At the Thursday morning, August 24 meeting of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA), a confrontation between High Point Mayor Bill Bencini and Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips left many alliance members in stunned silence after it became clear that the disagreement between the two could mean an end to GCEDA – a group that was formed with great effort two years ago to promote countywide cooperation in economic development.
At the meeting, the two men went head to head in a disagreement that stems from a proposal by High Point to build a downtown baseball stadium as part of a downtown revitalization effort.
Bencini argued that Guilford County was dragging its feet and was unlikely to support the project, while Phillips told the mayor that the county had not made a decision one way or the other and was simply being a responsible elected body; Phillips also said the High Point mayor was very misguided about some things he was telling the group.
Since that public airing of differences, local government leaders on both sides said the new rift forming in Guilford County/High Point relations could lead to a massive chill between the two local government and could have ramifications for all sorts of existing agreements and contracts.
After the meeting, Phillips said that Bencini’s “strong arm tactics” weren’t the right approach, and he said he didn’t appreciate the fact that the High Point mayor made his comments at a meeting of economic development officials – which Phillips said was not the proper venue for the exchange.
At the GCEDA meeting, Bencini expressed his dismay, and that of other High Point officials, over the fact that the Guilford County Board of Commissioners didn’t appear willing to cooperate with High Point on a major downtown redevelopment project that calls for a publicly financed $30 million baseball stadium to be built as a catalyst for what city leaders predict will be $100 million economic development effort. The project is meant to address the blight-filled ghost town that now makes up much of High Point’s downtown for 50 weeks out of each year. For two weeks each year, some of that area does come to life when the international furniture market comes to town.
The showdown at the August 24 GCEDA meeting, at the Cameron Campus of Guilford Technical Community College in Colfax, was largely the result of a work session one week earlier when some Guilford County commissioners – including Phillips – expressed concern over the process that led to High Point’s baseball stadium project, as well as concerns over the financing method of the proposed stadium.
Bencini, other High Point city councilmembers and business and civic leaders requested that the Board of Commissioners approve a 20-year tax-sharing plan that would mean Guilford County would use about $12 million in county property tax revenues to help pay off the stadium debt. High Point officials are asking for county revenue that comes from the added property value expected to be created by the stadium and related private development. They argue that the project’s financial cost to the county will be “zero” even if the effort is a big flop – since the county isn’t responsible for any of the stadium debt if no development occurs around it. High Point and the county are discussing the details of that proposed financing agreement.
High Point officials have asked for Phillips to put the item on the commissioners’ agenda for the board’s Thursday, Sept. 7 meeting; however Phillips had expressed several concerns about the project and he’d also said he hadn’t decided if the Board of Commissioners would put the item on the agenda for that meeting. That, and subsequent discussions that took place behind the scenes, led up to the events at the GCEDA meeting where Bencini dropped his bombshell on the unsuspecting group. Since it was a joint meeting of the GCEDA Leadership Group and the GCEDA Advisory Council, there were about two dozen local business leaders, government managers and elected officials on hand to witness what occurred on the day Bencini decided to use the nuclear option.
At the meeting, Bencini read from a prepared statement and the gravity of what he was saying was soon evident to GCEDA members at the meeting.
“High Point is in the process of undertaking the largest economic development project in decades, maybe ever,” the mayor stated. “If our partners in Guilford County government choose not to participate with the City of High Point in this catalyst project – a project in which Guilford County makes no upfront commitment, a project with no county financial risk – we will be forced to ask uncomfortable questions: Why are we here? Why are we involved in the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance? Should the City of High Point and our EDC [Economic Development Corp.] instead partner only with the City of Greensboro and the Greensboro Chamber, revamping the GCEDA instead to the Greensboro-High Point Economic Development Alliance – four partners working together for our collective good? These are questions that should not linger.”
Bencini criticized the commissioners for using “straw man” arguments against the stadium project. While reading from his statement prepared with some input from other High Point leaders, he said it was inconsistent of the Board of Commissioners to criticize High Point for not putting the stadium project to a vote in the form of a bond referendum when the commissioners themselves raised $28 million earlier this year for a new animal shelter and other projects through bonds that required no voter approval.
