by Jordan Green
High Point City Council races in two wards provide stark choices for voters on the direction of the city. The candidates in a third ward are closer together, but an open seat guarantees that the next council representative will be a new face.
Revitalization proponent challenges veteran in Ward 3
Part of Judy Mendenhall’s legacy as mayor of High Point from 1985 to 1987 is Piedmont Centre, a massive business park that hosts 170 companies and employs 11,000 people. The city had already annexed the Oakview and Deep River areas, but Piedmont Centre was the first instance of the city extending water and sewer services north of Wendover Avenue.
The developers initially approached Greensboro, but High Point was the city that came through with infrastructure. Completion of Piedmont Centre led to construction of the Palladium shopping center and a housing boom. High Point’s investment in Piedmont Centre diversified its employment and tax base as traditional manufacturing began to decline in the Core City area, while enabling a suburban sprawl that continues to strain civic bonds.
Mendenhall was also responsible for the construction of the downtown library on North Main Street. Citizens approved a bond referendum with money for either renovating the old library or building a new one. When Mendenhall and her council opted to pursue the more expensive option of building a new library, the High Point Enterprise blistered her on its editorial page. She lost her next election.
She also served as the first executive director of the High Point Market Authority, and the magnificent, hanger-like Mendenhall Terminal is named in her honor.
Having returned to council from 1989 to 1992, and again in 2012, Mendenhall holds the most political and civic experience of any candidate on the ballot this year as she seeks a second term as representative of Ward 3. She faces a challenge from Alyce Hill, a longtime civic volunteer who views Mendenhall’s leadership as an impediment to progress.
“I am a visionary,” Mendenhall said during an interview at the High Point Country Club after she attended a meeting of the Kiwanis Club. “I’m not an old fogey who doesn’t want High Point to progress. I have raised children here. I love this city. I care about this city and want it to be the best it can be.”
Hill has served on the city’s board of adjustment and in a variety of volunteer capacities to support her children’s schools, her church and social service organizations, but the revitalization efforts of City Project through Ignite High Point hooked her into city politics. She has been disappointed that city council members, including Mendenhall, have either demonstrated disinterest or derailed City Project’s efforts.
“Being aware of Ignite High Point, I paid more attention [to city politics],” Hill said during an interview at DeBean Espresso. “I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to do something with the Core City Plan. Paying attention to city leadership, like a lot of other people, I didn’t like what I saw. You can complain about it, and hope someone else steps up, or you can step up yourself. I decided to take the latter course.”
Mendenhall said she has no problem with City Project, but she outlined two concerns. She said it set a bad precedent for the city to pay the salary of the nonprofit’s executive director. She has also been concerned that the city’s revitalization efforts are too narrowly focused. Over time, City Project has focused on Uptown, a commercial corridor along North Main Street, as a strategic starting point for revitalization.
“There are areas in the 11-square miles of the Core City that desperately need attention,” Mendenhall said. “There are people who desperately need help with housing. There are a lot of people who don’t have employment.”
Mendenhall said staff will brief city council on a plan to revitalize the various areas of the Core City on Thursday. She also noted that she has supported recommendations in the Ignite High Point master plan to spend money to make the Pit safe and to beautify the area around the library, although she opposed the idea of holding concerts and outdoor films at the library. She said a library is not the appropriate place for that kind of activity, and worried that it would disturb patients at the hospital and seniors who live in the area.
That didn’t set well with Hill.
“Seeing the unwillingness of city council to even consider the ideas City Project presented is frustrating,” Hill said. “I don’t think being closed to new ideas is going to get us anywhere.”
Mendenhall said she offers more experience, and a better perspective on the entire ward, which encompasses both affluent Emerywood and the struggling West End.
“I am not a one-issue candidate,” she said. “I think a lot of [Hill’s] support is coming from City Project folks. That’s fine, and that’s their right. But we have people who need jobs. We have people who live in substandard housing. We have children who are going hungry. We have people who can’t get to where they need to be to get to jobs. What City Project is working on is not the only issue and they’re not the most important issue in the city right now.”
Hill said she’s sensitive to the issue of poverty in Ward 3.
“I’m appalled by the poverty problem, and I’m appalled by the hunger problem,” she said. “Revitalization is a quick starting point. It’s not the end. We keep on trucking right on through the different parts of town. You’ve got to start with what’s going to bring the most bang for the buck.”
Maverick incumbent and flexible challenger vie for Ward 4
Jay Wagner seriously considered not running for re-election this year.
A 46-year-old lawyer whose practice is located in the heart of the Uptown commercial district, Wagner is serving his first term on council. Almost alone among his colleagues, he’s pushed a plan for revitalization that promotes Uptown as a focal point, slows traffic to allow more pedestrian activity on North Main Street and creates a public gathering space in front of the library. Those efforts sustained a serious blow in April when council voted 7 to 2 to reassign Wendy Fuscoe, the city employee charged with implementing the plan, and effectively derailed the effort. On the night of the vote, an emotional Wagner told an audience at High Point Theatre that if they wanted revitalization, they would have to elect a new council.
Wagner said last week that he sees a real possibility for electing a new council with the will to make changes, naming mayoral candidate Bill Bencini, at-large candidate David Rosen and Ward 3 candidate Alyce Hill as allies.
