by Jordan Green
As City Project supporters lament High Point City Council’s withdrawal of support for revitalization of Uptowne, a California nonprofit appears on the scene to salvage a historic hotel that is the centerpiece of the neighboring Washington Street district.
The standing room-only crowd that showed up in council chambers to protest the High Point City Council’s withdrawal of support from City Project on Monday night probably didn’t anticipate that they would hear a proposal to save the Kilby Hotel.
Nine people representing a group of varying ages, ethnicities and income levels spoke with eloquence and passion about what they perceive as the need to stay the course on a master plan submitted by architect Andres Duany to revitalize the city’s urban core. The plan centers on Uptowne, a corridor north of downtown that flanks North Main Street up to Lexington Avenue.
West of North Main Street is the exclusive Emerywood neighborhood while residential neighborhoods of more modest incomes spread eastward towards High Point University. A growing body of evidence indicates a continuing decline of real-estate values in High Point, leakage of discretionary income to restaurants and retail stores in neighboring cities and and a flight of young people. Proponents of the Duany plan argue that Uptowne holds the best potential to create alternate civic gathering spot in a city where those functions have been displaced in downtown by the furniture market.
Just a few blocks to the east of the more affluent and white Uptowne runs Washington Street, a historically black commercial district on the federal historic register.
As proponents of the City Project waited to vent, city council learned that Community Builders, a California-based nonprofit, has agreed to buy the Kilby Hotel, a landmark, historically black-owned enterprise that is considered the anchor of the Washington Street business district. The city has been holding a demolition order over the century-old hotel for about six months, and the building has become an albatross for a district where renewal has remained seemingly stillborn for decades.
Charity Belton, a transplant from Long Beach, Calif. who serves as president of the Washington Street Business Association, told council members that representatives from Community Builders were en route to High Point, but their flight didn’t allow them to make it to the meeting. Appearing with her in council chambers were Earl Jones, co-founder of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro and a former state lawmaker who represented High Point, and Doug Harris, a Greensboro lawyer who is on the civil rights museum’s board of directors. Belton said Community Builders is also interested in salvaging First Baptist Church, a majestic brick structure across the street from the hotel that has also been condemned.
“You have the restaurants down there and a jazz club, Jackie’s Place,” Jones said in the lobby after the presentation, outlining a vision for Washington Street. “You put this piece together with the church. It has a historical look. It reminds me of Beale Street or Bourbon Street. It would just be a draw for the furniture market; you could have people coming from across the Triad on Friday evening or Saturday evening for festivals. You’ve got the John Coltrane monument nearby. If you take a mindset of preservation, Washington Street has a lot of potential. You don’t have a street like that that’s intact like that.”
Jones said the estimated cost of renovating the Kilby is $3.5 million; the estimated cost to shore up the building is $140,000 to $170,000.
Harris, who played an instrumental role in securing financing for the civil rights museum, said the Hayden-Harman Foundation has agreed to advance incremental financing for the project as long as another entity is willing to provide funding as collateral. Harris said Preservation North Carolina is willing to collateralize the debt, but he needs another two weeks to formalize an agreement among the parties.
Harris said Burnie McElrath and Myra Williams, the owners of the Kilby Hotel, have signed a letter of intent to turn the building over to Community Builders. Belton told council that she believes the project could be put out to bid for stabilization as early as July. The city council voted unanimously to extend the demolition order by 30 days.
“If the Kilby Hotel goes down, it endangers the entire Washington district’s historic status,” Belton said.
The city is also making a significant investment in Washington Street. Assistant City Manager Randy McCaslin said the city has allocated more than $400,000 to pay for sidewalks, lighting, benches and landscaping on Washington Street from Centennial Street to Penn-Griffin School of the Arts.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs, business owners and creative young people have reacted with anguish to a decision by city council to reassign the executive director of City Project and drastically cut funding for the initiative. The majority of council wants City Project to become a standalone nonprofit, with the position of executive director reassigned to assist several neighborhoods encompassed in the larger “core city” area.
The capacity crowd who turned out to back City Project gave resounding and sustained applause to the nine speakers who spoke out in support of the initiative. Councilman Jay Wagner, one of two members who was on the losing side of the vote to withdraw support, joined them in applauding from the dais.
Michael Hayworth, a 32-year-old High Point native who returned from Los Angeles after working in media production, said he is continually asked why he is still in High Point.
“How do we intend on retaining any young people if the one group that can address this is marginalized by this very council?” he asked.
Mike Carr told council: “We are dying. And I believe that is an accurate statement. All the other cities in the Triad are thriving. Why aren’t we? We vote. And you can see that we’re not happy campers tonight.”
Gary Simon, owner of Simon’s Jewelers, said Core City Project — now known simply as the City Project — gave him confidence to invest in his business.
“Things look a little worse where I am,” he said. “Many retail uses are not going the direction we want. There are many vacancies across the street.
“I’m going to continue to support High Point,” Simon added. “I just have a little less to work with now.”
Charity Belton joined the queue of speakers.
“I would like for you to consider as being a City Core project to consider additional employees to assist the director,” she said, “so that we all get attention… in all areas of the City Core based on the changes that you’ve already made. I would love to have this much support in Washington Street and Five Points.”
The City Project supporters applauded.