One thing is crystal clear: High Point is absolutely, positively, 100 percent, categorically committed to building a downtown baseball stadium.
The High Point City Council showed that determination to proceed with the major downtown revitalization project at its Thursday, Oct. 19 meeting, where the council voted 8 to 1 to enter into a contract with Elliot Sidewalk Communities – the project’s master developer and consultant – and also voted 8 to 1 to approve “plan B” for financing the stadium.
“Plan A” called for Guilford County to help fund the project to the tune of $11 million, but that decision is taking too long for High Point leaders. The special Oct. 19 meeting of the City Council was called after High Point officials and business leaders got tired of waiting on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to decide whether the county would contribute future tax revenue to help finance the $35 million stadium.
In August, at a Board of Commissioners work session, High Point leaders asked Guilford County to help fund 20 percent of the baseball stadium payback cost over the next two decades – roughly $11 million in all. They requested the county use tax revenues from future increases in property values in downtown High Point that are projected to occur from revitalization.
However, on Sept. 21, the Guilford County commissioners voted to delay a decision for “60 to 90 days,” and, on Oct. 19 – almost a month after the county’s vote to put a decision off – High Point officials said they had seen little to no indication the county was even attempting to address the question.
High Point leaders have stated over and over again that the stadium must open by spring 2019 or the city will lose the Bridgeport, Connecticut, baseball team that has been secured to play in the multi-use stadium. They also say that, for financial reasons, given the timeline, it’s important the stadium not sit idle for much of 2019. They say the project will be a major expense and the coming new growth and property value enhancements need to begin as soon as possible.
The Oct. 19 City Council meeting was the scene of a heated confrontation between High Point Mayor Bill Bencini and City Councilmember Cynthia Davis – the lone no vote for several motions by the council to move the project forward.
Davis has been a constant critic of the planned financing method for the stadium and has been the one no vote all along the way. One complaint she’s had is that High Point is rushing the project.
Bencini, who now has just over a month left as mayor, has been one of the projects biggest proponents.
The sparks flew at the start of a Oct. 19 presentation by High Point Assistant City Manager Randy Hemann, who was speaking on the city’s proposed contract with Sidewalk Communities – the Baltimore-based consulting and planning firm the city has been negotiating with to design and develop the area around the stadium.
Hemann said there had been a lot of back and forth over the contract in recent weeks and the finished product had only arrived in his email at 1:07 that afternoon. The City Council meeting started at 2 p.m.
Hemann said of the contract, “It’s taken a lot of design work; it’s taken a lot of legal work and I apologize that this was late getting to you.”
“I was about to pull my hair out hoping it would be here earlier,” he added.
When Hemann prefaced his presentation on the contract in that way, Davis began asking how the city councilmembers were supposed to vote on something they hadn’t yet read or even seen.
“With that being said,” Davis said of Hemann’s remarks, can I ask a question? I understand it was just sent to you, literally, so why are we being asked to –”
Bencini interrupted her and said, “Councilwoman Davis, we are going to listen to the presentation.”
Davis continued asking if councilmembers were supposed to vote on something they hadn’t read.
“I’m sorry, mayor, I am asking a question!” she exclaimed, and then went on to continue asking.
Bencini grabbed the gavel and banged it in a rapid staccato motion for 14 seconds – an extremely long time for gavel banging in a public meeting. The whole time Bencini was banging the gavel, Davis was trying to shout over it, so Bencini tried to slam it down louder while Davis tried to shout louder so it was an extremely interesting 14 seconds.
When Bencini stopped – perhaps due to a tired arm – Davis kept right on talking.
Bencini shouted: “Miss Davis, you are out of order!”
But Davis kept asking her question of Hemann: whether she and others were expected to vote on the contract at that time without having looked it over.
Finally, Hemann answered.
“That will be the decision of the City Council,” he said. “That will not be my decision.”
Hemann eventually finished his presentation and the contract was approved 8 to 1. The board also approved an additional incentives package for Sidewalk Communities, also on an 8-to-1 vote.
The “Initial Development Agreement” calls for the city to pay the firm $599,500 for “design, legal work, engineering, architecture, feasibility and marketing” of the six-and-a-half acres of city land that will be sold for private development near the stadium.
The incentives contract calls for High Point to pay Sidewalk Communities up to $1.3 million in incentives, depending on the square footage of retail, restaurant and related businesses that open around the stadium, as well as on the number of units of residential and hotel rooms that are built.
At the meeting, the City Council also approved, on an 8-to-1 vote, alternative financing for project.