Bencini also criticized comments Phillips had made at a Board of Commissioners August 17 work session, one week earlier. Phillips had said the commissioners did in fact have something on the line – their reputations. At that work session, Phillips had said, “There’s reputational, and there’s arguably political capital of all of us here, and many of you there, that we have worked for many, many years to accrue.”
Bencini read that quote at the GCEDA meeting, but didn’t use Phillips’ name. Instead, he said “One commissioner” had said it – but many in the room knew exactly who had said it and they were glancing at Phillips, who was sitting just across the table from Bencini, to see Phillips’ reaction.
At that uncomfortable point, Phillips spoke up.
“That was me, by the way,” Phillips said.
Bencini responded, “Well, I didn’t want to be personalizing anything …”
“I think it’s pretty easy to determine,” Phillips said.
Bencini continued by disparaging Phillips’ comment from one week earlier: “The job of the elected public official is to focus on making the right decision, without consideration of the decision’s impact upon one’s political reputation and store of political capital,” Bencini said. “We all understand that consequences of our decisions are inevitable. Attempting to avoid political consequences as a primary consideration in decision making is not the approach of true statesmen.”
After Bencini’s comments, Phillips said, “While I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the statement, we’ve not said no to consideration on Sept. 7.”
Phillips added that he’d already informed Bencini of that fact.
Bencini said, “I understand that it should not be difficult to get calendared on the county’s agenda when …”
“Let me finish my point,” Phillips interjected. “And you know this as well; we’re continuing to gather information that some of us were uncomfortable with after last Thursday.”
Philips said the county commissioners wanted to review that information before committing to put the major item on the agenda of the board’s Sept. 7 meeting.
“But you have rules,” Bencini said, “and my understanding of the rules of the county is that any commissioner can make that request to be on the agenda.”
Phillips responded, “If that happens – I have not heard a request formally made – then that is in fact the case.”
Which was when another bombshell dropped: Guilford County Commissioner Carlvena Foster – a big stadium project proponent who serves on the GCEDA leadership board, and who represents much of High Point on the Board of Commissioners – dropped this one: “I did make that request to put it on the agenda,” Foster said.
“Well, I’ve not seen it,” said Phillips, who was noticeably surprised by the revelation. The chairman of the Board of Commissioners, as Phillips now is, is almost always the one who has say over the agenda, and commissioners nearly always go through the chairman to set the agenda. However, there’s a rarely used rule that allows any commissioner to put an item on the agenda whether the chairman thinks it is time for it or not.
The Guilford County clerk to the board’s office said this week that it was, in fact, a rule of procedure. The clerk also confirmed that Foster had made the request to the clerk’s office.
At the meeting, when Foster made the revelation, Bencini jumped in and said, “I just don’t understand the difficulty of getting …”
“Thank you, Bill,” Phillips interjected tersely, seeming to suggest that this was now internal county business between himself and Foster and not the concern of the High Point mayor.
Chairman of the High Point Economic Development Corporation Ken Smith decided to jump in to offer Bencini some support. Smith, a partner with Smith Leonard Accountants & Consultants, is a key player in many High Point development efforts and is a big supporter of the stadium project.
“I agree a 100 percent with Bill,” Smith said.
He said High Point now has the opportunity to move forward on the project and High Point University President Nido Qubein was helping raise $38 million in private investment to help develop the area around the stadium.
“For us to turn down that kind of thing when there’s no real risk is just utterly ridiculous to me,” he said.
Phillips stated, “I see an assumption that it will be turned down at this point.”
“There seems to be one,” Smith replied.
Bencini and Phillips then began talking over one another with Bencini criticizing Phillips’ stance at the commissioners work session a week earlier and Phillips maintaining that city officials were only assuming that the county would vote no.
“That’s what the purpose of a work session is,” Phillips said.
“Oh, to provide a way to say no?” Bencini shot back.
