High Point officials and business leaders who back a proposed baseball stadium and economic revitalization project in downtown High Point didn’t like it one bit last month when the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted 8 to 1 to delay a decision on whether Guilford County would help finance the $35-million stadium – and those same leaders have been getting even more frustrated in the three weeks following that vote as they now play the waiting game.
Project proponents have been pleading with the Guilford County commissioners for nearly three months for the county to contribute about $11.1 million to build the stadium over the next 20 years – with the money coming from tax revenue brought about by an anticipated appreciation in property values in a 649-acre area around the stadium site.
High Point has been very anxious to get started building the ballpark and, in fact, two recent High Point City Council votes moved the project forward by allocating funds for demolition of existing structures and the design of the stadium.
The Guilford County commissioners say they’re considering High Point’s proposal for county funding, collecting information and vetting the plan, and they say that takes time to do it with care. The vote on Sept. 21 called for the Board of Commissioners to put off the decision for 60 to 90 days – with Commissioner Carlvena Foster, who is in favor of the funding, casting the only no vote – and it’s become pretty clear that the board is going to use most or all of that time to make a decision.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Commissioner Justin Conrad made a motion that the Board of Commissioners form a four-person committee to negotiate with High Point, and many High Point officials and others left the meeting that night with the impression the commissioners had done just that.
In response, High Point immediately set up a committee consisting of four High Point city councilmembers to meet with the county’s committee.
Only it turns out that Conrad’s proposal for the county to form a committee never ended up as part of the final motion passed by the board that night.
Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller explained it in an email.
“Our Board did not actually create any committee,” she wrote. “They discussed it but ended up not creating one. I think commissioners may be meeting individually with High Point folks.”
High Point officials in the meantime were waiting eagerly for the county committee. On Monday, Oct. 2, a week and a half after the commissioners’ vote to delay a decision, Forward High Point Inc. Chairman Doyle Early sent an email to Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips.
“Can you tell me when you are going to schedule the first meeting of the City and County Committees to discuss the Stadium financing issue?” the email asked. “Forward High Point, Inc. is obviously very interested in getting the dialog [sic] started in hopes of a possible compromise agreement as soon as possible.”
The email also informed Phillips that the High Point committee had been formed and added, “I assume the county committee is set.”
Leaders in High Point, who have been insisting the time-sensitive project move ahead as quickly as possible, were, to say the least, not thrilled by Phillips’ response.
“There certainly may be further discussions by our board regarding the Catalyst Project in the months ahead,” Phillips wrote, “however, the date and time has yet to be determined. To my knowledge there has been no recent contact with any of the commissioners by High Point City Council members and/or the committee you are referring to. As such, I do not have a specific answer to your question at this time.
“Our board will, however, continue to focus our efforts on critical county issues such as the possible expansion of the Guilford County Family Justice Center in High Point, significantly increasing the number of licensed foster care and adoption families for Guilford County children without a home, continuing our assessment of the utilization and growing maintenance needs of Guilford County Schools facilities, the limited water resource concerns of citizens in Northwest Guilford County, along with the design and construction of a new Guilford County Animal Shelter, to name a few.
“Enjoy this beautiful fall weather and have a great week!”
Business High Point Inc. Chairman Scott Tilley said he and others were very disappointed with Phillips’ response.
“I don’t believe there is any interest in addressing it,” Tilley said.
He said he was particularly frustrated with the commissioners who represent High Point. Like Foster, Commissioners Alan Perdue and Hank Henning have constituents in High Point. Commissioner Kay Cashion, the board’s at-large member, also represents people in High Point.
“With the exception of Carlvena Foster, I am extremely disappointed in the lack of leadership and representation shown by the commissioners,” Tilley said. “I do not think the commissioners from High Point have represented us well.”
He pointed out that High Point had put a committee together right after the Sept. 21 commissioners meeting to engage in talks, but it’s been three weeks since the Board of Commissioners vote and High Point leaders haven’t heard word one officially from the county and the county still has no committee in place to discuss the issue.
Tilley said there’s a tremendous amount of support for the stadium project in High Point, yet the county commissioners, he said, have shown nothing but a willingness to delay.
Some High Point officials say the strategy is to delay the issue to death. One said, “There are more ways to say no than saying no.”
High Point leaders argue that the proposed downtown revitalization project has a great deal of support from citizens, has garnered $100 million in private development commitments and has the strong backing of business and political leaders across the county. They stress constantly that, under the proposal, Guilford County will only contribute money if the project is a success and property values in High Point’s downtown area increase from current levels.
