by Daniel Schere

When we think of the Triad we often think of two cities””Greensboro and Winston- Salem. One is left out of the conversation.

High Point is a city of more than 100,000 residents, a sizeable university, and a furniture trade show that attracts buyers from all over the world.

But it is also a city without much pedestrian traffic, business or nightlife downtown and that has caught the attention of a number of city leaders who have begun to take action. The process began seven years ago when a redevelopment plan for the city’s 11-square mile core was adopted by a steering committee in city council. That committee became known as “City Project,” which is a 501 (c)(3) organization dedicated to implementing the plan.

Wendy Fuscoe, the executive director of the Core City Development project said the main areas of concern are uptown, Washington Street, and South Main Street.

“We believe you can’t take an 11 square mile area and treat it all equally,” she said. “There’s limited dollars and limited staff, and you’ve got to prioritize.”

Fuscoe said she thinks the plan is ambitious but added that there has already been a good deal of private investment and that there is a long-term plan in place for growth over the next 20 to 25 years.

High Point leaders partnered with Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co in drafting a master plan for a program known as “Ignite High Point.” The plan identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the city along with a list of 14 priorities. The firm is headed by architect Andres Duany who is considered one of the leading figures of new urbanism””a school of thought which emphasizes inner-city residential and business development. They have also hired urban planner Joe Minicozzi of Asheville-based consulting firm Urban3 to help implement the plan.

Among the city’s strengths, the master plan lists strong civic leadership and the presence of 330,000 college students within a 75-minute drive in addition to the 4,000 at High Point University. Yet it also indicates that High Point has fallen into a pattern of decline similar to that of Detroit, characterized by the presence of urban sprawl and the decline of the manufacturing industry. It goes on to mention how the furniture market operates just two weeks out of the years, and city codes are restrictive to starting new businesses.

The market is currently only open to traders, and Fuscoe said she thinks the city could start by opening it up to the public to increase foot traffic downtown.

“Why can’t we create that kind of environment year round,” she said. “Everybody at some point needs to buy furniture.”

Fuscoe added that she thinks this would attract manufacturers to High Point more often than twice a year.

“I think our brand could be creating destinations for designers, innovators, and maker spaces,” she said.

In addition, Fuscoe said there are only about 25 residential units downtown, which she said is another factor in the city’s decaying inner-core.

“We’re about creating that urban style of living for High Point,” she said. “Not just because people want it, although that is a good reason, but because it’s good economics.”

At the top of the list of priorities included in the master plan is the dieting of North Main Street from four travel lanes to two in order to increase pedestrian traffic and encourage retail growth. Fuscoe said two consultants have suggested this.

“That came because engineers working with this consultant and engineers working with this consultant both felt like if you really wanted to boost the economy in uptown and create an experience for people, create a walkable environment, you need to do that,” she said.

A grassroots group known as “We Heart High Point,” has also been pushing for street dieting as a redevelopment tool.

“A lot of these cars want to pass through town,” said group co-founder David Rosen. “So there’s plenty of roads for them to pass through town. What we need is to create a business friendly area where you can walk slowly, drive slowly, look at shops.”

He noted that the dieting of Elm Street in Greensboro was largely beneficial in attracting more residents to its downtown.

“A lot of these cars want to pass through town,” he said. “So there’s plenty of roads for them to pass through town. What we need is to create a business friendly area where you can walk slowly, drive slowly, look at shops.”

Rosen lived in Winston-Salem for 20 years and witnessed the transformation of its inner-core into a center for arts and biotechnology.

“We can’t try to be just like Greensboro or just like Winston in my opinion,” he said. “We have to find out what separates us from those two anchor cities, highlight that, market that and grow with that.”

On July 14, “We Heart High Point,” participated in a dinner in a sunken parking lot at 100 West High Avenue known as The Pit. While informal, the event gave citizens a chance to mingle and discuss their views of what direction the city ought to go.

Karen Willette, owner of Visions Catering, created the event. She addressed the crowd as the evening was wrapping up.

“I looked and I said, there’s no life here,” she said. “There’s no life anywhere in High Point. I can drive up and down the street after 5:00 and all I see is just a residual of people trying to get through the city but to me it just did not give me anything. There’s nothing to inspire me to want to be here.”

Willette mentioned how she felt High Point was falling behind compared to the other cities in the Triad.

“Do we want the people who live here to have to go all the way to Greensboro to do something,” she said. “We need to support our city council, but we also need to stand up to them and support our own voice because if they’re not going to listen to us then people are just going to leave this community.”

Cody Fielden is a dentist who moved to High Point eight years ago from San Diego. He said he was looking for a small town that was family-friendly, and this fit the bill. Fielden said overall he has enjoyed living there but thinks the downtown area needs more retail establishments.

“I think all it would take for High Point to get over that tipping point is just for a handful of businesses to take a chance on downtown, but then also for city and the city council to back those people,” he said. “Give them incentives, give them reasons to come here. You know, if you build it they’ll come.”

Scott Thornton owns Knocking on Wood, a boutique shop at 803 North Main, and said High Point is not friendly for small businesses.

“Right now we’re so good on the market but we’re forgetting about the little man in High Point,” he said.

High Point native Mary Ensley is concerned about the city’s future after her brother’s furniture business closed due to an offshore move.

“High Point’s been built on furniture and textiles, and there’s a lot of talent here to do other things and it’s time to figure out what that is and to move forward with that,” she said.

