High Point candidates look to neighboring cities for ideas

by Jordan Green

The ballot for the High Point City Council — one of the rare North Carolina municipalities whose election is scheduled for even years — is gradually filling up.

The High Point electorate holds a reputation for low interest in municipal elections. The city is regarded as having a competent and professional staff.

As a result, perhaps, its elected leadership tends to be insular, entrenched and benevolent.

Consider that Becky Smothers has served as mayor since 1992, and on city council since 1977. In comparison, Keith Holliday was first elected mayor of Greensboro in 1999, and has had two more mayors come behind him.

There’s a worry in High Point that Guilford County’s second largest city is on the skids, with a manufacturing base that’s steadily eroding and population growth not exactly exploding. Few would question the dedication of longtime public servants such as Smothers and Latimer B. Alexander IV, and the city council is graduating John Faircloth to the NC House and Bill Bencini to the Guilford County Commission, but one senses that High Point could stand to have some new ideas breathed into its civic discourse.

“I love High Point, and I feel like it’s dying,” said Regina Chahal, a 47-year-old certified nursing assistant who has filed to run for one of the two at-large seats on council. “I want to bring it back to life. I care about people. I tend to people as part of my profession.”

Chahal switched careers from real estate to healthcare after her husband broke his back in a bulldozer accident. Maybe that’s a metaphor for High Point’s transformation.

It appears that most of the races will be contested. That includes the mayoral bracket, in which Smothers has said she’d like to have one more go at the job. In an e-mail, she joked that she “was a social worker about 100 years ago… been ‘employed’ by voters… and, if I don’t win I’ll be retired.”

Her challenger is Dwayne Hemingway- El, a self-described Moorish American who is suing Smothers and the city over a 2007 traffic incident because, he says, she reneged on an agreement to intervene to allow sect members to travel freely through High Point using Moorish tags instead of state-issued North Carolina tags. No doubt, the mayor recalls events differently.

As a candidate with an axe to grind against the city, Hemingway-El’s candidacy is likely to make the mayoral race an entertaining diversion. The seismic shifts appear to be taking place in the at-large race, in Ward 5 and in the Ward 6 race to replace Faircloth.

Geoffrey Shull, a 26-year-old medical textiles and garments sales representative, is emblematic of a new generation of candidates taking on the status quo. Shull is challenging incumbent Christopher M. Whitley, a 50-yearold builder.

Shull told me he thinks the city is “utilizing an economic development playbook from the last decade,” and that instead of focusing on shoring up the furniture industry, High Point should emulate the partnership between Wake Forest University and the city of Winston-Salem to develop a biotechnology industry cluster.

“I would love to see that in High Point,” Schull said, “I would love to see High Point partner very well with High Point University in pursuing new avenues of development. It’s a fact that our local economy has shifted, and we must realize that our furniture industry will not sustain us. Our economic development playbook needs to be rewritten.”

Will Armfield II, a financial advisor at Edward Jones who is also 26, echoed that sentiment, calling High Point University “a great leverage point.”

“It probably won’t be biotechnology that helps High Point thrive, but that is a great way to do the same thing here with a different industry,” he said.

Armfield initially filed for the Ward 6 race, but switched to the at-large contest after speaking with Ward 6 candidate Jason Ewing, and concluding their views were similar enough that they would likely split the vote. Armfield is now backing Ewing.

Armfield’s maneuver leaves Ewing with two opponents.

Gerald Grubb, a 65-year-old mortgage company owner, lost a primary election earlier this year to Faircloth in the contest to see who should replace Laura Wiley as the representative of the District 61 seat in the NC House. Jim Corey, a 72-year-old retired political science professor, ran unsuccessfully against Faircloth two years ago for the Ward 6 seat.

Corey describes himself as a conservative Republican, but his environmentalist positions locate him more on the progressive end of the spectrum. He advocates an effort to form a cluster of nonprofits and pursue federal grants to install solar panels on the roofs of homes and businesses so that the city can contribute to the energy grid.

“Let’s say we started getting serious about electric cars,” he said. “You’ll have to recharge them. Instead of building more coal-fired plants, every home would become an energy-producing platform.”

Corey’s environmental ideas make him an outlier in this brace of candidates, but one notion he shares with others is that the old formulas for job creation are outmoded.

“What’s not going to happen is a return of furniture manufacturing, textile manufacturing or, to be honest, tobacco,” he said. “Those were the old standbys. Those things are largely in the process of disappearing.”

Instead, High Point should focus on developing its small-business base by copying the model of the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship in Greensboro, he said.

“We need to have a High Point incubator to start up small businesses, give them a protective environment, give them administration, and then, when they’re a couple years old, boot them out.”