High Point officials call Guilford County’s coming decision whether or not to participate in a new downtown baseball stadium project a “no brainer,” but, in the days leading up to the Board of Commissioners Thursday, Sept. 7 meeting, the commissioners have been wrangling over whether they should even hold a public hearing on the matter.
The contentious $45 million project calls for a $30 million stadium with additional land acquisition and other costs totaling $15 million, financed by the city through a bank loan. One criticism leveled against the project has been that the High Point leaders didn’t seek voter approval from city residents through a bond referendum to finance the cost instead.
There’s been plenty of heated rhetoric from both sides in recent weeks and the project has polarized advocates and opponents. The discussions, both private and public, have become very tense at times.
High Point plans to build the downtown stadium with expectations that private sector developers will follow with multiple projects, but some commissioners question whether that development will come. If it doesn’t, they say, the project will be a $45 million albatross around the necks of High Point citizens.
High Point has asked Guilford County to enter into an interlocal revenue sharing agreement that, over the next 20 years, would direct about $11.1 million in future tax revenue from Guilford County toward repayment of the $45 million loan. High Point wants to use that county funding – along with other revenue streams such as parking surcharges, stadium naming rights and High Point’s added property tax revenue from the anticipated growth – to pay back the loan.
High Point leaders point out every chance they get that, since Guilford County would only dedicate money from future growth in a 650-acre “stadium influence area,” the county won’t be out a dime if the project is a flop. One concern Guilford County commissioners have is that the area – a little more than one square mile – is a large slice of downtown High Point on which the county would be giving up revenue from future growth for perhaps two decades.
If High Point had a nickel for every argument, debate and conversation about the downtown stadium proposal in the last three weeks, the city would likely have plenty of money to fund the whole thing out of pocket. However, as it is, city leaders say they need Guilford County’s help to make the financial ends meet.
The project has at least one strong advocate on the Board of Commissioners: District 1 Commissioner Carlvena Foster, who represents much of High Point. Foster said the project has been all consuming in recent weeks.
“I’ve been in conversation with everybody in High Point every day, all day – it’s really been consuming my life here,” she said. “So I’d really like to get past this.”
To give one illustration of the heated and intense activity surrounding the project, on Tuesday, August 29, there was a conference call between High Point staff and Guilford County staff early in the morning, followed by a meeting of four commissioners and Guilford County’s legal, finance and management team, where the group talked about the matter extensively for the remainder of the morning. (More commissioners wanted to attend that meeting but they were told their attendance would make it an illegal meeting.) That afternoon, four county commissioners met with High Point University President Nido Qubein, a major backer of the stadium, and then, well into Tuesday night, there were a host of commissioner conversations held by phone and by text.
Foster said she thinks this project will be a terrific success in her city and that she may have a deeper understanding of it than some of the commissioners who oppose the county’s participation. She said that might come from having been in more meetings on it since she represents High Point. She said that could be one reason she’s so pro-stadium while others aren’t.
“I don’t want to say I’m getting different information, but I think I’m getting more information,” she said.
Foster also said the opposition that some commissioners have been hearing from High Point citizens is louder than it is widespread.
“There are probably 10 people I’ve heard from who are against the stadium concept,” Foster said, adding that the majority of constituents she’s talked to are proponents.
“The leaders in High Point, of course, are for it,” she added.
Other commissioners are solidly in the middle. Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston said he isn’t ready to vote for or against county funding for the stadium yet because he’s still gathering facts and he wants to hear more public input.
At the Board of Commissioners Sept. 7 meeting, the commissioners will discuss, and then vote, whether or not to hold a public hearing on the project. If they decide to hear from the public, the hearing is likely to be scheduled for the board’s next meeting on Thursday, Sept. 21.
Alston said he’s trying to find reasons to support the project.
“I told Nido Qubein and [High Point Mayor] Bill Bencini that I’m 50/50,” he said. “I want to get there, but I can’t get there because of the public outcry and because I need more information.”
Alston also said recently that the discussion has been rushed and tense and that High Point leaders need to “give us some time and exhale a little bit.”
Alston said he understands the city officials’ desire to move forward quickly, but it’s not a good idea to demand that commissioners make up their minds before they have the information they need.
“Be careful what you ask for,” Alston told Foster recently when she was asking fellow commissioners in a meeting to go ahead and put the funding request on the agenda for the commissioners’ Sept. 7 meeting.
