HIGH POINT — Over the past two years, civic and government leaders here committed themselves to some rather herculean tasks:
• Turn a blighted section of downtown into a thriving cultural and economic hub — without raising taxes.
• Build a $30 million baseball stadium to drive that development — without asking property owners to pay for it.
• Raise $38 million from private investors for the baseball team, and a nearby children’s museum, event center and park — in four months.
Thousands of phone calls, meetings and pages of feasibility studies later — they believe they’ve figured out a way to make it all happen.
High Point wants to pour $83 million of public and private money into 11.5 acres downtown just west of North Main Street.
The city has pledged $15 million for land — it has already bought most of it — and plans to borrow another $30 million to build the baseball stadium.
High Point University President Nido Qubein, who in May promised to raise another $38 million for the team and surrounding amenities, is expected to announce Wednesday that he is close to the goal.
Qubein also said he’ll recruit investors to build apartments, offices, restaurants and shops, creating the potential for at least $99 million in new development over 10 years.
There’s even a target date for the first pitch: spring 2019.
The High Point contingent needs just one more thing — five things, actually — to put the plan into action:
“Yes” votes from Guilford County commissioners.
And that’s proving to be the biggest challenge of all.
High Point is asking Guilford County to forgo any extra tax revenue generated by new development in a 649-acre zone around the stadium. The money would help High Point pay off the $30 million loan for up to 20 years — or less if the pace of development surpasses their estimate.
Guilford County risks nothing, the boosters say, since the plan guarantees as much tax revenue as the county already receives. If the project fails, they say, High Point leaders will have to figure out how to repay the loan, not county commissioners.
“What is it that the county commissioners have to lose?” asked Qubein in an interview this week. “What is the risk?
“This is an opportunity we must capture, because if we don’t, then High Point may not regenerate itself for decades.”
Most of the nine commissioners are skeptical, Democrats and Republicans alike.
Two weeks ago, a meeting between the sides to discuss the proposal went badly, with only Commissioner Carlvena Foster of High Point offering unqualified support.
Minutes from the Aug. 17 meeting show that commissioners raised numerous objections:
There should be a bond referendum, Commissioner Justin Conrad said.
The timing’s not quite right, Chairman Jeff Phillips said.
If the project fails, taxpayers will end up footing the bill, Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said.
Stunned by the lack of enthusiasm, High Point Mayor Bill Bencini later said at a meeting of the countywide Economic Development Alliance that the city might leave the group if commissioners don’t agree to the plan.
Since then, High Point leaders moved quickly to sway the commissioners — meeting to answer questions, providing copies of a half-dozen feasibility studies, offering compromises that would lessen the county’s contribution of new tax revenue.
Their effort didn’t have the intended effect.
Qubein, Bencini and others had hoped to ask commissioners to approve the plan Thursday.
Instead, commissioners are expected to vote to hold a public hearing Sept. 21.
“If there is any new or additional information High Point city staff, city council members, and High Point citizens would like to provide to the commissioners between now and Thursday evening, we will happy to receive it,” Phillips said Friday in an email to the News & Record.
“Our board’s decision on whether or not to approve a public hearing on the matter will dictate any next steps. I cannot speculate one way or another as to how that vote will go since there are still several days for commissioners to consider any information they have received or may receive until then.”
Phillips didn’t return calls this week, and didn’t respond to an attempt to ask follow-up questions about his email.
Phillips was one of seven commissioners who didn’t respond to questions about their objections to the High Point plan. Conrad, Coleman, Foster, Kay Cashion, Hank Henning and Alan Perdue didn’t return calls and emails this week.
Commissioner Alan Branson accused High Point leaders of rushing forward with something neither the county nor the public properly vetted. He said High Point should have consulted with them from the get-go, and complained that they’ve had trouble getting information about the plan.
“We haven’t been at the table quite long enough, and now they have our backs up against the wall,” he said. “We have questions that should have been answered six to eight months ago.”
Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston said he wants to find a reason to vote “yes,” but is worried that the average resident will carry the burden if the project fails.
“The citizens of High Point are cosigners,” Alston said. “If it doesn’t work like they say it’s going to work, (the taxpayers) are the ones who are going to have to pay for it.”
Branson wonders what happens if development takes off in the zone — and the county has pledged away the extra tax revenue it needs to pay for increased services in the area.
“If the area grows and develops, that puts a substantial impact on services that Guilford County, by law, has to offer” in that area, he said, noting the county’s responsibility to pay for schools, health services and the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office.
The commissioners’ opposition has both disappointed and puzzled High Point leaders.
They’re particularly confused by the accusation that they haven’t shared information with High Point residents.
Leaders of the downtown economic development group Forward High Point, which was created with this project in mind, say they’ve talked up their plan from one end of the city to another.
Executive director Ray Gibbs and others have spent the last year pitching the project to community groups — realtor and developer associations, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, the Neighborhood Leadership Council, the High Point NAACP.
Bencini noted the plan’s conservative financial estimates, based on slow growth in the 649-acre zone and below Atlantic League-average attendance at baseball games.
“We didn’t want to make it look pretty,” Bencini said of the plan. “We intended to say, ‘Here it is, under the worst-case scenario, and it still seems to work.’ ”
Doyle Early, chairman of Forward High Point’s board of directors, said leaders would be hard-pressed to create a better plan.
“The city and Forward High Point have done their due diligence,” said Early, an attorney with Wyatt Early Harris Wheeler in High Point. “We have put together a good, solid plan to spur economic development. It has been a perfect example of public/private partnerships.
“After all of that has been digested, it’s not just about economic development. This changes High Point.”
If commissioners ultimately vote “no,” those leaders must decide how — or if — the project can proceed.
Gibbs sits in on construction meetings twice a week, and said a significant delay could jeopardize the 2019 opening date and possibly scare off investors Qubein may have lined up.
“We’ve worked really hard,” Gibbs said. “I don’t forsee us giving up.
“Would it set us back? Probably.”
Qubein is still planning to update the community Wednesday on his progress with fundraising, buying the team, securing naming rights and promoting private development in the area.
More than 800 people have signed up to attend, he said.
The man whose fortune and fame comes in part from a career as a motivational speaker said the good news is that commissioners haven’t said “no.”
“I’m sincerely hopeful that they will say ‘yes,’” he said. “But in the interim, (they) are not showing a lot of enthusiasm and are showing an ample dose of resistance.”