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Newcomers question city’s direction in High Point mayoral and at-large races

by Jordan Green

BY JORDAN GREEN jordan@yesweekly.com

High Point City Council might seem like an afterthought in an election year when North Carolina is bitterly contested between two major presidential candidates, but to those who live in and care about this battered and economically divided city, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The nine-member board is guaranteed at least three new faces.

Several fault lines have emerged over the cost of government, efforts to define and develop a city center and whether or not to crack down on derelict property owners.

After six terms as mayor, Becky Smothers has elected to run at large, providing an opportunity for two veteran council members, Bernita Sims and Chris Whitley, to compete to fill the vacancy. While ceding the top leadership position on council, the 73-year-old Smothers has made it clear that she wants to continue guiding the direction of council by advising the new mayor. And she has bristled at criticism from political newcomers who question whether the city is on the right track.

“The council that I’ve served on over the past few years has been concerned about building tax base, creating to the extent possible a favorable environment for job creation and over all encouraging economic development,” Smothers said. “And these are traditional roles of city government. Branching out into areas of speculative ventures that, while potentially exciting, is not necessarily in this economy something that can be afforded.”

Elijah Lovejoy, a 33-year-old pastor and events-company owner, argues that High Point is on the wrong track, having grown into one of the most expensive governments among cities of more than 100,000 people across the state while overall property values have deteriorated, particularly in downtown. Both trend lines compare unfavorably with neighboring Greensboro, where previous councils have asked staff to submit a menu of spending cuts and where downtown has flourished. Lovejoy is one of five candidates vying for the two at-large seats, along with Smothers.

“We’ve got to look at lowering our expenses and increasing our property values,” Lovejoy said. “Our property values have declined $439.5 million, or 4.7 percent, over the past three years. What’s happening is the turnip is getting smaller, so you’re having to squeeze that turnip harder and harder, i.e. you’re having to raise property taxes to get the same revenue.”

Lovejoy said he would support an economic development bond only after the city made significant spending cuts and then only if it didn’t require a tax increase to pay for it.

“It’s a two-pronged approach as well as what I’m calling a ‘grand bargain’ with voters,” he said. “On the front end, we’re going to make significant cuts to make our bottom line more competitive with other cities. After we’ve done that I would propose a bond referendum directed almost entirely at economic development, directed to investing in our geographic heart. To put it colloquially, I would say we need a geographic heart transplant.”

The purpose of the bond would be to study and implement measures to create a city center that would be able to attract people and investment similar to downtowns in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. In contrast to its larger neighbors, High Point’s downtown is monopolized by a furniture market that opens only two weeks out of the year but crowds out amenities that would attract residents.

Lovejoy noted that High Point has the highest tax rate in the state, but both Sims and Whitley, the two leading mayoral candidates, voted with Smothers to increase taxes in the current budget. So did Britt Moore, a one-term incumbent who is also running in the at-large race.

Lovejoy has organized Party on the Plank, a series of events designed to enhance the cultural life of central High Point, since 2009. He said that if elected to council he has made a commitment to not do any business with the city.

Sims, who has represented Ward 1 in the city’s east-central heart since 2003, would be the city’s first African-American mayor. If race proves to be a determining factor, she will reap the benefit of having two white newcomers, Coy Williard and Tammy Holyfield, whittle votes off the total of her strongest competitor, Whitley. A fifth candidate, Matthew Fowler Sr., has been virtually invisible during the campaign and could not be reached for this story.

The 52-year-old Whitley finds himself in a somewhat awkward position as a self-described conservative who says on his campaign website that he believes in “working to limit the taxes and fees that create a burden on the average household” while having served for the better part of 20 years on the governing board of the city with the highest tax rate in the state.

“I would say there’s an aspect of hype from certain groups that are not serving there,” Whitley said. “You have those who have been involved and experienced, and they know what the reality is. I think citizens understand that you don’t just put people in there who have no clue what’s going on.”

Cognizant that many voters will weigh between him and Sims as the two candidates with experience in municipal government, Whitley drew a strong distinction.

“My vision as to how the city should operate is more as an extension of making sure the citizens have the services, as opposed to Bernita’s concept of making government more intrusive,” he said. “My goal would be to loosen up a lot of restrictions. Bernita’s concept is that government should be involved, especially in housing.”

