High Point leaders are tired of watching the Guilford County commissioners “prance and preen around” when it comes to financing a major downtown baseball stadium project, and High Point’s elected officials are taking their ballpark and going home.
That is, they’re now going to find a way to fund the initiative without any help from the Guilford County commissioners. High Point leaders say they would still like for Guilford County to help fund the “Downtown Catalyst Project” – a major public initiative meant to revitalize downtown with a multi-use stadium. But a special High Point City Council meeting scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 19, along with recent comments by elected officials in High Point, make it crystal clear that they are through waiting for a decision by the county commissioners.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners, like the High Point City Council, have a meeting scheduled for Oct. 19; however, there’s nothing related to the High Point project on the commissioners’ agenda, and there’s also no indication when the commissioners expect to make a decision on stadium funding.
The Oct. 19 High Point City Council meeting is being held to examine options of paying for the project without $11.1 million in county funds. Comments made by High Point City Council Member Latimer Alexander make it clear that High Point is no longer counting on Guilford County to help pay for the publicly funded $35 million stadium that’s in the works.
In the Saturday, Oct. 14 issue of The High Point Enterprise, Alexander was quoted as saying: “The city has always had the ability to do it on its own. We have asked Guilford County to participate, but I believe their strategy is just to play it out to the end of the time frame and go, ‘We would have done it, but you rushed it.’ I’m tired of listening to them pontificate, watching them prance and preen around like they have some special abilities. The citizens of High Point are tired of it.”
In the weeks leading up to that comment, High Point officials told the county commissioners that they needed a decision from the county very soon and four Guilford County Commissioners – Skip Alston, Alan Branson, Hank Henning and Alan Perdue, did meet with top staff on Thursday, Oct. 12 to discuss financing options. However, recent events make it clear that things aren’t moving remotely fast enough for High Point stadium backers. The stadium – meant for baseball and other sports, concerts and special events – is the centerpiece of the initiative projected to spur private development and increase property values and foot traffic in downtown High Point.
In the past month, High Point leaders have been especially upset by a vote by the commissioners to delay a decision for 60 to 90 days, an email from Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips explaining the many other pressing matters that are currently on the board’s plate, and the failure of Guilford County to establish an official committee to meet with a four-person committee that High Point formed to discuss the matter.
On Thursday morning, Oct. 12 – two days before Alexander’s comments were published – the four Guilford commissioners met with county staff in the Old Guilford County Court House to see what, if anything, the county was willing to do to help finance the High Point project. Henning said some options were discussed.
“There was legitimate discussion about whether there is something we could do to participate,” Henning said.
But Henning added that Alexander’s comments over the weekend certainly didn’t help High Point’s cause.
Henning said he found Alexander’s remark that High Point could pay for the stadium without county help was interesting given that, in the past, High Point officials have said the opposite – that county funding was absolutely critical.
“It’s very confusing,” Henning said. “At first they tell us that if we don’t participate it dies, and then they say we’ve been able to do it on our own all along. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Henning said this is more of the same thing that the commissioners have been getting in recent months from High Point – mixed messages along with a demand that the county hurry up and decide.
“It’s like it’s a poker match,” Henning said. “But it certainly doesn’t make us more likely to participate.”
He also said that the manner in which High Point has made the request and responded to the county’s desire for more time has created totally unnecessary “drama” around the issue. Henning said High Point “showed up on our doorstep” in August asking for a long-term commitment for over $11 million and a vote on that by early September. He said High Point officials were taken aback when the commissioners had concerns and questions. Henning said this is a major project that requires a great deal of examination.
“The most bizarre thing is that it’s a $40 million project and they are asking for the money like it’s someone saying, ‘Hey, can you spare a couple of bucks?’” Henning said.
High Point Mayor Bill Bencini said this week that High Point leaders still want to see financial help from the county but they simply can’t wait for a decision that has already been a very long time coming.
“There’s no question about it,” Bencini said of High Point wanting the county to participate in the financing. “But they’re taking too much time. They don’t have much sensitivity to our schedule. We want to open it in 2019.”
The mayor said that at this point the city has no choice but to plan to move forward on its own. He said that to do so without county participation would mean that High Point would have to put off some other projects it really needs, but the stadium project is so important the city will put those off if it has to.
“We are hopeful to get the commissioners to jump on board,” Bencini said of potential county funding that looks less likely all the time given the escalation of words between the High Point leaders and the county commissioners.
The mayor said the point has been all along that, though High Point has the ability to do the project without county money, it is an issue of fairness: Guilford County will be a major beneficiary when it comes to the increased revenue, so the county should help in the financing.
Bencini also said that the recent elections in High Point, where pro stadium candidates did very well, were one more indication the city is solidly behind the project.
An editorial in the Sunday, Oct. 15 High Point Enterprise made that same point. The piece, called “A message in the results,” concluded with this: “On Tuesday, High Point in effect had a referendum on whether its citizens support the downtown stadium plan. And that answer was a resounding, Yes! We hope Guilford County commissioners saw that and soon will join in supporting the stadium project and the plan to revitalize downtown High Point.”
Bencini said that, given commitments by private developers, High Point is already “halfway” toward the goal of increasing the downtown area’s tax values by $100 million.
Since mid-August, elected officials, business leaders and others in High Point have been pushing for the county commissioners to meet and either approve a financing method proposed by High Point or quickly come up with an alternative financing plan that fills the same purpose.
