The Guilford County Board of Commissioners did an impersonation of the Magic 8 Ball when, to the question of whether the county would help fund High Point’s downtown baseball stadium project, the commissioners answered, “Reply Hazy – Try Again Later.”
While that’s not a “no,” that answer still greatly frustrated High Point officials who didn’t want to see any delay regarding the $135 million downtown revitalization effort that is on a very strict timeline.
High Point leaders hope that the centerpiece of the project – a $30 million baseball stadium – will be open by spring 2019 so the city can honor its commitment to the Bridgeport Bluefish, the Connecticut baseball team High Point has secured to play in the stadium.
High Point officials want the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to direct about $11.1 million of anticipated tax revenues over the next 20 years to stadium loan repayment. That revenue would be generated from projected property value increases in a 649-acre section of downtown High Point.
At the Thursday, Sept. 21 meeting, the commissioners held a public hearing to consider that request. Proponents and opponents spoke for 25 minutes each. Despite many fervent pleas by project backers for the board to approve an interlocal city/county agreement to provide county financing, the commissioners voted 8 to 1 to put off the decision for 60 to 90 days. The no vote was cast by Commissioner Carlvena Foster, a strong supporter of the project and one of three commissioners who represent High Point on the board. Foster told her fellow commissioners at the meeting that the project had to move forward quickly and that High Point needed a vote that night, but her motion to approve the funding died for lack of a second.
When High Point officials exited the building, some were visibly upset and one told the Rhino Times that he didn’t want to make any comment at that time because, given his state of mind, he might say something he would regret.
There has been great deal of frustration on both sides. The county commissioners have said they feel rushed, while some project proponents say the county commissioners have displayed unprecedented arrogance in the way High Point has been expected High Point to say “How high?” every time the commissioners say “Jump.” High Point officials say the county has been continually “moving the goalposts” throughout the process. County commissioners say they just want to have a complete understanding of all the facts before moving forward.
Project backers also say that they’re extremely frustrated by the fact that the county has so far refused to participate while no county funds are at risk. They point out that only if the project is a success and property values in downtown High Point increase will county money go toward the project. If the property values don’t go up, no county money will be used since the proposed agreement only calls for the county to contribute a portion of the revenue generated by the added property values. Adding to High Point’s consternation is the fact that about $100 million in private money and developments has been promised. However, if the stadium isn’t built, that money and those downtown developments – including a planned apartment complex and hotel – will evaporate.
High Point leaders took most of the commissioners around the blighted downtown area earlier this year and showed them what a wasteland that area now is and explained – in great detail, according to High Point officials – the project and the transformative nature of the undertaking.
After the county commissioners voted to take more time on Sept. 21, High Point leaders decided to explore their options of going it alone. On Monday, Sept. 25, the High Point City Council went into closed session to regroup and start down a new path that doesn’t rely on the commissioners – though High Point still wants Guilford County to come on board once the commissioners make up their minds.
At that meeting, after a short session behind closed doors, the City Council voted 8 to 1 to approve a three-part plan to move forward: The council allocated $5 million in city funds to begin on the initial phases of demolition and design for the project, directed staff to come up with alternative financing plans that do not rely on county funding and designated four members to a committee that will meet with a committee of commissioners to discuss county participation.
High Point Mayor Bill Bencini said this week that High Point’s leaders had to be proactive and said that they can no longer sit around and wait on a decision from the county commissioners.
“We are disappointed that the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to delay the High Point City project,” Bencini said, “and we will have to evaluate our options.”
Bencini also said the Guilford County commissioners appeared to believe that High Point had a plan B in its back pocket – a secondary plan that didn’t require county financing. Though plans are now being made that don’t rely on the county, Bencini said county participation has always been a key element of the effort.
“The idea that we were sitting on a plan B – well, that’s not the case,” Bencini said. “If there was a plan B, they have all been hiding it from me.”
Bencini also addressed one concern that county commissioners have expressed often – that helping High Point fund this project with revenues from future increases in property values would open a “Pandora’s box,” and soon cities and towns across the county would be asking for similar arrangements for their projects. Bencini said that, if the county is presented with other surefire ventures such as this one – with $100 million in private investment promised before it starts – the commissioners should back those as well.
