January 14, 2010
|Market Plan Backers Lick Wounds, Regroup|
With their effort to limit the size of High Point's showroom district in shambles, supporters of the High Point Core City Plan hope to re-energize that plan with the help of the very people who killed the proposed High Point Market Overlay District: owners of empty buildings in the industrial zone on the edge of the downtown.
When the High Point City Council killed the market district on Jan. 4, the collapse of support for the proposal on the City Council was so sudden and so complete that the leaders of the City Project, the public-private group that provided virtually the only backing for it, were taken by surprise.
Members of the board of the City Project, including local attorneys Aaron Clinard, Tom Terrell and Jay Wagner, had been so confident that some version of the Market Overlay District would pass that they didn't show up for the City Council meeting at which the vote was taken – a tactical error, as they might have convinced the councilmembers to at least put off the vote.
"We were told behind the scenes that there wasn't going to be any action at the meeting," Clinard said. "That's why we didn't come. We'd been to every other one."
But Clinard, Wagner and Terrell aren't the only board members of the City Project, which was created, under the original name of the Core City Plan, as a joint redevelopment body of the city and private boosters of downtown High Point. High Point Councilmembers Michael Pugh, Bernita Sims, John Faircloth and Bill Bencini are also on the City Project board, and none of them stuck their necks out when the vote came to strike the market district from the City Council agenda. The vote was an unrecorded voice vote, with silence counting as a vote in favor of striking the item. Sims said she would have at least abstained, had abstaining been an option.
By the time the motion was made, unannounced, by High Point Mayor Becky Smothers, councilmembers had sat through weeks of ferocious opposition to the market district, at least in its proposed form, from the owners of buildings outside the proposed market district. Property owners inside the market district weren't against the proposal as strongly, although some businesses, such as Slane Hosiery Mills on South Centennial Street, feared it would limit their ability to expand.
In any case, when push came to shove, the councilmembers got an earful of complaints about the plan and little in the way of visible support to justify going out on a limb for an idea with unproven benefits.
Property owner after property owner got up and said they were willing to support downtown revitalization efforts – but not in the form of a restriction on the possible uses of their buildings. Clinard said the City Project's next move will be to make the property owners live up to those statements.
"I can see a positive side to this," Clinard said. "There were so many concerns with some of the adjacent property owners not being in the market district – but they also talked about wanting to try to help with the revitalization of the traditional downtown area. I'm going to take them at their word. I'm going to contact them to discuss how we can utilize spaces between markets and try to create some activity outside the furniture market."
The failure of the Market Overlay District sparked self-recrimination by members of the City Project board, but also by councilmembers who had supported it, such as Latimer Alexander.
An unusually despondent Alexander said there was enough blame to go around, and that some of it belonged to councilmembers who had supported the market district.
"We did the poorest selling job we could have done," he said. "Maybe we didn't spend enough time talking to people. They saw a different vision than we see, and that was the failure of the market district. We didn't properly share our vision for the future."
That future is a downtown that supporters hope will combine a still-vibrant furniture market with a series of mixed-use districts that will attract retail, offices, restaurants and clubs – something City Project supporters say can still be achieved, but will be more difficult without the clear signal to the real estate market that the market district would have provided.
The City Project board hasn't yet met to craft a collective response to the market district debacle. But some of its leaders said individually that the drive to get the district approved was ill-timed, that it may be awhile before any similar proposal is launched, and that such a proposal would have to be different, perhaps involving incentives to attract alternate uses of downtown buildings. They said that the recession, more than any other factor, killed the proposal.
"I think people really struggled with telling anybody what they can do with their property today," said Wendy Fuscoe, the executive director of the City Project. "Would we have a better chance next year? I don't know if we would even do it again."
Fuscoe, too, said she was blindsided by the vote.
"We didn't go to City Council because we assumed they would just be discussing the expanded area," she said. "So when I opened the paper, I was surprised, like we all were."
Councilmembers are inherently political creatures, and several of them, and some of the City Project supporters, raised the possibility that one reason for the market district's defeat was the fact that 2010 is a City Council election year. According to that line of reasoning, enraging a bunch of generally affluent and politically motivated property owners to make a few planners and lawyers happy didn't make sense, whatever the potential benefits of the market district 10 or 20 years down the road.
Clinard gave the election theory some credence while trying to make sense out of the sudden collapse of support among councilmembers.
"This would be pure speculation on my part, but you know how politics are," he said. "It's an election year, and I wouldn't be surprised if that came into play. We all thought that the overlay district was going to be approved – it was just going to be adjusted and given a broader scope."
Alexander didn't reject the idea that the looming election influenced councilmembers.
"Very honestly, it probably did," he said. "That's another strong argument for four-year terms. Every time we turn around we're up for election, and there's no sense in making people mad. But it won't be the first mistake we've made for that reason, nor will it be the last."
Ultimately, no councilmember took a political chance on the market district proposal, and some, of course, were against it all along. Some said the market district was an iffy idea from the start, and a positively boneheaded one in the middle of a recession, when every dollar or job attracted to High Point is a small victory.
Councilmember Chris Whitley said 2010 wasn't a year to launch anything that had even the potential to hinder the furniture market. He said businesses will ultimately decide where to locate based on market research, not city regulation, and that, for retail shops, restaurants and offices, that will be along the Eastchester Drive/Piedmont Parkway corridor.
"Our downtown is a furniture industry," Whitley said. "Normal business will not move back down there. We need to decide where that business will go. In my opinion, that's further north."
Smothers said the absence of the City Project board members from the final meeting may have been a tactical error, because you can't count on councilmembers' votes until they actually raise there hands. But she said their absence didn't affect her vote, which was pledged against the market district for weeks in advance of the vote. "I didn't need to hear them again," she said. "I knew where they were."
Smothers said that, ultimately, it was good to kill the market district proposal rather than to approve it on a split vote.
"I don't think 5-4 votes are real healthy," she said. "I think either you haven't gotten the right solution, or you haven't talked about it enough – and we talked about it awfully long."
Some market district supporters got in jabs at Faircloth, who supported the proposal until just days before the vote, then voted to kill it. Faircloth has announced that that he will run as a Republican to replace Rep. Laura Wiley in North Carolina House District 61. Wiley is not seeking reelection.
Bencini said, "I think John may have his eye on other electoral things he's working on."
Faircloth said his House campaign wasn't a conscious influence.
"There may be some underlying feelings," he said. "If I've got an election coming up, and I have to encourage people to support my cause, it doesn't make sense to go against those people. But it wasn't something I consciously considered when making my vote."
Faircloth said the biggest factor in his shift against the market district was the decline in the economy and the severe drop in downtown rental rates. He said he might have supported the proposal had it generated any support from the public or property owners, rather than just from the City Project board.
"Nobody came out to support it and a lot of people came expressing defiance," he said. "It didn't make a lot of sense for me to continue to support it."