by Jordan Green
Community leaders in southwest High Point see a greenway as a means to build on the area’s rich manufacturing heritage and create a critical mass for mutually supporting economic enterprises.
Charles Simmons, who brokers relationships among home-furnishings manufacturers, designers and showroom owners in High Point, gestured over to one of the buildings left intact after a fire destroyed part of the Myrtle Desk Co. complex earlier this year.
“Unfortunately, they stole all the copper out of it, but it could be used as an incubator or a maker space,” he said.
Simmons, who goes by the nickname “Seemore,” rode in the backseat of community leader Dorothy Darr’s Mercedes station wagon, along with two consultants from Durham-based Alta Planning + Design as she conducted a driving tour of southwest High Point. She hung a left on Millis Street, and some handsome brick industrial buildings appeared — also part of the Myrtle Desk complex — which Darr said was the largest manufacturer of office furniture in the mid-20th Century.
The touring party piled out, and Darr led them into the building, now owned by Terry Seitz, an importer of South African wine. Britt Storck, a design associate with Alta, admired a recently laid expanse of brick patio, equipped with outdoor heaters to accommodate large social gatherings.
“We have a certain feel for brick and wood and things of the earth,” Darr said. “It’s like it’s our cousin.”
Storck and Matt Hayes, a principal with Alta, were getting their first view of the territory at the beginning of a feasibility study to plan a four-mile greenway — about the same length as the Greensboro Downtown Greenway. The firm will be paid $38,500 from a community development grant by the city of High Point for their work. The firm is expected to provide a preliminary cost estimate for the project when the study is complete in May.
The vision for the greenway came from the Southwest Renewal Foundation, a nonprofit launched in 2011 with a $3,000 grant from the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Darr, the co-chair and executive director of the foundation, and Simmons, its secretary-treasurer, share an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and an irrepressible compulsion for talking up its assets and potential. During a Friday-morning presentation at the String & Splinter City Club, Darr noted that the southwest area is the part of the city that has been hit hardest by the offshoring of manufacturing and contains some of the most severe poverty in the state. It has a relatively small population, almost equally apportioned between whites, African Americans and immigrants, many of them from Latin America.
The district splays out from the city center, which is anchored by an intermodal hub of commuter rail, local and regional bus transportation and the southwest corner of the furniture market. Only two blocks from the grandeur of the Market Square showrooms, the remainder of the district is a hodgepodge of ravines overgrown with kudzu, fenced-in vacant lots, stately brick mills in the midst of a slow-motion ballet of decay and restoration and boarded-up mill-village houses. Three well maintained parks, two elementary schools and a city recreation center also inhabit the territory. The transit hub is a natural starting point for the greenway, as far as Darr is concerned.
Steve Hollingsworth, a cycling advocate who co-owns Green Door Wheel Works on West English Road just outside the southwest area, agreed.
“Our generation loves intermodal access,” the twentysomething entrepreneur said, sketching a scenario of cyclists from across the state disembarking from the Amtrak station and exploring the city on two wheels.
“As someone who’s opened a shop, the perception is that that’s a vacuum of opportunity,” he added. “If you invest in a greenway, young people will say, ‘Now is the time to make a move and start new businesses.’”
A map produced by the Southwest Renewal Foundation envisions an unbroken pedestrian linkage crossing through the Pit from the transit hub and then splitting at a decommissioned concrete plant south of Russell Avenue. An easterly leg would pass Southside Recreation Center and Fairview Elementary and continue of to Goldston Park, while a westerly link would follow an old rail bed to the Belgian-owned Buzzispace furniture factory and on to Harvell Park before looping back around to meet the easterly leg. Additional spurs would connect Oak Hill Elementary in the west and Blair Park in the east.
Darr is quick to cite the public health and ecological benefits of greenways in her pitch to potential allies, but the theme to which she and Simmons repeated return is economic development. Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall, whose ward includes the southwest area, affirmed that from a political perspective economic development is the project’s strongest selling point.
When Darr and Simmons talk about the rich manufacturing history of the southwest area and the isolated pockets of current activity, it’s clear they see the greenway as a connective tissue that can help bring critical mass and provide the cohesion needed to restore the area’s economic vitality. Simmons in particular envisions young designers from Winston-Salem and Greensboro coming to High Point to meet international manufacturers and buyers.
“High Point is more complicated than the Bible,” he is fond of saying.
A challenge for the few showrooms open year-round in the southwest area is that few visitors know about them because the vast majority are closed roughly 48 weeks out of the year, when the biannual market goes dark.
“Fifty to 75 people come here a week,” Simmons lamented as he gestured towards the Asian Loft showroom in the Market Square complex. “It should be 500.”
Driving down Green Drive, Darr gestured toward the shuttered Fli-Back Company factory, which “made those paddle balls with a ball attached to a paddle by a string that they shipped all over the world.” She pointed to the original location of Perley A. Thomas Car Works “that built the trolley car named Desire in New Orleans.” Reorganized as Thomas Built Buses, the company is now owned by the German automaker Daimler AG. It builds schoolbuses at a facility south of Business 85 and remains one of the city’s largest employers.
The Highland Cotton Mill, which closed in the 1970s, is now owned by Cisco Brothers, a California-based furniture manufacturer that sells its product to international buyers from High Point. The facility is surrounded by mill cottages that are selling for $10,000 to $20,000, according to Darr and Simmons.
“You could put one of them on your credit card,” Darr said.As the two community leaders and out-of-town consultants returned to the String & Splinter for a late lunch of salad greens, Storck sounded enthusiastic.
“There’s so much potential here,” she said. “It’s already happening.”