High Point Journal: Consultant in talks with city has close ties to furniture industry

0
289
Joanna Easter marketed showroom space at the Enterprise Building during last week's furniture market.

by Jordan Green

A consultant with close ties to the furniture industry is tapped to take over downtown revitalization efforts in High Point, as the city council demands organizational changes from a nonprofit that has spearheaded efforts to make the city more walkable and friendly to year-round commerce.

The city of High Point is on a rapid course to sideline an initiative to diversify the economy by promoting new-urbanism design principles while moving a consultant with close ties to the furniture industry into place to coordinate downtown development efforts.

The city council is considering a proposal to slash funding to the City Project. The nonprofit is coordinating the Ignite High Point campaign, which included a well-publicized visit by urban planner Andres Duany last year. A master plan submitted by Duany’s firm in November raised concerns about the city’s dependence on the furniture market for tax revenues and the calamity that would ensue if the market were to suddenly withdraw, while faulting the industry for impeding conventional commerce and monopolizing downtown real estate.

In a Feb. 4 email to council members Becky Smothers and Judy Mendenhall — both former mayors — City Manager Strib Boynton alluded to a draft agreement submitted by a consultant named Joanna Easter. He added that, based on the reaction of two volunteer members of City Project’s board of directors, “I think this really needs some sharing with other council members.”

Some council members fault City Project for focusing too much on the Uptowne section, north of the market district, and want the initiative to redirect its attention to a previous incarnation known as the Core City Plan that encompassed a larger geographic area.

Mendenhall, a former president of the High Point Market Authority, recounted that during a March 31 meeting with City Project leaders, she and other council members “stressed and hopefully made it clear” that “Wendy needs to be shifted from full time to the [City Project] to working on the entire Core City Plan.”

Boynton said in an interview that Easter approached him with “some ideas on how revitalization could be jumpstarted.” Smothers said Easter also approached her, adding that Easter “said she wanted to have private conversations with the council members to see if there was any traction.”

A draft agreement stipulates that Easter would receive an annual salary of $120,000 from the city for a minimum commitment of 30 hours per week. Meanwhile, the city council is considering reducing funding to City Project from $210,000 to $35,000, and eliminating Fuscoe’s $100,828 salary.

The scope of work under the draft agreement calls for Easter to act as a liaison among existing business groups such as the High Point Economic Development Corp., the chamber of commerce and the city; develop a marketing map of different districts of the city and create a calendar of events. The marketing map would include existing districts such as Uptowne and Washington Street, along with a new Downtown Retail & Design District adjacent to the market area.

Smothers touted Easter’s experience in the furniture industry, including handling entertainment for buyers.

“She has stature with the whole market and its leaders, not just International Market Center, but generally with the industry because she’s worked with them for so many years,” Smothers said.

Easter is the former chief operating officer for Showplace, a gigantic showroom in the heart of the furniture district. The property was purchased in 2005 by Coy Willard and Maurice Hull, two local businessmen operating as Capstone Property Group; Easter continued in her role as chief operating officer. But in 2009 the property defaulted on an $81 million loan and Easter resigned due to its placement in receivership, according to an article in Furniture Today.

Showplace, like the International Home Furnishings Market, was eventually acquired by International Market Centers, a company majority owned by Bain Capital and Oaktree Capital that operates furniture markets in both High Point and Las Vegas.

Easter declined to comment for this story, but alluded in an email to being busy with the recent furniture market, which took place last week.

Smothers said she was aware that Easter had been marketing the Enterprise Building to exhibitors on Willard and Hull’s behalf during the event. The building is owned by Capstone-Enterprise LLC, a real-estate investment company controlled by the two businessmen. An outgoing message for a phone number listed for the company mentions Easter by name.

“She made reference to the fact that she was going to be showing spaces,” Smothers said. “It may be that this is where the seed of this idea came from because she’s aware of the properties that are available.”

As to whether Easter’s scope of work for the city might duplicate work that she’s already performing for Willard and Hull, or alternately whether the city might be shifting a position from private employment to a public payroll, Smothers said, “She’s probably doing more than one thing right now. She has said that this job would be full-time working with all the districts that exist.”

Easter discussed the relative merits of employment in the private versus the public sector in an Oct. 4, 2013 email to Boynton.

“Being accountable to one investor who foots my bill as part of some renovations, as opposed to a city council that can’t decide how to govern themselves… well, you know how confining and counterproductive that process can be,” she wrote.

In an April 1 email to Aaron Clinard, a member of City Project’s board of directors, Easter defended her reputation.

“I cannot remember one year, whether at Market Square, where I was instrumental in starting the hospice event in our new trade show center, or all the committees and time on projects that I added on to a 70-hour work week, or the event center that Showplace kept for 20 years that never made a profit,” Easter said, “that I have not been pro-High Point, pro-business and above reproach.”

Easter sent a separate email, addressed only to the city manager, at 5:49 p.m. that day. The playfully worded communiqué bore the subject header “your favorite topic.” Inside it opened with, “ME!” followed by “just kidding…!” and closed with, “Thinking bout you!”

Easter mentioned to Boynton that she had communicated with Bob Maricich, the CEO of International Market Centers.

“So, I sent him a quick email today regarding bringing some life back to downtown,” Easter reported. “He responded quickly, as he always does, and said that he would contact you after market… that we certainly need a catalyst, and that I was what the doctor ordered.”