Festival conceived as a cultural foundation for economic development

by Jordan Green

Reports of High Point’s impending demise might be premature.

The Triad’s third-largest city lacks the fine-dining districts of, say, a West 4th Street in Winston-Salem or South Elm Street in Greensboro. It can’t boast the concentration of galleries and art studios that its two larger neighbors have, despite the longstanding relationship with furniture and design. (That the Furniture Market has priced artists and other cultural entrepreneurs out of downtown real estate is part of the issue and another story in itself.) And live music, particularly the original kind, is sporadic in High Point, relative to Winston-Salem and Greensboro, which have a number of established venues.

Four days after High Point voters elected a new mayor and city council, Ryan Saunders was patrolling a cordoned-off block of West Dayton Avenue and the parking lot between the Uptowne Tavern and Wells Fargo Advisors in a Carolina Panthers jersey, frantically finalizing details of the Release the Youth Music and Arts Festival.

A young woman with a winsome voice performed on a small stage towards the back of the parking lot. Winston Gilley, an energetic DJ from Charlotte, prepared to introduce the next act in his role as emcee. Painters Siobhan Shene and Patch Whisky respectively from upstate South Carolina and Savannah, Ga. milled around their booths. Youngsters played cornhole near the patio of the Uptowne Tavern. And a handful or so of painters and photographers from the High Point Fine Art Guild populated the liberated section of West Dayton Avenue.

Conceived and executed by Saunders, the festival was a fundraiser for Create Your City, an online magazine he is developing.

“We formed a partnership with the High Point University journalism department,” said the 25-year-old Saunders, who works for his family’s electrical-contracting business. “The purpose of the magazine is to create a platform for people — particularly young people — to share their ideas and revitalize our city. I may not be able to open my own music venue, but I can put on a music event.”

Saunders admitted disappointment in the outcome of the election, having backed Coy Williard for mayor. But mayor-elect Bernita Sims is a supporter of City Project, one of a number of revitalization efforts in the city, so Saunders said he sees some cause for optimism. Yet overall he sees the incumbents who were re-elected after serving a decade or so on council as unlikely to embrace new patterns of urban development to build the cultural assets of the city and retain talented young people.

After graduating from college in 2010, Saunders spent some time in New York City and Charleston, SC, where he was inspired by the sheer number of people trying to make their creative marks. He brought that spirit of ambition back when he returned to his native High Point.

“I’m really interested in urban planning and development, but at this time I don’t have the resources to do that,” he said. “So I have to be creative.”

Saunders said the High Point Fine Art Guild came into the picture after he contacted Wendy Fuscoe, executive director of City Project. Fuscoe, in turn, directed him to Charity Belton, the guild president. In exchange for sponsoring the festival, guild members received free exhibit space.

Tammy McDowell, art advocate and liaison for the guild, excitedly showed off church pews painted by members and offered for sale to raise money to put a new roof on what’s known as the “Big Red Building” on historic Washington Street. Once a thriving African-American business center, Washington Street holds great potential as the city’s future arts district, as McDowell sees it. It would be hard to find a more enthusiastic evangelist for the city’s renaissance.

“There are so many pockets of people pushing forward,” Saunders said. “The biggest thing I’ve heard is that when everybody comes together you can see the progress. When people are working on their own they hit walls. So we want this magazine to bring people together.”