The millennials behind High Point’s Renaissance
If it is not Furniture Market, downtown High Point is basically a ghost town. However, a group of ambitious millennials/High Point natives looks to breathe life back into the International City. The Triad Artist Collective has come together with a common goal to revitalize downtown High Point by creating a hub for artists and entrepreneurs, as well as setting the foundation of the Downtown High Point Arts District Association.
Sara Scott, 24, works as the program coordinator at the High Point Arts Council as well as an event coordinator at Gallery on Main. Scott grew up in High Point, went to Penn-Griffin School for the Arts and is an alumna of Appalachian State University. Coincidentally, Scott and I both graduated the same year at App State, and after meeting for the interview, we quickly realized that our paths had crossed before. When I was the Arts & Entertainment Editor for The Appalachian Newspaper, I edited a story by Makaelah Walters about Reckless Arts Studio, which was an artist collective and gallery in Boone. Scott was a co-founder of Reckless Arts, and so was her now-boyfriend Caleb Wills, 28, the director of operations for The Downtown High Point Arts District Association. Scott said she and Wills want to recreate and improve that concept and bring it to High Point.
“That is what we are trying to do here; we are trying to have King Street,” she said. “We need it.”
“This is like the grown-up version of that,” Wills said about the Triad Artist Collective. “Same intention, same vibes.”
Scott wrote in an email that the mission statement of the Downtown High Point Artist District Association is: “We are dedicated to encouraging local artists and entrepreneurs to pursue business ventures in the downtown High Point area. This will grant regional talent international market exposure. It will provide our young adult population with a thriving artist district. And, this will ultimately build our downtown economy to better serve the Piedmont Triad community, for generations to come.”
Scott said that the formation of the Triad Artist Collective, the Downtown High Point Arts District Association, and the opening of Gallery on Main happened quickly. She acknowledged that the entire venture had been made possible by the owner/founder of Gallery on Main, High Point native and the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Main Street” Charles Simmons. Simmons sought Scott out after talking with Jessie Rae Moncla, a High Point-based artist.
Moncla, 29, is a board member of the 512 Collective and the director of resident artists at the TAC. Moncla said that she heard from a friend of hers that Scott joined the High Point Arts Council and was described as “amazing, young and someone who genuinely cared about High Point.” While Moncla was working part-time at Visual Index in Winston-Salem, she said Simmons came in looking for a different installation, and they started talking about High Point. Moncla said she told Simmons about Scott, and things took off from there.
“It was literally like three days that this all happened,” Moncla said.
Days before the recent October Furniture Market, Scott and her team (composed of Wills, Moncla, Daniel Gray and Sheena Dawkins) threw together a pop-up show at the gallery, and they have all been steady at work since.
“The longer we spend downtown, the more of a need we are seeing there to be for functional spaces,” Scott said. “Every place that I have lived and spent time in (Caleb, too), there are always downtowns and arts districts where people hang out, and that is typically where young people spend their money. It is not a thing in High Point, and it is not sustainable for our economy.”
Scott and Wills said the reason why businesses are deterred from downtown High Point is because the rent is extremely high.
“That is why this town is dominated by showrooms,” Wills explained. “They come in and pay $100,000 to a half a million dollars and secure [the spaces] for five years. These people don’t have to deal with any renters or businesses coming in or anyone else except these entities that have these large amounts of cash, which drowns out any kind of local community organization.”
“We are really grateful because of Charles and the Simmons family,” Scott added. “They have given us the space for $0 a year. We are not paying anything to be here. Which is another reason that we feel that if we don’t take an opportunity, this might be the only chance considering that everywhere is half a million dollars for rent.”
Scott said they are making a call to the community, and that it is up to other concerned citizens, entrepreneurs and developers to make a High Point Renaissance possible.
“Mr. Simmons always says, ‘All the ingredients are there to make a pie but with no one to bake it,’” Scott said. “We definitely have all the pieces here, but we just have to see who is interested.”
