If anyone wants to know how seriously the City of High Point takes its proposed baseball project and downtown renovation plan, one need look no further than to the fact that some High Point officials are considering forming a separate county – one freed from the oppressive chains of Guilford County government.
In recent weeks, that idea has grown in popularity and, while logistics make the move an improbability, the expanding Free High Point political movement shows just how angry and upset that city’s business leaders and elected officials are with what they see as the commissioners’ continued foot-dragging on a financing proposal for the High Point multi-use stadium and downtown revitalization project.
After the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted 8 to 1 two weeks ago to delay a decision on whether Guilford County would use future tax revenues to help fund the proposed $35 million stadium – the centerpiece of the revitalization plan – many High Point leaders were extremely hot under the collar to say the least.
Some High Point residents already have a name in mind for the new county – Piedmont County – a name that was proposed for that yet to be formed county just over a century ago when a similar secession from Guilford County was attempted by earlier players over different concerns.
Some business and political leaders in High Point started semi-seriously considering the “nuclear option,” after the Guilford County commissioners didn’t approve funding on Sept. 21. In a vote four days later, the High Point City Council had an 8-to-1 vote of its own – to allocate $5 million in city funds to move forward on the project.
High Point officials argue that the county commissioners’ vote to delay a decision was nonsensical given that nearly everyone in High Point involved with the project sees the wisdom of the move: The proposed downtown revitalization project has $100 million in private investment and development committed to it as well as the backing of business and political leaders from across the county. The project is designed to transform downtown High Point and, advocates point out, Guilford County will only contribute money if it is a success and there is increased property value in High Point’s downtown over and above current levels. So proponents argue that the county wouldn’t be “risking” anything at all by agreeing to use surplus tax revenues the county wouldn’t collect if the project wasn’t a success.
The Guilford County commissioners, on the other hand, have said repeatedly that a vote to delay isn’t a no vote, and they have said that they’re “trying to get to yes,” but have concerns about some of the project’s financial projections and they want to make certain the stadium initiative is viable before putting Guilford County’s stamp of approval on it and committing $11.1 million in possible county tax revenues over the next two decades. That’s the reason the Board of Commissioners voted on Thursday, Sept. 21 to put off a decision on financing for 60 to 90 days, even though High Point officials are saying the hour is already late.
After that meeting, tensions were elevated between High Point and Guilford County. At-large High Point City Councilmember Latimer Alexander’s Facebook page was one central focus for the breakaway county discussions that gained new life when the commissioners held their vote. On Alexander’s Facebook page, one poster, Greg Shepherd, wrote “Time to secede” and Alexander replied, “The 101st county would be called Piedmont.”
Alexander added in later comments, “Piedmont would be the 27th largest county out of the 101.” He also pointed out that secession from Guilford County “almost happened” a century ago.
Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad, who had spoken at the meeting about the passion of High Point residents and a need to try to find a solution, felt compelled to chime in on the social media conversation.
“Latimer,” Conrad wrote, “certainly I understand tensions are high and as an elected official you need to do what you expect is best for your constituents. But, really, I have to ask did you hear my comments last night? Better yet did you listen? Do what you want but personally I was attacked needlessly in the last two weeks and still offered a pathway forward. I would encourage you to remain a part of a solution.”
Still, project backers in High Point are madder than hornets, and the High Point City Council has now charged City of High Point staff to explore financing methods and ways to proceed with the initiative without county funding. Simultaneously, High Point continues to work aggressively to move the county commissioners from a “maybe” stance to a “yes.”
In the talks between High Point and Guilford County, several representatives of High Point – including Mayor Bill Bencini and Mayor Pro Tem Jay Wagner – have said the county’s refusal could jeopardize the future of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA), a collaborative council formed two years ago by Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County in an effort to bring more business and industry to the county. Not long after the commissioners’ Sept. 21 vote, GCEDA’s Thursday, Sept. 28 meeting was abruptly canceled. The group meets monthly and, though at times those meetings have been shifted for July vacation or for Christmas, no planned meetings have ever been canceled before.
The notice stated that, “With a number of key staff members out of town on business this week, we have decided to cancel this month’s meeting of the GCEDA Leadership Group.” The notice does state that the group will meet again in late October, but the cancelation and the buzz it created was just another indicator that the question of county funding for the High Point baseball stadium is shaping up to be one of the most consequential and controversial in county history.
One reason stadium backers were so upset by the county commissioners putting the decision on hold is that, they argue, the baseball stadium must be open by May 2019. Otherwise, that facility will lose a season’s worth of revenue, which would throw off the financing plan, and the city would also lose the Bridgeport, Connecticut, baseball team that has committed to play in downtown High Point – if the ballpark is open in time for the 2019 season.
That’s one reason the High Point City Council, on Sept. 25, voted to move forward with the revitalization project and begin design and demolition work to make way for the stadium. Council members say Guilford County can catch up and join in when it wants to.
High Point had hoped to go before the Local Government Commission (LGC) on Tuesday, Oct. 3, to get approval for the loan to build the stadium. By law, that financial oversight commission – a branch of the North Carolina Department of State Treasurer – must give its approval before High Point can take out the $35 million loan.
High Point Assistant City Manager Randy Hemann said this week that city leaders now plan to take the project to the LGC in early December, and, hopefully, get LGC approval at that time. The LGC looks at the integrity of the project and the financing plan, the ability of High Point to pay back the loan, and also at environmental and regulatory issues that could affect financial viability.
Hemann said High Point is working closely with state officials to provide information they need. One thing the state had been waiting on was a “Brownfield Application,” which is necessary for property that is “abandoned, idled or underutilized where environmental contamination, or perceived environmental contamination, hinders redevelopment.”