Many of the county commissioners say they understand that High Point has a desire to move the project along quickly but there are numerous issues to discuss: the type of financing the commissioners were asked to approve all along was changed just days before the board was asked to approve it; the numbers commissioners were given on the decline of property values in downtown High Point were incorrect; the commissioners were never consulted on which properties went into the 649-acre area or on other details of the plan before High Point put it together. Commissioners also complained they were given a “take it or leave it” deal with no room for negotiation.
Commissioner Skip Alston said there’s been movement on the issue since Sept. 21. He said he still believes the Board of Commissioners can get to yes.
“I think we need to get together first,” Alston said of the county commissioners. “We need to get together with staff and our attorney and manager.”
Alston said he believes a majority of commissioners can get behind some sort of financial help for High Point’s baseball stadium project as long as High Point can get past the “all or nothing” attitude.
Alston has had discussions with High Point Mayor Bill Bencini, and other commissioners have been talking with some High Point leaders to see if a compromise can be reached.
Foster said Guilford County has been moving too slow given that High Point must have the ballpark open by spring of 2019 to keep the team it has secured.
“We haven’t established a committee,” Foster said.
She said there had been talk that she, Alston, Phillips and Henning might be on a county committee but so far no county committee is in place. Committees of the board are usually appointed by the chairman and are subject to the open meetings law, which means all of those meetings would be open to the public and the media.
“I think that is not a priority on Jeff’s list at this point,” Foster said.
Several commissioners said High Point hasn’t seemed willing to compromise in any way, but Foster said the city is now clearly ready to talk.
“I think they are open to negotiation,” Foster said. “My confidence level is that it’s going to be a hard sell. I can only be hopeful.”
She said the outcome of those talks may be very different than the financing plan High Point first proposed. She added that she feels as though the project will get done eventually, with or without financial help from Guilford County.
Henning said there’s been a lot of talk among various actors, but the key decision makers haven’t gotten together.
“We’ve never had a sit-down conversation with the [High Point] City Council,” Henning said.
He said one problem is that the county commissioners have been getting mixed messages from High Point leaders.
“We were told it was not negotiable and told simultaneously, ‘We’re going to do it on our own,’” he said.
Henning said High Point stadium backers have stated no new taxes will be used to pay for the project, but he added that no one has said how the loan will be paid back if the anticipated revenue streams don’t materialize. He said that, given the large up-front financial commitment from the city, he wants to know how the loan will be paid off if fans don’t show up and property values don’t increase.
Henning said it makes sense for High Point to have a plan in writing that explains how the project will be paid for in that scenario – especially given High Point’s stated commitment not to raise taxes for that purpose.
After the Sept. 21 vote, High Point leaders assigned staff the duty of finding alternative financing plans but they say they still want Guilford County to help fund the project.
High Point officials constantly contend that this decision is a “no-brainer,” but Henning said there is in fact a great deal to think about. He said project proponents haven’t even considered a possibility it may fail to bring the expected development and he questions the impact on High Point taxpayers if it doesn’t. He said there have been promises of some development – such as an apartment complex and a hotel – but there’s no assurance property values across the entire 649-acre district will increase to the levels High Point is projecting. Henning also said commissioners had floated to High Point officials an idea for private investors to guarantee the stadium loan, but that hadn’t gotten any traction among proponents.
“If there is a willingness to do that, then it’s a whole different ball game,” Henning said.
Commissioner Alan Branson said that rush to open the stadium in May 2019 was very ambitious given that, in any major construction project, all sorts of surprises can come up. He said there could be environmental issues and he said the county had seen some unexpected problems when conducting paving and construction in downtown High Point on county property.
“Hell, you might have a damn minefield out there, who knows?” Branson said.
Branson said it could be “after the election” – speaking of the election in November that will include High Point City Council races – before any decision is made by Guilford County.
“We will move at a snail’s pace; they want to move at a rabbits pace,” he added.
Branson also said, “We’ve been told either we’re all in or nothing – that message has been sent pretty loud and clear.”
He said he has no problems with the project and hopes it’s a major success, but he added that commissioners need to vet the plan carefully before they commit county funds for the next two decades.
Project backers were hoping to get approval in early October from the Local Government Commission, a state oversight committee that vets large loans and other debt obligations of local governments. Now High Point officials are hoping to clear that hurdle in December.