Wagner’s opponent, a 63-year-old retired custom car painter from Cincinnati named Jim Bronnert, got involved with municipal politics about six years ago when he established the Oakview Citizens Council. That led to meeting with other neighborhood leaders through the High Point Leadership Council, attending city council meetings and working with city department heads to address problems of crime and derelict housing. He said his neighborhood turned out for one of the largest National Night Out gatherings in the city last month.
Wagner and Bronnert hold opposing views on the proposed “dieting” of North Main Street through Uptown, the signature revitalization initiative under consideration by city leaders.
“The first preference would be to revitalize downtown, but we can’t do anything with that because of the furniture market,” Wagner said. “What’s the next best place? With Uptown, we’ve got established commercial businesses and residential areas within walking distance. There are over a hundred businesses here. We attracted 50 new or expanded businesses here in the past few years. The only thing that’s missing is slowing down the traffic. Our employees won’t walk across the street to Kipley’s Barbecue because they’re afraid they’ll get killed.”
Bronnert said he does not agree with the dieting proposal, saying that, “The cost involved [and] the lack of private investment” are reasons not to do it. He added, “I think it’s a big gamble.”
Wagner said there’s no firm estimate of the cost of the project, which could range from simply repainting lanes to an extensive makeover with tree plantings, landscaped medians and cobblestones. He acknowledged that a street diet would likely require a bond issue, but said detractors’ claims that doing so would translate into a tax increase are unfounded.
“They’re trying to scare you,” he said.
Bronnert said he was motivated to run for city council by a desire for more constituent services.
“I felt that my part of Ward 4 was not getting the representation we could have,” he said. Bronnert added that Wagner has attended his neighborhood meetings, as requested.
“I think that — in fact, he told me — I’m the only council member who has attended his Oakview meetings,” Wagner said. “He’s been very good at finding out where the drug dealers are. I commend him. To say I’m not interested in what’s going on is not true.”
The two candidates’ rhetoric suggests a role reversal, with challenger Bronnert singing the praises of the current council and incumbent Wagner calling for change.
“I’m a very firm believer in compromise,” Bronnert said. “In order for a council to be successful everyone’s got to compromise. In my opinion, I think the city council has done a pretty good job. We’re only humans, not computers programmed to do the right thing all the time.”
Wagner expressed a dimmer view of his colleagues.
“It’s tough to see these great ideas get proposed, and see them get beaten down to mediocrity,” he said. “We need to see new leadership jump out in front and embrace some great ideas. The leadership we have now is incapable.”
Longtime community leader and furniture professional contend in Ward 2
With Councilman Foster Douglas’ decision to not seek reelection, the Ward 2 seat will be open for the first time since 2008.
The two candidates have run for the seat before. Jerry Mingo, 67, lost in a crowded open field in 2008, and Chris Williams, 42, failed to unseat the incumbent in 2010.
Mingo, who serves as president of the Burns Hill Neighborhood Association, said he had planned to run even before he knew that would stand down.
“People in my ward pretty much asked me to run,” Mingo said. “When you get people saying you’re more concerned about the ward than their own councilman, that’s an issue. It’s not because I want to, but now I have to [run].”
Williams got involved in community activism as a volunteer with his church, Word of Reconciliation Ministries, working on issues of offender reentry and food assistance.
“I was talking with my pastor, and I said, ‘When are you going to run for city council?’” Williams recalled. “And he asked me the same question.”
While the two candidates represent different generations, they share many of the same concerns. Both want to address poor housing, lack of employment, police-community relations and alienation from city hall in a ward that is home to some of the most extreme poverty in the city.
Williams handles logistics, both as a property manager and a floor manager, for International Market Centers in High Point and Las Vegas. He said suspicions that IMC bought the city’s major furniture showrooms for the purpose of dumping them to enhance profits in Las Vegas are unfounded. Instead, he said, IMC has invested in renovations to its properties and is in talks with the city to strengthen the partnership between the two. The showrooms owned by IMC are located at the center of the city, and Williams said he views a designated market district as “a good idea,” adding that the city should provide incentives to property owners outside the district’s boundaries to help them find other uses for their buildings. The added economic activity should mitigate poverty in nearby residential areas, he said.
“The boarded-up houses in my ward are a symptom of the boarded-up businesses in the commercial area,” Williams said.
Mingo, a retired supervisor at Banner Pharmacaps, said he struggles to come up with solutions to problems of deteriorating housing and lack of employment in Ward 2. He reeled off symptoms of High Point’s struggles: Children from the city have to visit the Greensboro Children’s Museum because there’s nothing for them at home (“embarrassing”), and furniture market personnel suggest buyers traveling from the design firms on Brentwood Street to the downtown showrooms take the long way around so they won’t be exposed to the poverty on East Green Drive.
“The furniture market’s only here two times a year,” he said. “Even people in the furniture market, what is there for them to do? They’re going to Greensboro and Winston-Salem.”
Mingo said if he’s elected, constituents will get a responsive representative.
“I live in the worst part of Ward 2,” he said. “It won’t be secondhand for me. I see that part of it directly.”
Williams and Mingo both said they remain undecided about the proposal to “diet” North Main Street. Williams said he needs to find out how business owners on the street feel about the idea, and Mingo said council members need to work together closely to decide the best way forward.
Both candidates want to see city council function in a more unified fashion.
“With me, it’s never about the slander of an individual, but about the productivity of City Hall,” Williams said.
Mingo added, “All of us running have the same ideas, but we need to come together and make this happen. Instead of ‘I’ it’s got to be ‘us.’”