Ensley said she thinks the street dieting idea could be highly effective, especially since there is off-street parking just as there is in Greensboro.

“This was the shopping area when I was growing up, ” she said. “You know Main Street, JC Penny, Hudson Belk, revolving doors, the kids specialty shop where my mom bought all of our clothes for my sisters and me. So this was the area where lots of things were happening. And you’ve seen it taken over by the furniture industry, and that’s fine but again, it’s only being used a couple times a year.”

The Pit is also listed as one of the 14 priorities in the master plan, where it is described as “The epicenter of downtown, tactical “cool.”

Rosen recently announced he is one of eight candidates running for an at-large city council seat. In a press conference Friday at the historic train depot, Rosen said he thinks the current council has not communicated well and has been distracted by personal agendas.

“This all goes back to trying to change mindset and get leaders on council that are going to work together,” he told reporters.

“Granted, furniture’s done a lot of great things for High Point but there has to be more than just that.”

During the conference, farm owner Ross Lackey expressed frustration at the bureaucratic process involved in getting a business license from the city, which is preventing him from selling produce downtown.

“The zoning laws are antiquated,” he said. “I can’t get a business license in the correct format. Every business license asks what’s my building? I don’t own a building. I can’t own a building. There needs to be incremental steps for natives to create businesses on their own, not $100,000 entry point of owning a building and creating a storefront.”

Lackey is a High Point native who left six years ago for college, and returned in November to start his business, Kapuka Farms, at 500 Lindale Drive. He said the business environment needs to be made friendlier in order to attract young people.

“The whole system’s antiquated,” he said. “It’s waiting for outside business to come save us.”

He added that in addition to the city being business friendly, downtown events such as the ones in the pit will need to be geared toward younger generations.

“I think the pit will fail every day, every night until the cops are OK with young black teens skateboarding and drinking in that pit,” Lackey said.

Rosen addressed Lackey’s concerns by saying he agrees there is too much red tape involved in starting a business, which often turns young people off from settling in High Point. Getting young people involved is a central component of his election platform.

Candidate filings ended Friday at noon and current Mayor Bernita Sims will not seek reelection. The three candidates for mayor include Bill Bencini, Marcus Brandon and Jimmy Scott. Bencini served on city council for 11 years before being elected to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners in 2010. He said the decision to run for mayor was partly due to the fact that the General Assembly redistricted for the census, and he lost many of his constituents that were from High Point.

“It always seemed to me that High Point didn’t have very strong representation at the county level,” he said. “Not being able to represent the citizens of High Point, I thought this might be a good time for me to think about coming back to elected office in the city of High Point.”

Bencini has served with members of the current council including Mayor Sims, and councilwoman Becky Smothers. He hopes the council takes a more comprehensive view of economic development.

“Economic development should go far beyond offering incentives, the recruitment of businesses and the economic development should embrace the city’s mission statement,” he said.

Bencini said he is interested in the proposal put forth by the grassroots group “We Heart High Point” of dieting one section of Main Street to fewer lanes so that it becomes more pedestrian friendly.

“I think it’s an idea worth pursuing,” he said. Bencini said a previous project on Lindsay Street cost $5.1 million, but this involved putting electric lines underground and improving storm water drains. He said the Main Street project could be less expensive since it would simply involve repainting the lines.

He added that the city needs to do more to bring life to downtown, and stop the construction of suburban office parks.

“If you can’t retain young people you can’t attract young people,” Bencini said.

At-large candidate Latimer Alexander has lived in High Point since 1980 and thinks the city’s first priority is to appoint a city manager. Strib Boynton recently retired after serving as city manager for 16 years.

“The city is a business, and a business has to have a leader,” he said. “The current city council doesn’t have a city manager. They haven’t even started a search for a city manager.”

Alexander said he does not think the city currently has enough money to tackle projects such as the dieting of Main Street. He said the council has gotten sidetracked with small issues like credit card receipts.

“Our current council hasn’t done what councils are supposed to do and they’ve chosen to get into things that are not their authority to do,” he said.

Alexander, who sells textiles, said he does not agree that High Point is a city in need of more downtown entertainment and nightlife.

“That’s not who High Point is or has ever been,” he said. “High Point is a city that has been here for 154 years. High Point has an identity. We are a very international city focused around furniture and industry.”

Alexander thinks many of the current redevelopment plans are unrealistic.

“If they don’t know what High Point’s current identity is, then they’re going to have a hard time changing it,” he said.

Rev. Orrick Quick, who is also running for an at-large seat, thinks improving morale is key to bringing business back to downtown, but that this should be the main priority and improving roads should be secondary. He agrees that High Point needs to diversify its economy.

“I have no problem with the furniture market or the furniture industry,” he said. “We just don’t want our city to revolve fully around the furniture market. We want to do things throughout the whole year and not just sit around waiting for 10 days in April and 10 days in the fall.”

Fuscoe said she remains optimistic at the chances for increased economic activity due to the spirited conversation that has taken place in recent months. She said this is the first step in the process, and points to the redevelopment of East Boulevard in Charlotte as a case study.

“If it were up to a bond referendum for voter approval it would have not happened because people are afraid of change,” she said. “But there were strong leaders that said we know this is the right thing to do and they did it.”

She is convinced progress is being made, even if it is slow.

“High Point’s not a dying city, but our urban core is on a downward trend.” !