“If they bring a project that’s 23 percent public and 77 percent private, and the developers and donors behind it will bring in millions and millions, then they should do that one too,” Bencini said.
The High Point mayor was not at the commissioners’ Sept. 21 meeting but he did watch the proceedings in an overflow room in the county-owned BB&T building next to the Old Guilford County Court House where the commissioners meeting took place. Nearly a month ago, Bencini had made some strong remarks to Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips at a Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) meeting and Bencini seemed to think last week that his presence at the commissioners meeting would not have helped matters.
High Point Mayor Pro Tem Jay Wagner spoke passionately before the commissioners in favor of county funding for the stadium. He said the city leaders needed a vote, one way or another, at that meeting.
“We need an answer tonight,” Wagner said. “That is not an artificial deadline we created to bully you or to pressure you. Our stadium must be ready for the first pitch in May of 2019 or we lose our team. All the development to come is contingent on the stadium. We need a yes or no tonight.”
Some High Point officials are taking the county’s delay as a “no” vote by the board, even though nearly all of the commissioners have expressed a desire to get to yes in some form or fashion. At the sometimes-heated meeting, Commissioner Skip Alston told the packed house of project supporters that it was to their advantage for the county to take more time.
“You don’t want a vote tonight because you would get an overwhelming no, but I don’t want you to go away from here with a no vote,” he said.
Alston said the commissioners needed time to digest what they had heard at the public hearing and to examine other information.
“Respect us enough to give us time to dissect this,” he said. “I know that we can get there, and get a yes vote, because I know the members of this board.”
This week, Alston said it didn’t help matters that some High Point officials have made veiled, and not so veiled, threats. At the meeting, Wagner pointed out that two years ago High Point, Greensboro and Guilford County joined together to form GCEDA and work together on development.
“And we agreed to cooperate,” Wagner said. “There was some concern and consternation about that in High Point. But what I need you to understand is that this case is the first true test for regional economic cooperation in Guilford County since we did that. We have come to you in our time of need to ask for your cooperation. One day your turn will come and you will need our help. Voting no will have far-reaching and unanticipated consequences for this idea of regional cooperation. Yes means that regional cooperation is possible in Guilford County.”
Alston didn’t like that talk about the far-reaching consequences for the county.
“I was surprised they threatened us again,” Alston said. “You don’t have to threaten people.”
Alston also said the hurry, hurry, hurry attitude from High Point hasn’t helped either.
“We have to have time to process this thing,” Alston said.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Alston clearly didn’t appreciate the loud chorus of boos he heard when he made his motion for the county to hold off on a response. He said he was put off by the “disrespect” shown by the audience.
Commissioner Kay Cashion, who seconded Alston’s motion, also said that delaying matters would give the board time for thoughtful consideration. She joked that her iPad had to be reset due to all the emails she had received: 354 emails in favor of Guilford County funding for the project and 52 against.
Commissioner Justin Conrad added an amendment that called for a committee of commissioners to work with High Point leaders to reach an agreement. He also had some words for those who spoke on the project.
“High Point has proven to me what I already knew – that this was a city of passionate and caring people who are very concerned about the future of their city,” Conrad said at the meeting.
Phillips wasn’t quite as optimistic as Alston about getting the board to yes.
“I’m not sure we can come to a place of agreement – so I want full disclosure on that point – but we’re willing to try,” Phillips said.
Conrad and Phillips were the only two commissioners who had voted, two weeks earlier, against holding a public hearing on the High Point matter; however, they now both sound like they’re still open to options.
The board has been under a tremendous amount of pressure from all sides to approve the financing. At times it seems like eight commissioners and a dozen High Point residents are the only ones who even have questions about the project. High Point University President Nido Qubein announced that he had secured pledges for $50 million in private investment in downtown renovation and developers have expressed their intention to build around the stadium. Qubein has said that there is no reason whatsoever for the county to reject the financing proposal.
Any opposition to the project was so unpopular at the meeting that one opponent, Jimmy Morgan, a Colfax resident, joked that he was speaking against county financing for the stadium even though that meant he might need security to get out of the meeting alive.