“To discuss and ask questions or otherwise – that’s exactly what happened,” Phillips said. “You were on our board working closely with me for two years – that should be no surprise.”
Before Bencini was elected mayor of High Point in November 2014, he served with Phillips on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. When Bencini was chairman of that board, Phillips served on several high profile committees and the two men worked closely together.
However, they were anything but in agreement on this morning and most of the people in the room just sat and watched like guests at an awkward dinner party in a home after the host couple breaks out into an argument right in front of them.
Bencini said Phillips keeps talking about “needing to digest some information” but, Bencini added, “The next thing I know the information packet that was presented to you, you gave up to another member of the High Point City Council. So I don’t know what the burning need to digest the information was – if you didn’t even keep it.”
At the August 17 work session, High Point City Councilmember Cynthia Davis – the only High Point city councilmember who voted against the stadium project – said she didn’t have a copy of the packet so Phillips gave her his.
“Now you know the truth on that matter, Bill, I’ve explained it, ” Phillips said.
“Well, you didn’t try to hide it – I understand that,” Bencini said.
“No,” Phillips said. “The truth is I had another copy before the end of the meeting, which I indicated to you. I’ve gone through the entire report, which was frankly inadequate in regard to some of the details I’ve spoken to privately. We’ll leave it at that for now.”
Phillips added that this wasn’t the time or place for the two of them to be having this discussion.
Bencini reminded Phillips that Foster had already put the item on the agenda so the board would hear it at the Sept. 7 meeting.
There was an uncomfortable silence and Cone Health CEO Terry Akin, the chairman of the GCEDA Leadership Group, had the unpleasant job of stepping in and saying something.
“I would just affirm as your chairman our collective belief – certainly my strong belief – and I think I speak for other colleagues around the room, that we are absolutely stronger together,” Akin said. “We have taken amazing ground this last two years in terms of genuine forthright transparent collaboration. I would like to believe that whatever process would play out and bring this to closure would be in the spirit of that continued collaboration.”
After the meeting, Phillips said he didn’t appreciate the way Bencini chose to convey his dissatisfaction at the GCEDA meeting.
“Obviously, I am disappointed and frankly it was a bad choice of timing and venue,” Phillips said. “At this point it makes no sense to use strong-arm tactics.”
Phillips said it wouldn’t surprise him if some county commissioners, after learning what had happened, were less inclined to approve High Point’s request.
Phillips said the Board of Commissioners is deliberative and is very protective of taxpayer money and the welfare of the citizens and, when High Point is asking for the board of 20-year multimillion-dollar commitment, he would expect advocates of the program to understand that.
“I appreciate his frustration but the blame doesn’t lie with the commissioners,” Phillips said.
As to Bencini’s assertion that the issue could cause the dissolution of the GCEDA, Phillips said, “I’m not going to comment on that at this time.”
Bencini said after the meeting that some High Point officials were aware he was going to make the comments.
“I shared with staff that I was going to do this,” Bencini said.
He said there was a feeling among High Point officials that the message should be conveyed after hearing comments that some commissioners made at the work session.
“By the negative comments I heard, and others heard, our interpretation was that we’re not going to get the support we want and so it came down to me making the statement in the proper forum,” Bencini said.
He said it was an economic development issue and that made the GCEDA meeting an appropriate place for the comments.
Bencini said High Point would help support any similar project from others in the county.
“Any jurisdiction that comes to the city with a project as well developed as this one – we’re for it,” the High Point mayor said.
Phillips and Foster were seen in involved discussion in the parking lot of the Cameron Campus after the GCEDA meeting.
Guilford County, the City of Greensboro and the City of High Point spent nearly two years planning and putting together GCEDA, which, since late 2015, has attempted to bring new business to the county and grow existing businesses through a collaborative effort.
GCEDA was formed in November 2015 and the new organization has an annual budget of about $300,000. Each year the group receives $100,000 for each member: Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County.
Decisions of the group are made by the eight-member Leadership Group that includes elected officials and managers from the three local governments, as well as lead economic development officials in the county.