Alston added that he would prefer it if the High Point City Council was making the request to Guilford County – rather than Bencini making the request with no vote by the council. The High Point City Council voted in favor of the baseball project earlier this year but hasn’t held a specific vote to request the future funding from the county.
Alston said that, though the issue has been very contentious in recent days, he certainly hopes the commissioners will at least approve a public hearing to get a better understanding of the facts and a sense of public opinion.
“What harm would it be to hear from the public?” Alston said.
Other commissioners argue that, if it turns out that the Board of Commissioners is solidly against using county tax dollars to fund the project, it would be a waste of everyone’s time to hold a hearing. Regardless, High Point officials want more than a public hearing – they want to see a commitment for some cold hard county cash in future years.
Bencini said this week that High Point staff has been working well with Guilford County staff in an attempt to answer any questions the commissioners or county administrators still have. He also said it was a surprise to him and other High Point officials that Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne determined a public hearing was required.
Payne said this is an economic development project and, by law, he said, a public hearing must be held on those. Bencini, on the other hand, said High Point officials and a legal expert at the School of Government in Chapel Hill didn’t believe a public hearing was necessary. Regardless, Bencini said, the first question the commissioners are going to decide is whether to hold a public hearing for the giant development effort on which High Point officials are betting the future of their downtown.
“We didn’t have any choice in it,” Bencini said of the county’s move to discuss scheduling a public hearing. “It’s the county’s decision.”
High Point may move forward with the project even if the commissioners decide not to fund it; however, High Point city leaders stress that county funding is a key component of the project’s financing as it is now conceived.
Bencini said he doesn’t have any problem with Guilford County holding a public hearing but added that his city needs to move forward soon with the project, and a hearing just delays things further. High Point officials have a meeting scheduled with a state financing oversight commission – the Local Government Commission (LGC) – in early October. Bencini said the private money expected to enter into the project may be time sensitive. He said that some of those plans on the table can’t be revealed until the local government financing is in place.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips clearly believes that High Point’s request to the county commissioners has been handled poorly.
“Some would suggest the steps could have been taken much more effectively, and they weren’t,” Phillips said – failing to mention that he could be included in his own “some” reference. Late last month, Bencini chastised Phillips and the Board of Commissioners in a meeting of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance. The mayor said the commissioners were dragging their feet on what should be a very easy decision.
Phillips, conversely, said High Point has tried to rush the commissioners.
“I cannot explain this drop-the-hammer, bash-the-folks-you’re-trying-to-convince-to-support-your-endeavor and do-it-within-the-timeline-that-we-demand strategy,” Phillips said. “That just does not make any common sense to me. But that’s what’s been happening, unfortunately.”
Phillips said the county commissioners hope the project is a raging success for High Point.
“We’re not trying to get in the way,” the chairman said. “I hope it does exceedingly well.”
But he also pointed out that, with interest, this would be a $55 million payback for High Point, so the project, he said, is no small concern.
High Point officials say county officials have been provided a great deal of information on the project and have been getting it ever since April, but Phillips said that the proposed financing structure has changed in the final days. He said the county has only been finding out some details at the 11th hour and that it has been a “moving target as we go.”
Phillips, in a meeting with staff and three other commissioners held to set the agenda for the board’s Sept. 7 meeting, said that, with so many question marks, the commissioners have a responsibility to ask difficult questions and understand every detail about the deal before jumping in.
“It is what is demanded of us, frankly,” Phillips said.
At that meeting, he laid out some aspects of the deal and then added, “I would venture that what I’ve just said to you in five minutes, most of the folks responsible for the decision are not aware of in full.”
At that agenda meeting, Vice Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson concurred with many of Phillips’ statements.
“You’ve got the mayor out there running everybody down and calling everybody out,” Branson said. “The people have not had a chance to express what they want to do. It’s been push and shove, push and shove, and why it has to open in 2019, versus 20 or 21, makes no sense to me.”
“I understand High Point is in distress,” Branson added. “I understand this is a pretty decent project that I would have hoped to have been able to support, but right now I am absolutely not going to support it. I may going forward – but, right now, it’s in the dumps. I’m willing to listen to the people but I’m not willing to be pushed by the mayor of High Point. He’s called us ‘zombies,’ and ‘straw men’ – he’s resorted to name calling.”
Bencini has used those words in the press but he hasn’t specifically called the commissioners zombies or straw men. For instance, he said the commissioners had made several fallacious “straw men” arguments against the stadium project.
