The City of High Point has high hopes that, in the not too distant future, area residents will be saying, “Take me out to the ball park.”
A large new $30 million downtown baseball project is the centerpiece of a massive redevelopment effort now being planned for one of the most economically distressed sections of downtown High Point, and city officials are undertaking, with verve, a plan to finance the stadium and bring hotels, restaurants, apartments, businesses and vitality to the area.
At a High Point City Council meeting on Monday, April 3, the council voted 8 to 1 to move forward on the plan.
High Point Mayor Bill Bencini said this week that, while there’s been a lot of focus on the new stadium, this project goes way beyond that.
“It’s not about baseball,” Bencini said. “It’s about development.”
The mayor said that the new stadium is just the high-profile cornerstone of a project that’s meant to reduce downtown blight and put something into vacant lots and empty buildings in an 11-acre zone that largely sits south of North Main Street, west of Martin Luther King Drive, north of Lindsay Street and east of Gatewood Avenue – though some of the new development will happen on connected lots around that central area if the plan is successful. The pitching mound of the new baseball field would be near the front entrance of the former High Point Enterprise building.
Bencini said that, for two weeks out of the year, when the international furniture market is in town, downtown High Point is hopping, but there’s little to no activity there during the rest of the year.
“It’s like a vacant movie set,” Bencini said. “It looks good, but there’s no people there. Nothing’s boarded up – it’s just dead.”
The mayor used another description of the area as well: “It’s a ghost town.”
According to Bencini, the City of High Point and Forward High Point – an organization established “to transform downtown High Point into an extraordinary and vibrant destination to live, work, study and play” – are working together on the new project. High Point and Forward High Point now control – through options or ownership – about 80 percent of the property that would be involved. City leaders say that means High Point will have a lot of control over how the development takes place.
Bencini said the effort is meant to totally overhaul the 11-acre downtown that’s poorly maintained in parts and largely abandoned. Recently, Bencini gave the Rhino Times a tour of the area and he pointed out site after site that was either unused or used only rarely.
Bencini, Assistant City Manager Randy Hemann and Forward High Point Vice Chair Sims Hinds said the project has used very conservative estimates for its financing projections and that the backers have been in consultation with area developers since one of the city’s main goals is to make the area attractive for new investment and new development.
Hemann said the project will have multiple funding sources. According to current plans, money to fund the stadium will come from the annual lease of the ballpark and a facility fee and parking fee that will both be included in event ticket prices. There would also be money from the stadium naming rights – estimated to bring in $3 million – and additional revenues from city property taxes that will come with an increase in property values that city leaders expect to see when more development occurs in the area.
High Point officials say that they’ve witnessed increased development in downtown Greensboro anchored by a minor league ballpark and they would like the see the same thing happen in the county’s second largest city.
Hemann said the project is meant to “jump start” economic development in the vastly underused area. He also said that, with concerts, banquets, baseball games and other events at the stadium – along with the furniture market – High Point’s downtown should be vibrant year round. He added that the baseball game schedule wouldn’t conflict with the furniture market.
Hinds also said the project in meant to transform the area. He said other stadiums in central North Carolina have been successful, but project backers wanted to be very objective about the prospects for similar success in downtown High Point.
“We asked, ‘Is there enough of a there there in High Point?’” Hinds said.
He said a firm formed by Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and the late George Steinbrenner, former owner of the New York Yankees – had been consulted on the project, and he added that all indications are that the stadium in downtown High Point can be a success.
“People support their home teams,” Hinds said. “It’s a social night.”
Hemann said that, when High Point began the project, a representative of the Atlantic League cold-called the city about providing a team. About 40 percent of the players in that league have played in the major leagues. The league has teams in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states.
Hinds said the baseball game is often secondary to the socializing in the sun or under the stars that goes on at area stadiums. Many patrons, he said, won’t care about baseball but will care about a cold beer from a local brewery or mingling with other area residents.
Hinds said High Point is being extremely conservative in its projections of how many people the Atlantic League team will pull in, so, if the city errs in the numbers, it is likely on the side of caution. For instance, project planners are estimating an average attendance of 2,500 people at games – hundreds less than the lowest average attendance of any team in the Atlantic League. Teams in that league averaged 4,184 in attendance, with the worst average attendance for any team being 2,916.
The planned stadium will be smaller than most to keep costs down. The stadium will have a capacity of just under 5,000 and feature eight luxury boxes.
Backers say the increase in downtown patrons will also help bring money from beer sales and vendors, and raise money for church groups selling parking.