Scott said a successful and thriving downtown arts district is in need of an active art gallery, an artist residency program, a coffee shop, more Airbnbs, a bookstore, a CBD dispensary, a bar, a tattoo parlor, a boutique, a pharmacy and a corner store that sells beer and cigarettes. And Gallery on Main is on its way to checking off four of those boxes. It is already a fully functioning art gallery that has a small coffee shop, an Airbnb loft, and Moncla said she is presently searching for artists interested in the residency program. The newest development has unfolded within the past week with High Point-based entrepreneur George Steele, Jr., 32, as the future owner of the coffee shop (its name still to be determined) and Seemore’s Speakeasy, a low-key jazz bar that will be located in the basement of Gallery on Main.
Steele grew up in High Point, attended Southwest Guilford High School and graduated from Methodist University in Fayetteville with a degree in business.
“I wanted to be involved to bring more to High Point,” Steele said. “With the coffee shop, we are going to do classes to empower entrepreneurs and bring kids out from local schools to teach them about art and entrepreneurship. I want to do yoga meditation as well, and bring something positive to High Point because High Point deserves it, and it is time to have something like that.”
Steele said the name “Seemore’s Speakeasy” was chosen out of respect for Simmons because Seemore is his nickname.
“We want to show our respect to him, and that is something that he asked,” Steele explained. “We are excited and looking forward to it definitely.”
Seemore’s will be an intimate space with exposed brick walls that backs up to the Pit, a once-popular and public graffiti wall.
“We want to give the speakeasy an old Chicago/New York feeling, with dim lights and something different,” he said. “Everything around gives you that old mob feeling.”
Steele said Seemore’s would be a full bar, and the coffee shop will have Uncle Cheesecake’s cheesecakes as well as other pastries, teas, smoothies, and of course, coffee.
“We hope that people use this whole building as a community as its own culture, the art gallery the coffee shop and the bar down here- its a one-stop-shop,” Steele said. “We are shooting to have it open by February 2020 before April’s Furniture Market…We want this to be something with longevity, so we want to make sure we are good with the City on everything.”
Steele said it is time for millennials to work together to build on the foundation that the previous generations put in place.
“They did a great job, the ones before us, but it is up to us to continue it and to add on and build more so that when we pass it on, they can build on it,” he said. “High Point is my home. I love everywhere else I go, but I take care of home first. We all have great ideas, but a lot of us just don’t go after them. I am taking that leap of faith. Like you see here– different ages, all of us coming together, putting our minds and visions together to create something beautiful.”
He hopes other entrepreneurs will look at what they are doing and pitch in to make High Point a better place to live for everyone.
Also inside Gallery on Main, is an upstairs ballroom-looking area that serves as an open studio that graffiti artists Jeff Beck and Freddy Garcia have been utilizing.
“We are going to try to do as much as we can with the space since it is so spacious,” Moncla said.
Moncla and Scott said they want yoga instructors to teach classes there, as well as monthly paint and sip classes taught by Moncla, the artist in residence and others who rent out gallery space. Moncla said that the TAC also wants to collaborate with as many local entities as possible. Presently, they are doing work with the program D-Up, which teaches healthier eating habits to children in Guilford County.
For Moncla, one motivating reason for TAC is to give High Point artists the resources they need. She feels that High Point often gets overlooked and that a lot of High Point artists have to travel or move to Winston-Salem or Greensboro for more opportunities.
“There is a lot of talent here, and there is a lot of potential here as well,” she said. “I know so many artists in this area that have struggled because there are no resources here. High Point doesn’t invest in the arts as much as they should. I think this is really vital for the artists that live here and that are overlooked oftentimes by the media. I feel like I see articles about murals going up in Greensboro and Winston all the time; there are lots of murals here and public art pieces here that are never covered. If we could give the opportunity for local artists to have space to work, to find their community, to learn, to grow together, I think that would be really beautiful. I have lived here for 15 years–there hasn’t been anything. As an artist, I have always gone to other places to find my artist community. I am so excited to cultivate this creative space.”
