Guilford County’s most watched soap opera, drama, comedy and tragedy all rolled up into one is coming up on its season finale and people on both sides of the issue are waiting with bated breath to see how it turns out.
There have been a lot of twists and turns in the plot so far, but the heart of the storyline is simple enough: High Point officials want Guilford County to give that city $11.1 million in predicted increased county tax revenues over the next 20 years to help pay back the cost of the $45 million baseball stadium project meant to rejuvenate High Point’s downtown.
In the most recent episodes, the story line has consisted of Guilford County asking for various things and High Point jumping to respond. Many High Point officials said they feel like their city is doing so in a losing cause – however, right now they seem intent on trying to give the county commissioners everything they want. It’s a lot like a desperate lover in the “panic-negotiation” stage of a relationship trying to win back someone’s affection, while deep down they worry that the cause is lost forever.
• The commissioners asked why High Point had never held a public hearing on the project, so the High Point City Council quickly scheduled a public hearing and held it at the council’s Monday, Sept. 18 meeting – three days before a public hearing scheduled for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Thursday, Sept. 21 meeting.
• The commissioners said they couldn’t read the street names on the project maps so High Point Mayor Bill Bencini showed up at the Board of Commissioners’ first meeting in September with an armful of giant maps with easily readable street names in a very large font.
• Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson told High Point leaders he hadn’t been filled in on the project, so they invited Branson to High Point, gave him the red carpet treatment, showed him around the property and explained the project to him piece by piece.
• A group of commissioners said they were concerned that predicted economic development might not come, so High Point University President Nido Qubein, a major project backer, held a giant “progress report” meeting on the university’s campus, where he revealed developer plans for a new hotel and apartment complex near the site.
• Several commissioners said eight questions they had sent earlier to High Point staff were not all answered in the city’s response, so High Point City Manager Greg Demko sent the county a list of the questions asked with bullet point answers in dark blue listed below each numbered question.
So, if High Point doesn’t get the county money for the project, it won’t be for a lack of trying. But it could already be a lost cause.
In an effort to get backing for the stadium, project supporters have been doing their research into Guilford County government’s economic development policies as well. One they point to that the county drew up nearly a decade ago is the “Guilford County Economic Development Investment Guidelines,” which expresses the county’s commitment to strong downtown areas in Greensboro and High Point.
In that document, the section on “Central Business Districts in Greensboro and High Point” states: “A healthy, vibrant downtown is a sign of economic vitality and is one measure of the strength of a community. Two cities in Guilford County, Greensboro and High Point, have significant downtown footprints, the health of each having a large impact on the business activity and prosperity of Guilford County. Guilford County will support high impact projects that can redefine, reinvigorate or redevelop these downtown areas.”
The guidelines also state that Guilford County supports the idea of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Districts to promote growth. High Point officials have requested that the county use a “synthetic TIF” for funding. TIF’s typically designate an affected property district and takes money from increased tax revenues from that district to pay for the infrastructure enhancements that were meant to help bring about economic development there.
The county’s 2008 guidelines state: “Guilford County supports the concept of Tax Increment Financing (Project Development Financing). Project Development Financing is specifically authorized in Article 6 of Chapter 159 of the North Carolina General Statutes … In the event the County chooses to pledge funding for the Project, the County will only pledge property tax revenue as described in this section. The County will not pledge sales tax revenues or any other revenue sources. The County’s funding pledge will not exceed 20 years and will not pledge more than 75% of the increase in property tax value generated by the Project.”
High Point has been saying it needs for Guilford County to move quickly since it hopes to get state approval for the financing plan in early October, and also because it’s important to have shovels in the ground very soon if the stadium is to open, as planned, in the spring of 2019.
The commissioners will hear input on the project at the Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 21 meeting. Some commissioners want to vote on the matter after the hearing, to end the debate one way or another, while others say they aren’t yet ready to vote on the issue.
Commissioner Skip Alston said recently that he wouldn’t be ready to vote on the project this week and Branson said it was anyone’s guess whether the board would vote on it at the board’s meeting on Sept. 21.
“I don’t know if we will or not,” Branson said.
The language on the meeting agenda suggests the commissioners intend to vote on the matter, but in the end it’s whatever a majority of the board wants to do that night, and, like so much else in this debate, things have been changing on a daily basis.
Commissioner Hank Henning said he’s been very frustrated with the “information” the county has been given regarding the proposal. Henning said High Point has provided requested numbers but those numbers turned out to be flawed and misleading, and that’s one factor, he said, causing the commissioners to wonder if they really know enough about the project to make a well informed decision.
“Number one is the hurried nature of the request,” Henning said. “Number two is the lack of true vetting. And number three is that we’re not dealing with real numbers.”
Henning has been taking a lot of heat from some High Point residents who are his constituents – and some of the big donors to his past campaigns – who support the project. Henning said it’s his job to protect the county’s taxpayers and he said that, if the project is a failure, the burden of paying for the stadium and for land acquisition will fall on the citizens of High Point that he represents.
“Nothing is wrong with due diligence and making sure all of the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed,” Henning said.
Commissioner Justin Conrad said he’s voted for straightforward incentives before when it’s called for, but he said this is a different type of financing deal and the commissioners are taking a beating just for wanting all the information.
“We’re the bad guys for asking questions,” Conrad said recently.
One prominent High Point leader said Henning and his four fellow Republicans on the board are showing a real lack of courage.
“If these five guys were running High Point University, it would be nowhere,” he said. He said the five commissioners were like turtles who permanently kept their heads tucked in. He added that even turtles know that “to get anywhere you have to stick your neck out a little.”
Alston, a Democrat, has had quite a few questions of his own. He said that he likes Qubein but added that it’s a commissioner’s job is to be fully informed before spending taxpayer money.
“I respect him and he’s a friend of mine,” Alston said of Qubein, “but I still have my concerns.”
One thing on the board’s mind is that this would be a new form of aid from the county and it opens a door that some commissioners aren’t sure they want to open.
Branson said that, if the commissioners approve this special deal for High Point, “Everyone from Greensboro to McLeansville will be asking for the same type of thing every time they have a project.”
Alston said that, when he was at High Point University for Qubein’s progress report, he was sitting next to Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Zack Matheny.
“Zack said, ‘I’m gonna be knocking on that door too,’” Alston said.
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said recently that Greensboro had once approached the county commissioners about doing something similar for a City of Greensboro project.
“We got shot down pretty quick,” Vaughan said.
It often seems as though everyone other than the commissioners are backing the project. Many Greensboro and High Point leaders are pushing it strongly and The High Point Enterprise and the News & Record have both gone after the commissioners for their cautious approach.
One recent News & Record column criticized the commissioners for “blocking” the project, for instance. But every commissioner, including the five Republicans, have said they want the project to succeed – they’re just not sure they want to fund it to the tune of $11 million.
They also strongly question whether county denial will mean an end to the project – as some in High Point have suggested as part of the negotiations.
The commissioners say that the county’s contribution would add about $500,000 to $750,000 a year, and given that the project is a supposed “no-brainer,” “point-blank head-shot” deal that will bring more than $100 million in downtown investment to High Point, it should succeed with or without the annual money that would come from the county if the board approves the county subsidy. They point to the fact that Qubein in less than six months raised $50 million for the project – over four times the county’s projected contribution over the next two decades.
It’s also still possible that some middle ground can be reached. Branson said he spoken about a possible compromise at the last county commissioner meeting in hopes that it might open the doors to negotiation, but he added this week he hadn’t seen any sign that might happen.