Whitley said he specifically differs with Sims on what to do about Meredith Street Apartments. Sims has taken up the cause of neighboring residents who have grown frustrated by the owner’s lack of progress.

“I hate tearing down businesses that are worth renovating,” Whitley said. “We need that type of affordable housing in that area of town.”

Sims said the city “has bent over backward” to work with the property owner, and that “the only tool in our toolbox is to go forward with an order to tear it down.”

“My largest concern is that it sits in the middle of a residential community, and these folks have their definite opinion about how it affects where they live,” Sims said. “I would ask Mr. Whitley if he would want this in his neighborhood. I would hazard a guess that he would not.”

Sims said that if elected mayor she would approach the NC General Assembly to try to get a local ordinance allowing the city to take properties into receivership if the owners fail to properly maintain them. The city could then sell the property to a developer at a nominal fee. When the properties were rehabilitated and sold at a profit, part of the profit would be returned to the original owner.

As to whether the city is on the right course, Whitley touts employment expansions by Ralph Lauren and Solstas Lab Partners, along with Stanley Furniture’s decision to relocate its headquarters to downtown High Point. Whitley, who currently represents Ward 5 in the affluent, suburban northwest corner of the city, said the city needs more dog parks and a skateboard parks, but doesn’t need to invest more on its greenway or on soccer and ball fields. He also said he favors cutting off funding to the City Project, a nonprofit that seeks to revitalize the city’s urban core. The candidate said the city has little to show for its investment, and many citizens don’t even understand the nonprofit’s purpose.

As a resident of High Point’s geographic center, Sims counts herself as a supporter of City Project.

“All the initiatives that we do — the Southwest Renewal Plan, the Uptown Plan, Washington Street — all of this is going to come together in a way that will help the whole city,” Sims said. “There are those who think that it is a wasted effort. I don’t agree with that. I live there.”

Sims said she would also like to make changes to the city’s election process so that members serve staggered four-year terms, allowing them to get up to speed not be distracted by elections every two years.

The candidate said High Point’s median family income that is slightly higher than in the neighboring cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem, but that High Point has a “wide disparity between the haves and have-nots” with areas of both concentrated poverty and concentrated wealth. She sees a need for education to help people improve English, math and computer skills so they can qualify for jobs that pay higher incomes.

“I’m just really wanting to see our city ratchet up a notch what we do,” Sims said. “I see a lot of room for improvement in our community. I think that I would like to take all that experience and that knowledge and use it in a leadership role to take our city to the next level.”

After six terms as mayor, Becky Smothers is stepping down to run at large. She has bristles at criticism by challengers about the direction of the city.

One of the newcomers attracted to the mayoral race is Tammy Holyfield, a 42-year-old business consultant who moved to High Point only days before she filed to run in July. Emphasizing her ties to the city, the candidate said she previously lived just outside the city’s corporate limits and held a High Point address. Her son attends Wesleyan Christian Academy in the city and much of her client base is in High Point.

Holyfield is asking many of the same critical questions that Lovejoy has raised.

“High Point pays the highest taxes of any urban city in North Carolina other than Chapel Hill, and we have the highest concentrated pocket of poverty in the state,” she said. “Our city manager makes $20,000 more than Greensboro’s city manager…. I’m questioning why we own a utility company. I think that comes from my consulting background. If you drive down the road in High Point, every other business is vacant; it’s devastating. There are so many people in city government making over $100,000 a year. How can we let that happen when so many people are hurting with the tax rate?” Holyfield acknowledged that her campaign hasn’t been as visible as she had initially hoped.

“I haven’t been aggressively campaigning,” she said.

“I’ve been aggressively studying.”

The candidate comes across in conversation as a quick study, and as someone who is approachable and eager to identify solutions and build coalitions. She is a fount of ideas about addressing homelessness and hunger; revitalizing Washington Street, the city’s historic African-American business district; and creating jobs by developing products and services beyond food and lodging to cater to the buyers who visit the city twice a year from all over the world.

