February 14, 2013
High Point Mayor Bernita Sims, fresh from her election as High Point
's first black mayor, put a lot of political capital into one of her first announced goals, naming Kivett Drive after Martin Luther King Jr.
Last week, it seemed as if she had a good chance of cutting a deal with other councilmembers on the still-controversial issue – but she overreached at the High Point
City Council retreat on Saturday, Feb. 9 and the deal fell apart, leaving the issue unsettled.
Sims made renaming a street for King one of her first goals after being sworn in as mayor on Dec. 6, 2012. She had the momentum of being the first new High Point
mayor since 2003, when former mayor and current At-Large Councilmember Becky Smothers succeeded Arnold Koonce.
Sims on Jan. 10 said she wanted to rename Kivett Drive for King. Smothers said she would support renaming the stretch of Kivett Drive between Business 85 and Centennial Street for King. That was the outline of the deal that seemed to be in place.
Sims had the support of the other two black councilmembers, Ward 1 Councilmember Jeff Golden and Ward 2 Councilmember Foster Douglas. Former Mayor and Ward 3 Councilmember Judy Mendenhall seemed sympathetic, and the rest of the councilmembers – Ward 4 Councilmember Jay Wagner, Ward 5 Councilmember Jim Davis and Ward 6 Councilmember Jason Ewing – were first-termers and uncertain on their political feet.
All Sims had to do was quietly cut a deal with Smothers and Mendenhall, and she would have had five votes. That might have attracted votes from some of the new councilmembers, and Sims would have crafted a political victory on a tough issue quickly, and, as she keeps saying she wants to do, moved on to more important issues.
The keys to such a deal were getting Smothers and Mendenhall on board and getting a vote on the issue through quickly, making concessions if necessary, before opposition could mount. Sims may have thought she was going to accomplish those two things at the retreat. She was wrong.
Almost everything in the above scenario that could have gone wrong did go wrong.
Smothers had sent a clear message on ending the renamed street at Centennial Street. That would have given the new Martin Luther King Jr. drive or boulevard marked exits at I-85 business and on the US 311 bypass and let it run all the way into downtown High Point
, only a stone's throw from Main Street and city hall.
However, at the retreat, when Mendenhall asked what section of Kivett Drive was under discussion, Sims said the section from I-85 business to where Kivett Drive turns into Phillips Avenue at West English Road.
Smothers said, sharply, "So, the whole thing?"
Sims replied that it wouldn't affect English Road.
Smothers said, "I thought you were talking about Centennial."
Mendenhall said, "I did too."
Sims fended off the two former mayors by saying, "No, someone else was talking about Centennial."
That someone was Smothers. Smothers and Mendenhall must have thought Sims agreed with ending the part of Kivett Drive named after Martin Luther King Jr. at Centennial. When Smothers saw that Sims wanted to cross Centennial, the deal fell apart immediately. It can't have helped that Sims sprung the change on Smothers in front of the other councilmembers.
Smothers said, "I can't support that."
The problem with Smothers' position was that, according to High Point
City Manager Strib Boynton and Planning Director Lee Burnette, the North Carolina Department of Transportation doesn't like splitting up roads into different names because it causes 911 emergency-response problems.
"The problem that comes up if you name a segment of the street and leave segments of Kivett at either end, it raises communications issues," Burnette said. "It's very doubtful that state DOT would approve the scenario that a state-maintained road would have dual street names."
Kivett Drive is a state-maintained road, like many that have been suggested to be named after King over the years, including the US 311 bypass and different sections of what was then called the Intermediate Loop (now East Hartley Drive, North College Drive and South College Drive).
The other political roadblock Sims struck head-on at the retreat was that at least one of the purportedly passive first-term councilmembers, Jim Davis, turned out not to be all that passive.
It was a given that most of the opposition to renaming Kivett Drive would come from Wards 4, 5 and 6, the wards with the smallest black populations. Of the councilmembers representing those three wards, Davis strongly opposed the proposal and Wagner and Ewing have not yet taken stands.
"I realize I'm just one vote," Davis said. "I'm not going to support this for two reasons. One, I'm not going to give them all of Kivett Drive because I'm a big believer in our city's history. Also, I don't think we have a majority of our citizens' support."
Douglas argued that Davis' historical argument didn't withstand scrutiny, because the city has wiped out the names of many streets given to High Point
University during its current wave of expansion. He said, "Nobody said a word."
Kivett Drive was named for the farm and family of William Larkin Kivett (1864-1915), whose farm was once at the end of the road. In 1992, a proposal to name part of Kivett Drive for King was killed after objections from Kivett's descendents.
Davis said he would support renaming Kivett Drive if a majority of the property owners along the street say they want it and don't mind the cost of changing their addresses. That's highly unlikely to happen.
There are two ways to rename a street in High Point
. Citizens can petition for a name change if two-thirds of the property owners on a street approve, or the City Council or the High Point
Planning and Zoning Commission can propose the change, in which case the two-thirds approval by owners doesn't apply.
Sims is trying to get a City Council vote, but the body with the authority to rename streets is the Planning and Zoning Commission. She has a good chance of getting the commission to rename the street if she can get a favorable City Council vote.
Several councilmembers suggested other options for memorializing King. Smothers suggested renaming city hall for him.
"It doesn't have a name," Smothers said. "All it is now is city hall."
Mendenhall suggested renaming Market Center Drive. She said, "Market Center is not named after anyone, historically." She also suggested the High Point
Ewing asked, "What about the transportation terminal
"Thank you very much," Mendenhall replied, to laughter. "Yes, let's change that name."
The space-age bus-and-cab terminal on Commerce Street is now named for Mendenhall.
Sims said, if a petition by 67 percent of the property owners on Kivett Drive is needed, so be it. She said, "I'm not budging on that."
That seems to paint Sims into a corner, if she sticks with that stand.
Golden strongly supported Sims.
"I actually am sort of shocked at some of the comments that came out last week," he said. "I really don't understand some of the opposition to the name change."...continued on page 2