Testy High Point mayoral race pivots on downtown stadium

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High Point mayoral race
Jim Davis (center) has taken a skeptical stance against the stadium, while opponents Bruce Davis (left) and Jay Wagner are championing the project.

Three well-matched candidates in High Point’s mayoral race are fighting for survival, as the Oct. 10 primary approaches with the certainty that one of them will be eliminated from the contest.

It didn’t take long for sparks to fly between the three mayoral candidates during a forum in a community space in the derelict hull of Oak Hollow Mall on Tuesday night.

Jay Wagner, a moderate Republican who has positioned himself as the most ardent proponent of the proposed stadium envisioned as a catalyst for downtown revitalization, decided it was time to clearly differentiate himself.

“I think it’s interesting that the political winds are blowing and I think that all the candidates know that the majority of the city is in favor of the stadium, because nobody will say that they’re against it,” Wagner said during the final panel for the mayoral candidates, after voters heard from at-large hopefuls and ward contestants. “What you’ve heard tonight is two crowds. You have the people who are unequivocally in favor of it and believe in it, and then you have what I would refer to as the ‘Yes, but’ crowd.”

One of Wagner’s opponents in the race is a fellow member of High Point City Council, Jim Davis, who chairs the finance committee and has questioned whether the numbers add up for the project.

“The idea that there’s not transparency is kind of crazy,” Wagner said. “All those documents are out there. If you want the information you can come and get it. If Jim is having some issues with that, he hasn’t attended all the meetings, all the briefings that we’ve had. He hasn’t attended some of the council votes that we’ve had on that issue. If he needs more information, he should come and make sure he gets all the information we have. Also, we were given a book of information a month ago, and as of yesterday, that book is still sitting in Jim’s pickup box.”

A conservative Republican who currently represents Ward 5 in rapidly growing northern tier of the city, Jim Davis didn’t respond to the assertion that he’s missed briefings and hasn’t done his reading. But he laid out his reservations about the project. Alluding to an events center, children’s museum, park and educational movie theater that High Point University President Nido Qubein has pledged to build around the stadium, Davis asked where the city will find tax revenue to fund basic services as High Point’s population grows.

“When you talk about the catalyst project I do believe that in theory if you do all the development downtown that it will work,” Davis said. “It will raise values in downtown and take pressures off the property tax for other citizens of this city. But the issue that we have is that the property for the catalyst project-stadium and all the nonprofit stuff that Dr. Qubein will build will pay no property tax. All the other new development — hotel, the apartment complex or anything that happens in the next 20 years — all of that property tax will go to pay the debt of the stadium. None of that will go into the general fund, and none of it will pay for city services.

“Now, in the next 20 years the population of this city will grow and the needs of this city will grow,” Davis continued. We’re gonna have to pay for our streets. We’re gonna have to have more police officers, more fire trucks. All those things have gotta be paid for. You’re taking a big block of the city of High Point — 649 acres — you’re taking the whole middle out, and you’re taking all the new revenue growth for the next 20 years, and you’re paying off the debt.”

Bruce Davis, a black Democrat and former county commissioner who operates the Kid Appeal Learning Center daycare, is fighting to make this a three-man contest. He has a dual challenge: Reminding voters of his bona fides as an early proponent of the stadium project, and also setting himself apart from its other champion.

Davis properly takes credit for generating the idea of the stadium as chairman of the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Out of our retreat a couple years ago, we were looking for the answer to putting ‘feet on the street’ — that’s the terminology we use in the tourism business — and so one of the things that surfaced from that retreat was since the city council was looking for a catalyst — I must give them props for being thoughtful about that — we came up with the stadium idea,” he said. “In fact, my committee — I chaired the first committee that ushered the ballpark or the multipurpose stadium in.”

But Bruce Davis faults Wagner and other current members of council for bungling their request to the county commission for assistance with financing the project.

“The way the thing was rolled out, I understand why the commissioners backed off because I understand the culture of the county commissioners,” said Davis, who served three terms as a commissioner ending in 2014. “One thing about it — we’re in trouble if we don’t learn real quick the culture that’s happening down there, if we don’t have a leader who understands what’s happening at the county level, then they’re going to say no because they were in a position to say no that night. Now whether I’d have said yes or no, I don’t think that’s important. What’s really important is there was not enough votes to say yes that night. One thing about being a commissioner or any elected official, you have to learn to count the votes. And you have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. You have to know when to strike, and I don’t think it was time to strike.”