“I always say that we are no greater than our weakest link,” Holyfield said. “I’m a registered Republican. I believe we’re going to get our own results. But I’m also a Christian. I have to always ask: How can I reach back to someone and show them that there’s a chance for a better life?” Williard, a 67-year-old general contractor, has never run for office before. But his civic leadership experience, including current and past positions on the GTCC board of trustees, the United Way of Greater High Point, the High Point Economic Development Corp., place him in the mainstream of the city’s business, philanthropic, educational and healthcare establishments.

Williard noted that he is “highly involved in the furniture industry” considering that his company builds furniture showrooms.

Williard said he has been traveling across the city this summer to hear what different groups of citizens have to say about High Point. He gives the sense that he would be an active cheerleader for the city. While noting that the city council has little to no role in education policy, he praised the principal of Oak Hill Elementary, a once struggling school that has realized improvements after the community rallied behind it and volunteers stepped up with their time.

“There’s one word that I would give to describe what the citizens have told me,” Williard said. “That word is ‘pride.’ Citizens want to have a more beautiful city. They want to have more recreation and more diversification as far as things to do, and hence have more pride.”

Williard’s political orientation is fairly conservative.

“We have to increase our tax base,” he said. “We will not reduce taxes unless we increase our tax base. That will be one of my main charges moving forward. We need to foster small business. Small business has proved to be the backbone of the economy.”

The candidate added that he would not support “a tax increase again for many years.”

Along with Smothers and Lovejoy, three other candidates are vying for the two at-large seats on council. The only incumbent seeking reelection is Britt Moore, who is finishing out his first term.

Moore said he has learned to respect the complexity of city government in his first term. The 49-year-old incumbent said his vote to raise taxes was a tough one, adding that the tax increase was revenue neutral. Almost 70 percent of homeowners saw their property values decline, Moore said, so that while the rate increased, more than two thirds of homeowners will see the actual amount of taxes they pay go down.

He also argued that the challengers’ focus on the tax rate doesn’t take into account the city’s schedule of fees, many of which are lower than other cities throughout the state.

“We’ve kept our credit rate in top-notch condition,” Moore added. “Our infrastructure is strong.”

The other two candidates include a political apprentice who fell short in an election bid two years ago and a persistent critic of the current establishment.

Edward Squires Jr., who ran for council in 2010, operates a daycare and a janitorial company in High Point.

Squires said he wants to look into how the city can help businesses by easing regulations and proposes a “one-stop shop” for licensing and permitting, similar to an initiative undertaken by the city of Greensboro a couple years ago. He also wants to explore the possibility of setting up a business incubator similar to the Nussbaum Center in Greensboro.

To address high unemployment in distressed parts of the city, Squires said the city should look at ways to incentivize businesses that are willing to hire ex-offenders.

The candidate said he wants to eliminate wasteful spending from the budget, but could not offer specifics. He added that he would be in a better position to evaluate the budget once he is elected.

Like Sims, Squires supports the idea of turning to the state legislature for an ordinance that would allow the city to take problem properties into receivership.

Cynthia Davis, a member of the planning and zoning commission, is an ally of Councilman Michael Pugh, her representative in Ward 3. Pugh has opposed recent tax increases and has become estranged from the majority faction led by Smothers.

Davis, who could not be reached for this story, once said that she is so involved in city affairs as a community vol unteer and watchdog that sitting council members have variously suggested that she run for office or butt out altogether.

In March, Davis extensively questioned council members about a loan the city made to the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival without any guarantee of repayment. Sims served as board co-chair of Friends of John Coltrane, the nonprofit that operates the festival. Davis argued to Smothers and other council members that most advocates for nonprofits do not sit on the board from which they are seeking funds or vote on whether to grant their own requests. Sims defended her role in facilitating the loan.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a conflict of interest,” she said. “If I was benefiting directly that would be one thing. I don’t get paid by the festival.”

Davis has made it her business to ensure that the police provide equitable services to southwest High Point “There’s not a lot of jobs,” Davis said earlier this year. “We’re not a focal point. I’m surrounded by public housing. It’s Russian roulette. You get whoever is moving in. Those whoevers need to know that the police department in our neighborhood is just as prominent, visible and diligent as it is in any other person’s neighborhood.”

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