Hemann said that High Point is working with the state to address any environmental concerns in the proposed stadium area and, on Wednesday, Sept. 19, High Point submitted that plan to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
Hemann said that any time there’s a blighted downtown area, such as the large section of High Point that is the target for revitalization, there are going to be some brownfield matters to deal with. He said he’s certain High Point will be able to address any concerns the state has in that regard.
“In most urban environments you will find some of these issues – you may have a corner gas station or a dry cleaner,” Hemann said.
He said that former a Wagner Tire site and The High Point Enterprise building are two places where there is some contamination but those issues are being addressed.
“We know there is some minor level of contamination,” he said.
Hemann added, “It’s not so terrible that you have to dig up a hundred tons of dirt.”
He said in some cases it will take “environmental management“ rather than remediation. For instance, if there’s a parking lot built over contaminated soil then that soil may not be an issue since exposure to the public is limited.
“You can’t clean up everything – no one can,” Hemann said.
He added that, since that area has city water, ground contamination isn’t as large a concern as it might be otherwise.
“People in the city no longer have well water,” Hemann said.
Hemann said the process of state approval is detailed but necessary. He said the LGC serves a vital function and his city is willing to meet all the state requests regarding the project. Hemann said the existence of the LGC is one reason so many local governments in North Carolina have high credit ratings.
“It’s not like that everywhere,” Hemann said of city and county governments in other states.
Hemann added that the project plans are proceeding nicely. In April, the city allocated $15 million to purchase property. Of that, about $11 million has been spent so far. Much of the land has been purchased and some is under contract while the city still has options on other property and continues to close on those deals. High Point has bought, or is in the process of buying, roughly 11 acres of downtown where the ball field will be built – near the entrance of the old Enterprise building. About 6.5 acres of that 11 acres will be available for private renovation projects.
“We will sell that at fair market value for development,” Hemann said of the land.
The city has already secured public commitments for residential development near the stadium and is certain that restaurants, clubs, hotels, businesses and entertainment venues will follow as the added foot traffic transforms downtown High Point into a bustling area.
Commissioner Conrad said there’s been a lot of negativity directed at the commissioners who voted on Sept. 21 to put off a decision, but he added that this allows the board more time to reflect on the best way to proceed.
Conrad also said one reason there hasn’t been much talk about a possible compromise agreement between High Point and Guilford County before now is due to the way the proposal was been presented to the commissioners.
“We’ve been told it was all or nothing,” Conrad said. “So far it’s been, ‘This is the plan – pass it. But life doesn’t work like that.”
Conrad said that, at one point, he proposed to some High Point officials an idea in which private investors fund the stadium and guarantee the debt using the facility as collateral, but, he added, that idea was shot down quickly.
“I was told, thanks but no thanks,” Conrad said.
High Point officials, on the other hand, have said they’re very frustrated the county is taking so long for a time-sensitive project. The High Point City Council has, for instance, formed a committee – apparently one that was meant to work with a committee of county commissioners – but High Point hasn’t heard the county’s plans, and so far there’s no county committee for that city committee to meet with. City Councilmembers Jeff Golden, Chris Williams, Alyce Hill and Jason Ewing were named to the committee for High Point.
Commissioner Hank Henning said he’s not sure it’s best to meet in committee. He said a better model might be for the county commissioners and High Point officials to have one-on-one conversations since, if two committees meet, Henning said, the press would be there and it could mean that the discussions aren’t as open and productive as they could be if the discussions were done in a more private setting.
In the meantime, Commissioner Carlvena Foster is still trying to light a fire under her eight fellow commissioners to get them to finally get moving on the project she argues will completely transform downtown High Point. Foster said the ballpark plan has already proven its worth by getting so much private commitment behind it before construction is even underway. She also said it was clear at Guilford County’s public hearing held on Sept. 21 that this is something High Point citizens want.
“They said very loud and clear that they want this catalyst project in High Point,” Foster said.
“I have supported this project from the beginning,” she added.
Foster said that, given the project’s timeline and the need to move quickly, it doesn’t make sense for the county to continue to delay on a very well thought out project that has the wholesale backing of High Point leaders, most Greensboro leaders and a vast majority of citizens.
Foster said that all of the opposition she has heard seems to be coming from about a dozen vocal opponents.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said this week that she knows of some stadium opponents in High Point who have chosen not to speak publicly because they worry about blowback from the powerful forces in favor of the stadium.
Commissioners Alan Branson said he hopes new talks with High Point can be productive.
“I hope that within the next 60 to 90 days we can work together and find a solution that will fund this project and move it forward,” Branson said.
Commissioner Alan Perdue, who was a director of Guilford County Emergency Services before being elected to the board, is one of three commissioners – along with Foster and Henning – who represents High Point citizens. Commissioner Kay Cashion, as the at-large commissioner, also answers to High Point voters. At the Sept. 21 meeting, three out of the four commissioners who represent High Point voted in favor of the delay. That did not sit well with many from High Point.
Perdue voted to hold off on a decision but he also had some favorable words regarding the project.
“This is a huge economic opportunity and I think it’s important for us to try to get to some type of collaborative agreement,” Perdue said.
He said in his former job in Emergency Services as well as during his time as a county commissioner he has worked closely with those in the High Point area, so it is very familiar territory for him. He said that’s one reason he really wants to see this handled correctly with a well-reasoned approach.
“I used to tell my staff it’s better to do something right than to do something quick because if you do it quick then you do it haphazard,” he said. “I certainly hope we can get there.”
Perdue said High Point is in Guilford County and, to a very large extent, the interests of the two local governments are one and the same.