowing down auto traffic and attracting pedestrians, Rosen said, “I’m not for it until we have a reason to do it.” When prodded to explain, he continued, “The time will be right when there’s change in leadership and change in attitude, when the mindset and the word on the street is ‘High Point has new leadership, they’re really progressive, they have young leadership.’… There needs to be businesses, restaurants, retail activity — things going on. Once you get that going, then you can discuss street dieting.”
The new council’s first priority, Rosen said, will be to streamline the city’s permitting and inspections process to allow people to start new businesses. Rosen said the current council bears some responsibility.
“For too long, everyone has said, ‘Things are going fine. We’re going to rubber-stamp it.’ Here’s the problem: I spoke with a dentist in Jamestown. She goes to planning and development to talk about her idea and can’t get an answer; she keeps getting the runaround. She said, ‘I was so frustrated I went to Greensboro. They said, ‘You need to go here, here and here.’ It was so easy. In High Point it was just a huge hassle.’”
Davis, Squires and Quick also identified addressing the business permitting process a critical priority for the next council.
The remaining candidates, including Quick, all expressed a desire to bring new jobs and cultural vitality to High Point, outlining a range of different ideas for accomplishing those goals. On the idea of “dieting” North Main Street, the candidates either said they are skeptical or need more information.
In addition to streamlining the permitting process, Quick said he would like to see a business incubator in High Point and more public gatherings, including an annual carnival, like one that used to be held on Penny Road, and street festivals downtown.
Chahal, who expressed vehement opposition to street dieting, argued that the city needs to make itself more attractive to visitors for the furniture market and to retain young people. She suggested installing a skatepark, a dog park, an amphitheater and a statue honoring a significant figure in the history of the furniture industry as a way to make the city more appealing.
Holmes suggested incentivizing small businesses, particularly those that are willing to invest in blighted areas of the city. He said the city needs to be more aggressive about recruiting new businesses. High Point needs a downtown with retail, art galleries and museum and nightlife, Holmes said, without explaining how he would accomplish the goal.
Holmes, like many of the candidates, sees a city in trouble that could thrive under the leadership of the right person.
“When I moved to High Point about four years ago, I got the chance to meet people, and it was kind of the same refrain with people,” he said. “It was a pessimistic cloud over High Point. People didn’t really have a positive idea or perception of High Point. They needed someone who could come in and provide a positive vision. I believe High Point has the potential to be a great city, but it’s going to take the right leadership.”