Wagner has won the endorsement of a new political action committee set up to promote the stadium, along with other downtown revitalization initiatives and improvements to streets around High Point University. The High Point Political Alliance was set up as a political arm of Business High Point, the new name for the chamber of commerce, and raised $43,500 over a 10-day period in late June. Major donors include business leaders with a vested interest in the stadium project, including a combined $10,000 contribution from the CEO and COO of High Point-based Blue Ridge Companies, which announced in September that it would build 200 apartments around the stadium. Brian Gavigan, a local lawyer who serves as president of High Point Political Alliance, said the political action committee plans to spend the funds on advertising to benefit favored candidates with a special focus on the mayor’s race.

Bruce Davis chafed at the fact that the endorsements were announced prior to the candidate forum hosted by Business High Point.

“Instead of allowing constituents to be open minded, they stacked the deck,” he complained during an interview before the candidate forum. “It almost seems, as I’ve watched this materialize, like they want a puppet.”

Wagner dismissed Bruce Davis’ slight.

“He would have loved to have their endorsement,” Wagner said. “Anybody who knows me knows I’m not a puppet of anybody. I spent the first two terms on council being the whipping boy. The fact that the alliance gave me the endorsement shows they agree with me. This sounds like sour grapes.”

A two-time congressional candidate, Davis is going into the mayoral race at a financial disadvantage, having certified to the Guilford County Board of Elections his campaign intends to take in and spend no more than $1,000.

Meanwhile, Jim Davis, a builder by profession, is reaping a windfall of support from the NC Association of Realtors, whose political action committee is rolling out a $20,000 advertising campaign on his behalf. The association spent $15,000 on glossy mailers to promote Davis’ candidacy, and a $5,000 Facebook ad campaign is scheduled to begin on Friday in the final push before the Oct. 10 vote.

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Jim Davis stands for the National Anthem during a fall festival on Sunday.

Of the three candidates, Jim Davis has projected the most confidence in his prospects for surviving the primary. While feeding goats at a fall festival sponsored by Northwood Animal Hospital on Sunday afternoon, Davis said he had recently fielded a phone call from Bernita Sims, the city’s first and only black mayor, who resigned in 2014 before pleading guilty to a felony charge of passing a worthless check.

“Bernita Sims called me and said, ‘You’re likely to be our next mayor,’” Davis recalled. “She said, ‘What can you do for my community?’ I said, ‘Bernita, I’m not the same person I was when I came on council five years ago; I’ve matured.’” (Sims disputed Davis’ statement that she told him she predicts that he will be the next mayor. She told TCB she is not supporting Davis or any other Republican candidate in the election.)

Jim Davis voted alongside Jay Wagner in a resolution calling for Sims’ resignation in 2013. Davis opposed efforts to rename a street in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., breaking ranks with Wagner. And in 2015, Davis spoke out on behalf of constituents opposed to Human Relations Director Al Heggins’ efforts to promote dialogue about police-community relations, setting the stage for her firing. Davis said in his recent conversation with Sims, the two found common ground in shared concerns about employment and blighted housing.

While Jim Davis attempts to broaden his appeal, his two opponents are working to turn out their respective bases as they contend with the reality of anemic participation. As of Tuesday afternoon, Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said only about 600 High Point residents had voted early so far.

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Jay Wagner chats with a voter on Trafalgar Court.

As Wagner and his wife knocked on doors in an affluent neighborhood on the west side of the city on a recent Saturday, the candidate observed, “This is less about convincing people than making sure people vote. Canvassing in friendly neighborhoods is all about getting your base out. If your base doesn’t vote for you, they’re not much good, are they?”

During an interview at his daycare on Monday, Bruce Davis said he’s counting on support from black voters to help him make it through the primary. And he said if anyone benefits from low turnout, it should be him considering that he holds strong name recognition as a former county commissioner whose name has appeared on election ballots for more than 10 years. Davis’ former county commission district covered half the city. And he counts the daycare, which has served thousands of children over the past two decades, as a political asset.

“My son was 2 years old when we started this business 21 years ago,” Davis said. “All the kids, if they stayed here, they’re constituents. Now, I’ve just got to get them to the polls.”

This story was amended at 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 5 to incorporate a statement by former Mayor Bernita Sims disputing Jim Davis’ account of a conversation with her. Sims wrote in an email to Triad City Beat: “I am not supporting Jim Davis nor any other Republican candidate for office in High Point. I also did not speak to him winning the race and being the next mayor of High Point.”