High Point officials at first requested the Guilford County commissioners approve a tax increment funding (TIF) plan and later asked for a “synthetic TIF” – a variation of that form of financing based on an interlocal agreement that commits the county to sharing future county tax revenues from High Point’s downtown.
High Point wants the county to approve a plan that designates a downtown TIF district that covers 649 acres around the proposed stadium. Under that proposed TIF-like method, most of Guilford County’s portion of any increase in tax revenues in the designated area would go toward stadium repayment for up to 20-years – until $11.1 million was paid.
Last week, one High Point business leader told a county commissioner that the project’s financing could possibly work with $9 million in county contributions in the coming years rather than the $11.1 million that would have resulted in High Point’s initial ask. Now the conversation is more awkward since High Point is ready to move ahead with no county funds and Alexander stated that High Point can do it on its own.
At the Oct. 12 meeting of county officials, the four commissioners were joined by Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing, Finance Director Reid Baker and County Attorney Mark Payne to discuss options behind closed doors.
While High Point officials have been asking for $11.1 million from the county – roughly 20 percent of the estimated $55 million payback of the loan with interest – Alston said hours after the meeting that it was becoming evident that High Point cannot expect to get everything it wants from the county.
“I think it’s going to have to take some give and take, some compromise, on the amount,” Alston said.
Some commissioners may be less inclined to do anything at all given that High Point is forming financing plans that don’t include Guilford County money.
Branson said after the meeting that any decision by the commissioners “will probably be after the first of the year,” and Bencini, when told of that comment, said it was all the more reason High Point had to look for alternative funding methods.
High Point leaders have been saying all along that this is a highly time-sensitive project and that a commitment from a Bridgeport Connecticut baseball team to play in the stadium depends on the ballpark opening in spring of 2019.
Also, High Point officials are hoping to bring a financial plan to a state financial oversight committee – the Local Government Commission (LGC) in early December. All loans and other debt obligations of this size and nature taken on by local governments in North Carolina must get LGC approval.
While High Point had planned all along to use the county as a partial funding source, the county commissioners never signed on and, when, in mid-August, they were asked to do so, High Point officials got a host of questions and concerns from the Board of Commissioners rather than the stamp of approval for the $11.1 million in future revenues that city officials were hoping for.
Branson explained some of the county commissioners’ concerns that were expressed at the Oct. 12 meeting. He said two of those issues were that the county’s payback period is too long and the area where the county would give up future tax revenues is too large.
“I don’t like 20 years,” Branson said. “I don’t like 649 acres.”
Henning also said those were two of the main concerns expressed at that meeting. The 649-acres district is a large swath of High Point’s downtown and Henning said some of that area is already showing signs of growth. So it’s not clear, he said, as High Point leaders claim, that the county will lose nothing by adopting High Point’s proposal.
Henning said that, to take one example, there is a large expensive showroom under construction in the area that the county would lose taxes on under High Point’s proposal, even though construction on that building is already underway.
“There is growth taking place right now,” Henning said.
High Point officials argue there will be no growth in the downtown area over the next two decades without the stadium project. In fact, they contend, property values will continue to decline.
Henning also said that a TIF or synthetic TIF, as High Point has asked for, was something brand new to the Board of Commissioners.
“I never knew what a TIF was until they started talking about it,” Henning said.
One thing that county officials learned in the process is that TIF financing cannot be used for “stadiums, arenas, golf courses, swimming pools, wading pools, or marinas” according to the legislation. There is more leeway with a synthetic TIF, the type of financing that High Point is now asking for.
Several commissioners pointed out this week that Guilford County often provides more traditional economic incentives for projects, but those never amount to anywhere near $11 million.
Phillips wasn’t at the Oct. 12 meeting but he said the board has been examining whether there can be some agreement by the majority of the commissioners.
Phillips said that establishing a TIF is not “consistent with our former practices,” and he added that the commissioners “need to be very cognizant” of the way they use taxpayer money for economic development projects.
“I think we run the risk of setting a new precedent,” Phillips said.
Several commissioners have stated over the last two months that one concern regarding entering into this type of agreement with High Point is that other local governments and backers of major initiatives will ask for the same type of arrangement. Both Henning and Alston have said it’s been made known to them that others are already waiting in line to make similar requests of the county.
Phillips said High Point presented their plan in August but there was very little to suggest High Point was willing to negotiate. Several commissioners said High Point leaders appeared to have had a “take it or leave it” attitude since the beginning.
Phillips added he’s been surprised there hasn’t been more effort by High Point leaders to contact him after the Sept. 21 vote by the board to put off a decision.
“Nobody has called me on the phone and said, ‘Let’s talk,’” Phillips said.
Commissioner Kay Cashion said she wants Guilford County to find a way to help with the stadium but, she added, one concern she has is that High Point’s request is a very large one. She said 20 years is a long time to give up additional revenues from a large part of High Point’s downtown.
“This is a big decision for us,” Cashion said. “I would like to see us working something out if we can. That area definitely needs something and a lot of work has gone into this project.”
Cashion said any hesitance on the part of the commissioners to adopt High Point’s initial proposal should in no way be taken to indicate that the commissioners don’t want the project to succeed. She said that the hesitation was merely the board exercising due diligence before making a major financial decision with far-reaching consequences.