by Jordan Green
The two leading candidates for mayor of High Point want to revitalize the core city, but they disagree about which strategy will be most effective.
The two leading contenders for mayor of High Point share a desire to revitalize the core city, but propose clashing visions for how to accomplish the goal.
The contest pits Bill Bencini, a High Point native and former city council member who now chairs the Guilford County Commission, against Marcus Brandon, a state lawmaker who has lived in the city since 2010, and Jimmy Scott, a former radio station manager and longtime community volunteer.
“Most of the construction is outside the core on the northern edges of the city,” said Bencini, a manufacturer’s representative in the furniture industry. “There’s nothing wrong with the taxbase, but we also have an area of town that’s not so great. At some point we have to pay attention to the older assets in the city and figure out how to repurpose them. The whole area of in the north where the office parks and the Palladium is there’s been continued growth. That includes the new Ralph Lauren project off Highway 66. We do not have a declining taxbase; we don’t have the growth in the taxbase that we need.”
Brandon argues that the downtown area occupied by furniture showrooms needs to be diversified through zoning restrictions that he said would “make the storefronts affordable to rent.” A political consultant, he has been portraying Bencini as part of a “good-old boy network” with a vested interest in the status quo.
Bencini has said that the furniture industry provides more than 10 percent of the city’s taxbase, arguing against zoning restrictions. Brandon, in turn, counters that a healthy downtown should provide closer to 25 or 30 percent of the city’s taxbase.
“What we’ve got going on here is this good-old boy network that has really isolated downtown for themselves,” Brandon said. “Citizens are subsidizing the few with their taxes because we’re not getting the tax value we need to out of downtown. It permeates throughout the whole city. It’s the reason why 27260 is the poorest Zip code in the state. It’s the reason why we have the poorest performing schools in the county. My opponent says we don’t need a downtown; we can move it north or south.”
Scott, a former radio station manager who now works in information security, said the city’s revitalization efforts need continuity, and he would convene a summit of previous mayors to figure out which ideas are worth keeping and which aren’t.
“Right now no one can agree on the direction downtown revitalization should take,” he said. “I don’t think we need another study. We need to work with what we’ve got. In the past, when there’s a new administration we throw everything out. It’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Bencini led campaign fundraising as of the end of September, with receipts totaling $26,646. His campaign has collected checks of $1,000 and more from local business leaders representing companies such as Harriss & Covington Hosiery, Old Dominion Freightliner, the Ilderton Dodge Jeep dealership and Mark David Furniture. Bob Maricich, the CEO of Las Vegas-based International Market Centers — controlling 42.6 percent of downtown real estate — has also contributed $1,000 to Bencini’s campaign.
Bencini assailed Brandon’s proposal to impose an overlay district over downtown, noting that existing furniture showrooms would be grandfathered in. He also argued that retailers aren’t interested in downtown.
“There’s this misconception that the furniture market pushed out the retailers,” Bencini said. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s High Point built its first mall, Westchester Mall. All the retailers moved to Westchester Mall. Those empty retail storefronts backfilled with furniture exhibitors. They’re owned by furniture companies scattered all across the world. I’ve not heard of a situation where there’s one retailer who wants to come back to our downtown.”
While Brandon’s revitalization strategy targets downtown, Bencini’s approach mirrors the efforts of City Project, which commissioned the master plan by urban planner Andres Duany and local architect Peter Freeman. Bencini said he proposed funding in 2007 for the original Core City Plan, which gave rise to City Project. He was an original member of the group.
“It’s going to take the community a bit of time to get where there’s consensus about what the project is,” he said. “There’s a palpable energy in High Point to do some things.”
Bencini cited the Pit, GTCC, Historic Washington Street and the library plaza as revitalization efforts that are currently underway in some fashion.
Duany proposed a plan to reduce the lanes, or “diet” North Main Street through the Uptowne commercial district as a simple first step that could be accomplished quickly to give the city the confidence to then undertake more ambitious. But the proposal has turned out to be far more controversial than many people anticipated.
While not making a commitment one way or another on whether the project should be undertaken, Bencini suggested fears about traffic disruption and costs are misplaced. He said displaced traffic could easily be absorbed by north-south thoroughfares such as Centennial Street, College Drive and Interstate 74.
Bencini dismissed claims that the project would cost upwards of $12 million and require a bond referendum, noting that no formal plan has been put forward and no cost estimates have been made. He said the city widened a section of Lindsay Street that is 7/10 of a mile for $5.9 million, including purchasing right of way, moving gas and utility lines, building sidewalks and rerouting storm sewers. In comparison, the most minimal approach to “dieting” a half-mile of North Main Street from Montlieu Avenue to Lexington Avenue would only require restriping the road.
Brandon has played down the project in his campaign platform.
“I am not against street dieting,” he said. “I don’t want people to get their hopes up that because we do that it’s going to transform everything. I want to do what the citizens in that area want.”
In contrast, there is no ambiguity in Scott’s position on the initiative.
“That’s garbage,” he said. “Why are you going to slow the traffic down? There’s nothing different if you widen the sidewalks and narrow the streets. What reason do they have to stop? There’s nothing to stop for.”
Unique among the candidates, Brandon is emphasizing education — typically a function of the state and counties rather than the cities. Of the $13,026 raised by the Brandon campaign through the end of September, $5,000 — the maximum allowable amount for an individual donor — comes from John Kirtley, a Florida venture capitalist who serves as the vice-chair of the American Federation for Children. The organization promotes charter schools and provides model legislation to state governments.
“It’s not enough to say you voted to lift the cap on charter schools; I’ve actually started a charter school,” said Brandon, who is a founding board member of the College Preparatory & Leadership Academy in High Point.
The candidate proposes a local educational foundation through a voluntary donor check-off on resident’s electrical bill that would provided supplemental funds for schools in the city. He argued that the state General Assembly can no longer be counted on to provide adequate funding for education.
Both Brandon and Bencini acknowledged the need to address the division between the affluent northern suburbs of High Point and the lagging core city.
“It is our biggest growth area,” Brandon said. “We have to do a better job of engaging them. Do they want more shopping centers or greenways? They moved out there for a certain type of life that they want to maintain.”
Bencini said it’s in suburban residents’ best interest to engage with the core city.
“If there’s continued degradation of the assets of the core city, who will have to pay for that in the future?” he asked. “That’s going to have to be paid by the healthier areas. If they want to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in the core, it’s kind of at their own peril.”
He said that while business recruitment efforts have been successful in creating new employment in the northern tier, less than half of the jobs are being filled by High Point residents.
“In order to attract business and recruit successfully you have to have a level of amenities and vibrancy that will attract companies,” Bencini said. “I can remember going to Greenville, SC. I said, ‘You know, it’s really easy when you have all this money around with Michelin Tires.’ They said, ‘We started the revitalization of downtown long before Michelin came here.’ We have to use revitalization as a recruitment tool. Revitalization and economic development go hand in hand.”