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan has made positive remarks about it and Jim Melvin, who was mayor of Greensboro from 1971 to 1981, spoke at a large event held earlier this month at High Point University. Even Grasshoppers General Manager Donald Moore has spoken out publicly for the project and posted favorable comments on Facebook promoting the stadium. Some in Greensboro would like to see the project financing approved because that would open the door for the county’s largest city to start making similar requests of the commissioners.
It didn’t surprise the commissioners that the High Point Chamber of Commerce is behind the move, but the commissioners were surprised, and a little taken aback, to get a letter of support from the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. The letter, sent to Phillips and Bencini, was signed by of Greensboro Chamber of Commerce Operating Group Chairman Terry Akin, the CEO of Cone Health.
That letter stated: “We, the members of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, commend the considerable steps that leaders in both public and private sectors have taken to create an exciting vision for the long-term success of downtown High Point. Because the Downtown Catalyst Project is an initiative that has significant potential to benefit our entire region, we encourage Guilford County and the City of High Point to work together in ways that move this project forward.”
Alston said this week that he knows High Point is eager to hear the county’s answer but it is imperative that the commissioners follow their own timeline. He also said there’s no way the board would have approved the move on Sept. 21 if it had come to an up or down vote that night.
“That was obvious since Carlvena didn’t get a second to her motion,” Alston said. He added that, before the meeting, some commissioners wanted to make a decision that night but others wanted to wait.
He said the 60 to 90 day range gives the board time to look at all sides and, he added, the commissioners can always make a move earlier.
“I really wanted 30 days but some of them didn’t want to rush it,” Alston said. “They didn’t want to tie their hands.”
High Point officials initially asked the commissioners to approve the request at the board’s Sept. 7 meeting. One reason for the rush is that High Point leaders hoped to get approval from the Local Government Commission (LGC) at the LGC’s Oct. 3 meeting. That state financial oversight commission must give its approval before this type of debt can be issued by a local government in North Carolina.
But some sources at the state level familiar with the LGC application said it was unlikely the High Point project would have made it on the agenda for the Oct. 3 meeting regardless of what happened in ongoing debate over county funding. The county’s possible financial contribution is only one part of the LGC approval process that considers everything from community support to any environmental issues that could influence financial viability. The LGC looks more closely at issued debt, such as this, that is a special interlocal agreement, not approved by voters and relies on projected revenue streams from private activity.
Guidelines for LGC approval state, “The staff of the LGC should be contracted very early in the planning stage regarding the proposed debt issues. This early contact is necessary to make sure the process gets off to a good start. Having to ‘back up and restart’ can significantly delay the process. This is especially important if an innovative financing is contemplated which may require consideration of unusual covenants, special justifications of necessity or cost, private activity usage, special interlocal agreements, unusual amortization schedules or other innovations.”
According to LGC guidelines, “A complete application must be filed four weeks prior to the LGC meeting date.”
For the Oct. 3 meeting that date was Tuesday, Sept. 5.
On Wednesday, Sept. 20, Karah Manning, communications manager for the office of the state treasurer stated in an email to the Rhino Times that the LGC was waiting on environmental approval for the project.
“Regarding environmental approval, the LGC staff is waiting for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approval of the brownfield remediation plan submitted by the City of High Point.”
The North Carolina DEQ defines brownfield sites as “any real property that is abandoned, idled or underutilized where environmental contamination, or perceived environmental contamination, hinders redevelopment. The hindrance comes from the fact that it is very difficult to obtain loans for redevelopment on these properties because they come with potential environmental cleanup liability. The NC Brownfields Program is designed to alleviate that liability for prospective developers of these properties so as to facilitate the redevelopment of the property.”
Laura Leonard, the public information officer for the DEQ, stated in an email that the DEQ only got that application last week.
“The Division of Waste Management received a Brownfields Property Application for this project this week,” Leonard wrote on Friday, Sept. 22, the day after the county commissioners meeting.
Leonard explained the necessary steps to come.
“From this point, the Brownfields Program staff will go through its eligibility review process and determine if additional assessment data is needed. If additional data is needed, the Brownfields Program’s staff will work with the prospective developer and consultant to develop an additional assessment plan. Once all that information is compiled, the program’s staff works with the developer to draft a Brownfields Agreement based on intended reuse.”
She added, “Having just received the application, we are in the initial stages of eligibility review for this project as a potential brownfield project.”