In this age when people are very much supposed to understand that no means no, the City of High Point absolutely refuses to take no for an answer.
High Point just got state approval to issue $35 million in limited obligation bonds to fund a new baseball stadium – a centerpiece of that city’s downtown rejuvenation project – but that approval came despite the fact that Guilford County didn’t respond to High Point’s calls to help fund it by contributing roughly $11 million in anticipated future tax revenue. High Point wanted that money to come from expected property tax revenue generated by development near the stadium.
Despite the fact that High Point now has a funding plan firmly in place, city leaders are still putting the moves on Guilford County commissioners in hopes that they can be wooed into cooperation.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners held its last scheduled meeting of 2017 on Thursday, Dec. 7, however, there wasn’t a peep out of the commissioners about the High Point stadium project until the very end of that meeting when Commissioner Carlvena Foster, who represents much of High Point, did finally bring it up.
“I remain hopeful that my colleagues on this board will become a part of this project,” she said, after pointing out that the loan had been approved by the Local Government Commission – a state oversight committee that by law must sign off on local government loans of this type before bond debt can be issued.
Like Foster, High Point city leaders still aren’t willing to take no for an answer. To be fair, that’s in part because the county has never given the city an official no – or even an official reply of any sort.
On Sept. 21, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to delay a decision on the proposal for the county to help repay the stadium loan. The motion that night, made by Commissioner Skip Alston and seconded by Commissioner Kay Cashion, both Democrats, called for the board “to postpone a vote on the Interlocal agreement for a period of 60 to 90 days.”
That 90-day “deadline” falls on Dec. 20, and the commissioners have no plans to meet again in 2017. So, officially, High Point still hasn’t heard back from Guilford County about its request, and it won’t hear anything else this year.
However, if a man asks a woman out repeatedly for four months straight and never gets a reply – well, that in itself is a reply, and not exactly a promising one.
Some commissioners don’t even want to discuss the matter anymore, and one, when asked about the possibility of the board taking an official vote on the matter, stated, “What’s the point in that?”
There currently aren’t enough votes to pass anything, the commissioner said, and the situation would have to change drastically before the Board of Commissioners would approve a request for support. Also, the county commissioners feel even less of a need to jump in with funding now that High Point has already been approved for the loan and begun the demolition of buildings on the stadium site.
On Tuesday, Dec. 5, the Local Government Commission approved the city’s request to issue $35 million in limited obligation bonds backed by the stadium as collateral. Though the City of High Point has a AAA rating on its debt, the bonds, which aren’t backed by the full faith and credit of the city, are expected to have a AA+ rating from Standard & Poor’s and an AA– from Fitch Ratings Inc.
One Local Government Commission staff member characterized the discussion at the meeting as a “very long” one. In the end, all but one Local Government Commission member voted to approve High Point’s request.
North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell, the chairman of the Local Government Commission, abstained from the vote.
Folwell explained why he did.
“My job as chair is to set the agenda and facilitate the discussion,” he said. “There were people who voiced concerns and I felt like it was an acknowledgement of those concerns.”
Folwell added that he wants to see the stadium and the associated downtown revitalization project turn out to be a big success and a real economic driver for the High Point area.
“There is no one who wants this to be a homerun for the taxpayers more than me,” Folwell said.
He said he thought the Local Government Commission meeting went well and that everyone expressed their viewpoints cordially. Commission members, he added, asked good questions and High Point representatives answered those questions.
“It was very thorough,” Folwell said of the discussion of the project at the meeting in Raleigh. “I thought it was a very healthy exchange.”
Former High Point Mayor Bill Bencini, who was replaced by new High Point Mayor Jay Wagner just one day before the Local Government Commission hearing, said he thought the city officials did a great job presenting the project to the commission.
He said one opponent, a High Point resident who contacted some commissioners to offer the members his objections, spoke against the project. However, after the discussion, the Local Government Commission voted to approve the plan, the only exception being Folwell’s abstention.
At the hearing, Wagner and High Point City Manager Greg Demko presented the financing plan. They had 20 minutes to make their case. Opponents were also allowed 20 minutes but the lone opponent didn’t take up all that time.
Bencini said the Local Government Commission asked why the Guilford County Board of Commissioners wasn’t participating in the loan payback. High Point officials stressed to the Local Government Commission that the financing could be done without the county’s help and added that the commissioners had voted in September to delay their decision for up to 90 days.