“We’ve all been going to Greensboro and Winston-Salem for so long,” Scott agreed. “It is time for them to come here. It is our turn; it is High Point’s turn.”
Scott estimates that establishing a downtown arts district in High Point is at least a five to 10-year project. She said that the artist communities in both Greensboro and Winston-Salem have dramatically changed the culture in those cities, but it has also become oversaturated.
“If we want to keep it in the Triad, the art has to come to High Point, or it is going to leave this area completely,” Scott said. “Creating an arts district obviously isn’t something that can’t happen overnight. Gallery on Main is a very small piece to that puzzle. The Triad Artist Collective, which is our residency program, is such a small part that has to happen down here because nothing downtown can survive alone. It will suffocate and die; we have lost so many wonderful businesses downtown because of that fact. When Nobles closed and moved to Winston, that was a huge loss for this community… We have to create something that is sustainable for everyone, and the only way to do that is to create an arts district.”
Scott said the downtown arts district shouldn’t just exist on Main Street; she wants it to spread throughout the city and connect the dots of other new developments taking place.
“We want to go west toward all of those new and exciting things that are happening. We’d also like to go south, too, as it is a super underdeveloped part,” she explained. “The Furniture Market has changed dramatically in our lifetime of living in High Point– it used to be such a big deal, I didn’t go to school during the Furniture Market. We all worked during the Furniture Market; the whole town did. It has changed a lot over the years, it has become a little bit smaller, and as the internet grows and millennials take over that market, the furniture industry will continue to grow smaller. We have to figure out a way to keep bringing people to High Point without 100% solely depending on the Furniture Market.”
Sheena Dawkins, 35, is the director of marketing for The Downtown High Point Arts District Association. She said she feels that citizens of High Point often feel left out of Furniture Market, as it is not open to the public. She said TAC is needed to connect locals to their hometown more than anything.
“I was so ready to jump on this project because there is nothing here for us, and it is not just about art; it is not just about events, it is about having a space for this community to grow to flourish and evolve,” she said. “We need fresh ideas, they have been in charge, and they have built it up, but it is stagnant.”
While the Market is around, however, Scott wants to take advantage of the international exposure and make High Point a destination–something those international visitors look forward to coming to and visiting because “They are not going to keep coming here if we don’t have anything going on here.”
Scott stressed that the time is now to start creating and revitalizing High Point’s downtown.
“This is an urgent matter. This has to happen now, or High Point will fall behind, and we will lose everything that has been so successful here will just go away forever,” Scott said. “If we lose the draw of High Point and why people come here, where does that leave High Point? I think that is what scares us in a deeper way, especially Daniel, Jessie and me since we are from High Point. It is scary to think about what could happen to our hometown if we just let it. Is it just going to be a baseball stadium? Are all the decisions just going to be made by the donors in this town, with the majority of them over 65?”
According to highpointnc.gov, the 2017 median age distribution was 36.9 years old, and ages 30-39 make up the largest percentage of people that live in High Point at 13.4%. Those who are ages 60 and older only make up about 11%.
“It is important to create a culture in the downtown area with millennials now stepping to the forefront for our vision and to take over the business market for the next 30 years,” said Daniel Gray, owner of Uncle Cheesecake and an event coordinator for Gallery on Main. “It is time for our age group to push society forward and create our own culture.”
Coming up, Scott said there are several events happening at Gallery on Main (see some below in “Wanna Go?” and the full list of dates can be found on our website) and that she is looking for people to sit on the board. The Downtown Arts District Association Partners are Brtyche Gallery, 512 Collective, Brittano Studios, Flip Furnishings, Zimmerman Vineyards, The Mind Group, D-Up, and special donors include The Simmons Family and Central Market Showrooms (Scott would like to give a special thanks to Charles Simmons for allowing them to use the space) and The Wills Family. Scott said the loft is available on Airbnb, the studio spaces are available for $100 a month, and event rentals start at $250 a day. For more information, visit the Gallery on Main/TAC website and the Facebook page.
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.