by Jordan Green
As proponents of Core City revitalization splinter over where to focus energy and resources, northern High Point gravitates towards Winston-Salem, Greensboro and the airport.
Members of High Point City Council chafe at being labeled “anti-revitalization.”
The characterization has been hurled at the council by some citizens following a 7-2 vote last month to shift the position supporting the non-profit City Project initiative to a broader focus on the entire 11-square-mile Core City Area.
The City Project commissioned a master plan by Miami architect Andrés Duany, which recommended the Uptowne commercial district as an alternate civic gathering place and strategic focal point for efforts to rebuild the city’s atrophying tax base.
The vote to reassign the position was taken during a finance-committee meeting with limited accessibility to citizens. It took place minutes after the council received a presentation by consultant Joe Minicozzi highlighting the city’s dwindling real-estate values and suggesting several measures to promote infill investment by making North Main Street more pedestrian friendly through Uptowne. The process of reducing traffic lanes while widening sidewalks and planting trees is known as “street dieting.”
“There’s no one on council that doesn’t want to revitalize our Core City,” said Councilman Jim Davis, who made the motion to withdraw support from City Project. “We would love to have a Fourth Street, like in Winston-Salem. We don’t have the money to do it. We’re 14.5 cents higher than Winston-Salem in our tax rate. The reason that I ran for council was because our tax rate was the highest in the state. This year we’re going to have a tax decrease.”
A homebuilder by trade, Davis represents Ward 5 in the suburban northwestern corner of the city. He often shares that his family has lived in the area since 1804, and that Skeet Club Road is named after a hunt club owned by his grandfather, who provided recreational opportunities to members of the Rockefeller and Carnegie families.
Various forces exert a northward magnetic pull on wards 5 and 6 in the northernmost tier of High Point, away from the Core City to the south. The area has its own commercial hub in the Palladium Shopping Center. It takes Davis 20 minutes to get from his home on Skeet Club Road to Winston-Salem’s Restaurant Row, and 25 minutes for Councilman Jason Ewing 25 minutes to travel from his home near Oak Hollow Lake in Ward 6 to Greensboro’s South Elm Street. Piedmont Triad International Airport and Business 40 also orient commerce and economic development away from the Core City Area.
“For us, it’s the Palladium on Wendover Avenue; Belk just moved out there,” Davis said when asked to identify the functioning civic gathering space for his constituents. “For me and my family, we go to Fourth Street in Winston-Salem. We like to eat at Mellow Mushroom.”
From an economic standpoint, Davis also sees more promising growth in the suburban fringe than the Core City. City council members have made a united effort to extend water and sewer lines to the new 1-74 Corporate Park on a 300-acre tract that the city annexed in Forsyth County. After months of speculation, Ralph Lauren has been confirmed as the future corporate park’s anchor tenant.
“Ward 5 — we’re the largest block of voters,” Davis said. “They’re college-educated professionals. Dieting North Main Street would cost $20 million. The only option to pay for it is to issue bonds. We would have to raise property taxes to do that. With the I-74 Corporate Park, the city is spending $5-$6 million to run water and sewer out there. That’s an estimated $120 million private investment and 400 jobs. That’s an easier sell to my constituents. It has a real return to increase our tax base.”
Davis was finishing his lunch at McDonald’s on Old Plank Road on a recent Thursday afternoon when a constituent, Tom Lugarich, stopped by his table.
“Thank you,” said Lugarich, a dental technician who has taken on yard work for extra money since demand for dental services dropped with the recession. He said he and other constituents applaud Davis for cutting government waste and reducing taxes. His disdain for the City Project was palpable.
“In Winston-Salem, there’s Fourth Street and Trade Street, which every demographic knows it’s a fun place to go,” he said. “Because Winston-Salem has an active night life they can build on that. In High Point, it’s a unique situation. To revitalize the town it’s going to take more than a consultant and a group to come in and say what we need to do. We see them as some kind of carpetbaggers or boondoggle-sellers. When we saw the picture of the trolley [in a sketch depicting what North High Point might look like decades into the future], most of my neighbors said, ‘What’s next — a monorail?’”
Lugarich, who emigrated to the United States from Croatia in 1966, said he was pleasantly surprised to discover that the election of Davis brought immediate results.
‘We see them as some kind of carpetbaggers or boondoggle-sellers’
Contrary to what City Project supporters think, Davis argued that council remains committed to revitalizing the Core City. Although council members have made no commitment on dieting North Main Street — the top priority in the Duany master plan — they approved a $115,000 traffic study. Davis noted that council has approved funding to improve the Pit, with an eye towards leasing it out as an event space. He acknowledged that council is seeking alternatives to the City Project’s recommendation to convert the parking lot in front of the library into a public gathering space.
In other parts of the Core City Area, the city has invested public funds — about $1 million in all — to beautify South Main and Washington streets, Davis noted. And he said that during recent budget discussions the council agreed to earmark about $300,000 anticipated from a legal settlement involving the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority for economic revitalization.
Not least of all, Davis said he’s investing $150,000 of his own money to build a house for his daughter, who recently graduated from East Carolina University, on property in Uptowne that he purchased in a sale brokered by his colleague, Councilman Jason Ewing.
While Ewing represents Ward 6 in the northeast corner of High Point, he works at Keller Williams Realty on a desolate stretch of North Main Street between Uptowne and the downtown Furniture District.
Ewing said he voted against the traffic study for the street dieting initiative because his colleague, Councilman Jay Wagner, was unwilling to consider extending the study area south of the library.
“When I think about revitalization I look at where there is the most opportunity from a vacancy standpoint,” Ewing said. “If you go down here there are so many vacant properties and empty parking lots. And the hospital is nearby.”
Ewing has taken the lead on proposing ideas for the $300,000 economic-revitalization fund based on insights gleaned from a recent meeting with the city manager in Hickory. Ewing envisions a series of strategically located “business improvement districts” throughout the Core City Area where the city would offer tax incentives to developers who are willing to renovate properties in dire need of repair. The city could also use the fund to provide rent subsidies to restaurants and other preferred tenants.
The incentives could be tailored for the type of investment the city wants to encourage in particular areas, he said. For instance, in the intermediate area between Uptowne and the downtown Furniture District, tax incentives might be targeted for mixed-use retail, residential and dining projects, but geared towards manufacturing in the Southwest Renewal Area.
Ewing shares with supporters of the City Project a sense that High Point needs to diversify its economic base beyond the biannual furniture market, which monopolizes the real estate in downtown.
“We don’t want to hurt the furniture market, but in the same balance we need to help revitalization be successful, which requires putting some geographical restrictions on what market is able to extend to,” he said. “If furniture market left today, High Point would shrivel up and die because there’s nothing else.”
In an interview at his office, Ewing offered scant hope that council members will be able to unite behind a single project in the Core City Area to create a focal point with the potential to transform the city and catalyze new investment. He noted that this being an election year, the four council members whose wards overlap with the Core City Area will be under pressure to promise action on projects in their respective wards.
Ewing indicated that while he shares the City Project supporters’ sense of urgency, he favors a more incremental approach.
“When someone says, ‘You need to do all of this or you shouldn’t do any of it,’ it kills the appetite,” he said.
The city could experiment with temporary lane reductions on the weekends when local retailers are doing peak business by parking food trucks or placing planters in the outer lanes, Ewing said, rather than give North Main Street a complete makeover.
“It’s a marathon,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re in shape to run it. We don’t want taxpayers stroking out.”