Before the meeting, there were all sorts of rumors flying around as to how High Point would fill the $11 million hole in their financing plan left by the county commissioners’ failure to offer county funding right away. There were rumors that the city would raid little-used funds, or would consider a new restaurant tax or cancel some projects scheduled in the city’s long term capital development plan.
The original stadium financing plan called for 20 percent of the $55 million cost to come from Guilford County’s tax revenues from the additional development of a designated 649-acre zone in downtown High Point, 20 percent to come from High Point’s future tax revenues – with 60 percent from the stadium naming rights, surcharges on ticket sales and parking fees, money that’s promised from the High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau and other sources.
All eyes – and TV news cameras – were on High Point Financial Services Director Jeff Moore, to see how the city would make up the difference brought about by the county’s delay in agreeing to participate.
“So this was the premise that we provided to the county, and that was that they share a matching proportion of new tax dollars to help repay the project investment,” Moore said, adding, “We all know the conversations with the Guilford County commissioners have gone in a different direction.”
His big reveal was somewhat anticlimactic: The city replaced the commissioners’ expected part with nothing. While no new funding source had to be found, Moore said the project will now take longer to become profitable.
Under the original plan, with Guilford County contributing, the financing plan – the cost of debt service compared to all revenues for repayment – becomes positive annually beginning in five years, and, on a cumulative basis, in 10 years. Under “plan B,” that break-even point is in the ninth year rather than the fifth year. Also, under Moore’s projections, plan B more than doubles the amount of time for High Point to recoup its total investment costs for the project. Under plan B, recouping that investment will take 22 years rather than 10 years.
“It takes about 22 years to pay for itself,” Moore said of the new payment plan.
He added, “The city has the capacity to continue the project and can do so without a tax increase.”
High Point City Manager Greg Demko said staff would amend the application to the Local Government Commission (LGC), a state financial oversight board that must approve the loan. Demko said the new plan would be provided to the LGC, but if the county commissioners decide to participate, High Point could switch back to the original plan.
Guilford County CommissionerHank Henning said it is fascinating the way High Point is constantly changing messages to the county, while acting as though there had never been a change. Henning said the first message to the commissioners was that a financing option known as a TIF – tax increment financing – would be used. With a TIF, local governments divert new property tax revenue from increases in property values in a certain district, for a set period of time, to pay for an economic development project.
He said that shifted suddenly to an interlocal agreement proposal from the city that had different characteristics, while High Point maintained there was no real change and a TIF had never been on the table.
Henning also said that, likewise, High Point officials have hammered home the point that county funding was critical for the project and now they are saying that it was never needed.
He said High Point makes big changes while acting as though nothing had happened. Henning compared it to the Jedi mind trick in Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi is manipulating minds of the storm troopers by waiving his hand and saying, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
Henning waved his hand slightly like Kenobi in the movie and said softly, “This is not the TIF you are looking for …”
He waived his hand again, and said in his Kenobi voice, “We never said we needed county financing.”
Henning said he wished that, from the beginning, High Point leaders had revealed they could do the project without help from the county because then the two local governments could have had a more rational and less heated discussion without everyone getting “discombobulated.”
“I wish they had said, ‘What can you guys do?’ and not have misled the public about it depending on our help,” Henning said.
Commissioner Skip Alston, the only commissioner to attend the Oct. 19 High Point City Council meeting, said he’s still looking for ways the county can help with the project despite the fact that many High Point officials claim the commissioners have already opted out.
“I’m not looking for a way out – I’m looking for a way in,” Alston said.
Alston said that, while he’s been working to get some commissioners on board, the announcement by High Point officials that the city doesn’t need county participation, and the Oct. 19 vote to proceed without county help, doesn’t benefit his effort to get fellow commissioners to go along.
“It doesn’t help the situation when they make that statement,” Alston said. “Right now the board is 50-50, and it gives those on the fence a way out.”
He also said a comment High Point City Councilmember Latimer Alexander made in The High Point Enterprise hadn’t helped. Alexander said he was “tired of listening to them [the commissioners] pontificate, watching them prance and preen around like they have some special abilities.”
Alston said the truth is that the commissioners have “special responsibilities.”
Alston also said he had more questions after attending the High Point meeting. For instance, he said some of the projects proposed in the presentation were on land the city hadn’t acquired yet.
Several High Point officials said after the meeting that the city’s land acquisition for the site is going very well. While some negotiations are still taking place, the city has either bought outright or has secured the right to buy nearly all of the land in the development zone around the stadium.
Commissioner Justin Conrad said High Point will no doubt want to work with Guilford County on future projects even if the county chooses not participate in the stadium project, so he has no idea why some leaders in that city are taking the low road and insulting the commissioners.
“It’s baffling to me,” Conrad said.