When asked, “What’s your biggest fear?” High Point officials said their biggest fear was doing nothing and seeing a continued decline in the value of downtown High Point property values.
Bencini said he was surprised by the number of questions the Local Government Commission asked about baseball team ownership.
He also said he was very happy to see the city get done with this major step. He pointed out that the city began tearing down a building on the site the Friday before the meeting as part of a big demolition party to celebrate the stadium. The former mayor said a large number of citizens came out for the event but said, interestingly, Foster was the only Guilford County commissioner who attended.
Bencini said Foster had been trying to get the commissioners to fund the project, and Alston had tried to help put a deal together as well. However, neither of them had gotten much traction with the rest of the board.
Bencini said Foster’s efforts where greatly appreciated even if the effort hadn’t been successful yet.
“She is now the hero of High Point,” the former mayor said.
Bencini said the next step was selling the bonds and breaking ground.
He also said he and others in High Point would still like to see the Guilford County Board of Commissioners vote to approve some county financing. He said the city is entitled to an up or down vote and said it’s possible Foster would make the motion and Alston would second it.
“It wouldn’t be right just to let it sit there forever,” Bencini said of the city’s stadium financing request to the county.
Alston said that, with High Point getting Local Government Commission approval and moving forward, the commissioners are unlikely to jump on board now.
“There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for it,” Alston said. “There’s no incentive at this point.”
He said High Point clearly doesn’t need county financing.
“They’re moving on,” Alston said.
Alston said, at one point earlier in the process, he felt a deal could bring High Point some, but not all, of what it was requesting from the county. However, he said, statements and moves by some High Point officials had not sat well with commissioners.
Wagner, for instance, wasn’t well received by the county commissioners when he spoke before the board in September and said that if the county didn’t support the project that could severely damage relations between the city and county.
“Basically, it was a threat,” Alston said of Wagner’s comments. “They went about it the totally wrong way.”
Several county commissioners hinted that, if Bruce Davis, a former Guilford County commissioner who’s now chairman of the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau board, had been elected mayor rather than Wagner, some of the rancor might have died down and the two local governments may have been able to find some common ground. Davis lost the election to Wagner by a slim margin.
Commissioner Justin Conrad, like Alston, said High Point had gone about asking the county in an abrasive and ill-advised way.
“Their idea to play it through the media was a very poor one,” Conrad said.
He said High Point officials seemed taken aback when Guilford County commissioners started asking questions about the project, and he added that he was alarmed when he discovered that the numbers on a report justifying the need for the project were wrong.
Conrad found the mistake when he took a close look at the property value numbers presented by High Point officials to show that downtown property values have been declining. In reality, the property values had gone down, but not by as much as stated in that report.
Guilford County commissioners even had some very harsh words – in public and in private – for their own county staff for not catching the mistakes before handing the information to the commissioners.
Conrad said the mistake was very obvious and not hard to find for anyone who took time to look through the spreadsheet. He said that made the commissioners wonder what other errors there might be in all the projections and calculations. He also wondered why the High Point city councilmembers had not noticed the mistakes.
Conrad added that scrutinizing the stadium proposal is really about the county commissioners doing their jobs and vetting projects carefully when taxpayer dollars are at stake.
“It’s not an ego thing,” he said. “It’s not a ‘kiss the ring’ thing.”
Conrad also pointed out that he and other commissioners would love to see the project be a roaring success and he wishes them the best. He also said he doesn’t think this issue will hurt other joint projects now in the works for the two local governments.
Conrad said he was dismayed that, at a recent Board of Commissioners work session to approve a new family justice center for High Point, no elected leaders from High Point attended.
He said the county is going to continue to do what’s in the best interest of citizens despite the tensions between the two local governments.
“I am not going to hold a grudge against 100,000 people because of the childish actions of a very few,” Conrad said.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips said that, if a future project that is related to High Point’s downtown rejuvenation projects comes to the Board of Commissioners seeking incentives, in the same way many projects have in the past, that request will, of course, get serious consideration.
“That’s how we do it,” he said. “If that happens, I’m all ears.”
Like Conrad, Phillips said he doesn’t want this one disagreement to damage the working relationship between Guilford County and High Point.
“I hope it doesn’t affect the ability of us to work together on key initiatives in the future,” Phillips said.