At that agenda meeting, Branson made another argument why the county had to be careful. He said that, if the project is a raging success and it brings more residents, businesses and entertainment facilities to downtown High Point, that will increase the need for county services, with no new property tax revenue from that 649-acre area to pay for those services.
“I know you’re gonna gain in sales tax, but you’re gonna lose on property tax and we’re going to have to provide more services to the schools, to EMS and other departments, and those property taxes will be zero for the next 20 years,” Branson said. “I’ll be 70 years old 20 years from now and pay quite a bit of taxes in Guilford County.”
Bencini said the area in downtown High Point has been blighted for about a decade and has been losing value.
However, Branson said property values could come back whether a stadium is built or not.
“Maybe we have something hit at the airport,” Branson speculated. “Maybe we have something hit at the [Greensboro-Randolph] megasite. There is going to be a spur of growth, period. The people are going to go for location; they are going to go for value. This property, defunct mills, etc., is a very good area for growth. The opportunity for growth is there with this project or without. That’s my two cents worth from an old country boy in Whitsett.”
At the meeting, Phillips said that, in his view, the board was in no way ready to vote the project up or down.
“Are we ready?” Philips asked staff and a few fellow commissioners in the room. “I would suggest no, absolutely not.”
Alston said he was hearing some resistance from High Point residents.
“I’m getting a lot of negative feedback from, really, the citizens of High Point, and some people around here who are asking why we are doing this for High Point and that type of thing,” he said.
As two of the three black Democrats on the board, Alston and Foster are frequently on the same page, but on this issue they clearly were not. Here was only one of many interesting conversations at the agenda meeting:
Alston: “I guess they are asking us, Carlvena, to vote on this, up or down, at our next meeting.”
Foster: “Pretty much.”
Alston: “Well, I don’t know if they want that right now.”
Foster: “I think the thought is if the county feels very strongly that this is something they are not going to do then they need to look for other avenues to get it done.”
Alston: “That’s what they’re trying to do. Get around a public hearing. I’m saying you don’t want us to move forward and pressure us to do something because, right now, I’m not there. I want to be able to get there if you can get the community there and sell it to the community. If you sell it right, the community will buy into it. It’s a great idea.”
At the same meeting, Payne likewise expressed reservations about the board voting on something at the Sept. 7 meeting.
“I don’t feel comfortable putting a finished agreement in front of you when some of these terms may still be fluid,” Payne said.
Though Bencini and others think the public hearing demand by the county is a “stall tactic,” Payne sounded quite sincere in his statement of his opinion.
At the agenda meeting, Payne said, “My strong opinion is that, if you spend money in the way you are talking about, then those are economic development dollars,” adding that state law requires county money spent on economic development projects be subject to a public hearing with 10-days prior notice.
Payne said there was some flexibility as to when a public hearing was held, but he said it did have to be held before the money is taken out of the county’s account. He added that, typically, the Board of Commissioners practice has been to hold the hearing before entering into an agreement.
Payne also reminded the commissioners that this was an interlocal agreement and, as such, it is wide open to modification.
“You don’t have to agree to what they are asking for,” Payne said. “There are lots of negotiation points along the way. And that may be one place were having your public hearing may be to your advantage or may be wise. If they are asking for $750,000 a year and you say you’re comfortable with $700,000 a year, I don’t think they are going to say no.”
“I don’t know if anyone has ever said, ‘Take it or leave it,’” Payne said, “but it pretty much has that feel to it.”
Branson also said Bencini’s public comments suggested it was take it or leave it.
“Pretty much the mayor did say it that way last Thursday. Period.” Branson said, adding, “He shot himself in the foot.”
Phillips said he was also hearing that High Point wanted a vote on the proposal right away.
“That’s what I’ve heard loud and clear,” he said. “It’s about as clear as a bell to me – that piece of it.”
Foster said she was surprised at Bencini’s recent comments, when he was highly critical of Phillips and the board members at the economic development meeting.
“I really did call the [High Point] city manager,” Foster said, “and said, ‘Hey did you guys see this or did you know this was happening?’ And I did call a couple of council people too, because I was really surprised.”
Bencini said this week that the city is, of course, open to negotiation and he understands that Guilford County wants to hold a hearing first. He also emphasized that the project is very important to High Point and is time sensitive.
Phillips said the county commissioners had been taking a lot of harsh criticism from the leaders in the county’s southwest corner. He said he wasn’t sure how it would all play out.
“I’m not sure how the other commissioners feel on that point,” Phillips said. “Some might feel like ‘I’m done’ after the way that this has been handled, the way we’ve been treated.”