The project also ties in with other needs of the city and its occupants –needs that developers would hopefully choose to meet. Apartments in the downtown zone, for instance, would fill a housing need for High Point University graduate students and faculty as well as needs for medical workers with jobs nearby.
“Virtually every developer told us the apartments would come first,” Hinds said.
City officials say they’re also optimistic a new hotel will be built in the development zone, followed perhaps by a second hotel later.
One of the next steps for High Point is to ask the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to approve one part of the revenue stream.
Though much of the projected costs will be covered by other revenue sources, the city plans to ask the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to create a tax increment funding (TIF) zone covering the area, which would allow Guilford County’s portion of the increase in tax revenues to go toward stadium repayment for a 20-year period.
High Point officials estimate that the new project will increase the city’s tax base in the development zone by $99 million after 10 years. The total value for that area right now is $805 million, which is projected to rise to $904 million over a decade. Cities don’t pay property taxes so a High Point-owned stadium wouldn’t generate any new tax revenue by itself, but backers are hoping that the expected new development around that stadium would increase the tax base by the $99 million.
High Point will collect added city tax revenue if that projection materializes, but city officials want Guilford County officials to allow the county’s tax proceeds on the added value to go toward stadium funding. High Point officials argue that Guilford County isn’t losing anything by making the commitment because there will almost certainly only be added property value in that area if that stadium is built. Guilford County will still keep the tax revenue it’s now collecting on the current value of the property in the zone and, after a 20-year period, that revenue from additional tax values will revert back to the county.
Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis said that the county doesn’t currently have any similar arrangements with other local governments but he said he was aware that a TIF request from High Point may be in the works, so it is on his radar.
“I’ve heard it will probably be coming,” Chavis said.
It’s not clear whether the Guilford County Board of Commissioners will go along with High Point’s wishes or not, but the fact that Bencini served on the board until 2012 may help the cause.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said he met with Bencini and other High Point officials last week to get a better idea of what was involved and to discuss the city’s financing proposal.
“It was a good discussion to bring me up to speed,” Philips said of that talk.
The chairman also said he respects High Point’s analysis of the situation but he wants to hear more details from area developers who were consulted.
“One slide suggested that 10 to 12 developers had indicated some level of interest,” Phillips said of the presentation he received from High Point leaders.
He said he wanted to get more input from developers, which include the usual suspects such as Marty Kotis, Samet Corporation and Roy Carroll, the publisher of the Rhino Times.
“I told them that, for me to warm up to the idea of the county getting involved, I would like to have more direct input from developers regarding what level of commitment they would have,” Phillips said.
High Point officials say the county has nothing to lose – that “there’s no skin off the commissioners’ noses” – because, if the project is a bust, Guilford County still ends up collecting the money it was getting before in tax revenue since the proposed TIF would only mean that the revenue from additional growth goes to pay off the stadium.
Bencini said there really isn’t a downside for Guilford County, but Phillips said that there are several considerations at play.
“For me, if I’m going to be asked to sign off on something, it’s more than just financial,” Phillips said. “There’s an integrity element.”
Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning represents much of the High Point area and he said he’s studying the TIF proposal closely.
“It’s an interesting project,” Henning said of the stadium and development project.
Henning said the stadium is the city’s call, but the TIF is something for the commissioners to consider.
“I’m not voting on the project – I’m voting on the financing method,” Henning said. “There’s a lot of dialogue that has to take place. Are their circumstances where incremental financing will work? I need more information.”
High Point officials say both the city and the county will benefit from a rejuvenated downtown area.
Bencini said he’s optimistic about the prospects for success and said the city has found an excellent site where much of the property was already up for sale or little used. He said two other sites were seriously considered, but amassing property in those areas would have been very difficult.
At the High Point City Council April 3 meeting, the City Council approved a budget amendment to use $15 million in city reserves and, by way of internal loans, to move forward with land purchases and site design. The council also authorized the manager to proceed with development of a financing plan and to seek county participation through the TIF.
Bencini said it’s been decades since High Point has had a year-round lively core.
“We had a viable downtown until the ’70s,” Bencini said. “Then the malls came in and everything went away. It happened overnight.”
The redevelopment project is largely a result of a 2015 study of blight and abandoned houses in High Point. The city is spending $400,000 this year on nuisance abatement and demolition. That blight causes a drop in home values, which decreases the tax values and increases the crime rate, which in turn places a greater demand on city services.
In one somewhat related effort, High Point has been buying rundown property acquired by Guilford County through forfeiture proceedings and Bencini praised the way Guilford County had been working with the city in that regard.