July 19, 2012Despite getting just about everything it wants from the City of High Point – and taking more – High Point University seems to get a tad grumpy about airing its plans in public.
That, at least, was the impression given by Chris Dudley, the university's vice president and chief of staff, at a meeting of the High Point City Council's Planning, Economic Development and Information Technology Committee on Tuesday, July 17.
Within the university's cloistered walls – actually, brick-based iron fences – High Point University is Happyland. Visitors are whisked through tours of the university's increasingly lavish amenities, the more important ones by Dudley. Restaurants and recreational facilities abound, classroom buildings have better equipment than NASA and students live in dorms that make the few remaining surrounding neighborhoods look like slums. It's like a Disney World version of higher education.
It's only outside its well-guarded gates that High Point University seems to have public relations problems.
The High Point City Council in December 2009 unanimously approved the High Point University Area Plan, a 10-year plan to manage the university's growth. In three years, the university has already burst through the bounds envisioned in the plan, solving most of its friction problem with adjoining neighborhoods by simply buying and demolishing them.
In 2009, the university owned about two-thirds of the land between North Centennial Street on the west and North College Drive on the east, south of Farris Avenue. Now it owns almost all of it, and its Campus Master Plan map labels the few remaining holdouts as "in progress."
The university's buying spree has crossed Montlieu Avenue, its traditional boundary to the south, as well as crossing North Centennial Street and North College Drive. It has acquired a large area to the southeast of its campus in the triangle bordered by Montlieu Avenue, Boundary Avenue and North College Drive. To the north, it has crossed Eastchester Drive in force, buying Oak Hollow Mall and most of its surrounding businesses.
Only the night before the July 17 committee meeting, the City Council approved a passel of rezoning requests by the university to allow it to build a new dormitory and parking lot with little criticism.
It's actually surprising that the committee called High Point University on the carpet for an update on its conquests and their relation to the University Area Plan. The councilmembers have to defend their seats on Election Day in November – High Point does not have staggered City Council terms – and High Point University President Nido Qubein has become an influential man in High Point.
Qubein belongs to most of the important business groups in High Point, is on the board of many of the city's largest institutions and has generally become one of the handful of people who councilmembers and would-be councilmembers, particularly Republican ones, line up to see months before Election Day, asking for support.
Qubein's support comes primarily through his influence in business circles and probably among the university's thousands of employees, although he does make campaign donations.
In 2010, for example, Qubein hedged his bets, giving incumbent High Point Mayor Becky Smothers $1,000 and her challenger, Jay Wagner, $500.
Councilmember and committee Chairman Chris Whitley, a Republican who is running to succeed Smothers as mayor, said he didn't ask for a meeting on the University Area Plan. Whitley doesn't need to make Qubein mad between now and November. Councilmember Bernita Sims, a committee member and another announced mayoral candidate, asked for the review. Sims, a Democrat whose Ward 1 constituency doesn't give a hoot about High Point University, doesn't have to worry as much about staying on Qubein's good side – and is unlikely to be on his Christmas card list anyway, being the most vocal critic of the university on the City Council.
In any case, the entrance of a reporter five minutes into the committee meeting caused Dudley to freeze in mid-sentence.
"Is this a meeting?" Dudley asked the councilmembers, as if seeking help throwing the presumptuous reporter out. "Is this a public meeting?" It was.
The irrepressible High Point University Vice President for Community Relations Don Scarborough, who is more experienced, more professional and more politic than Dudley, was unfazed. He welcomed the press with a joke and a handshake. Qubein usually has Scarborough deal with the City Council, except on zoning matters, in which the university is represented by Director of Construction and Renovation Ron Guerra.
When the meeting resumed, the councilmembers continued reviewing the university's Campus Master Plan. Of the councilmembers present – Whitley, Sims, Smothers and Councilmember Latimer Alexander – only Sims and Smothers, who is not running for reelection, asked hard questions.
Parking has apparently become a problem at High Point University, where enrollment has exploded in recent years. High Point University has worked to build a walkable campus, but the type of student it attracts also wants to be able to keep a car.
Smothers said, "You may be forced to say, 'Some of the babies don't get to bring a car when they're freshmen.'"
Sims replied, "That's not gonna happen."
Scarborough said that most students don't drive to class, and Dudley said the university has shuttles it encourages students to use.
One of the goals of the City Council's University Area Plan was to have the university buy contiguous properties. It has done so, in fact, around its main campus, and technically so in its blitzkrieg to the north. But the north-south span of the campus narrows to only a thin connector in the middle, and Smothers suggested that High Point University emulate Duke University, an institution it has aped in other ways, by having north and south campuses the way Duke has east and west campuses.
"As you grow, that's something you're going to have to look at," Sims said. "I don't know if there's a way we can make all of this more pedestrian-friendly for your students. I see a lot of your students jogging, but not a lot of them walking."
Whitley suggested that the university adopt a bicycle-sharing program, as have other universities and some cities, such as Washington, DC.
Too late. High Point University has already skipped over bicycles and has a car-sharing program, "We Car." The university keeps Chevy Malibus and Toyota Priuses at its Slane Student Center and rents them out for $8 an hour or $65 a day to students.
At High Point University, 93 percent of students live on campus – a staggeringly high figure compared to other universities. Dudley said, "That, I think, is unprecedented."
Scarborough said the university's students feel more secure on the campus and like its environment better. "Seniors can live off campus, but they choose not to," he said. "That was something we hadn't anticipated."
Smothers said the biggest issues on the horizon for the university are its plans to create a three-building life sciences school and to build a football stadium.
Dudley said the university has 4,000 traditional students and hopes to increase enrollment to 4,500 or 5,000, with perhaps another 1,000 enrolled in the life sciences school.
The $64,000 question is what High Point University is going to do with Oak Hollow Mall, most of whose tenants have fled. Suggestions for the mall have included everything from housing the school of life sciences to demolishing it and building the football stadium on its footprint.
The High Point University representatives weren't telling and seemed genuinely not to know.
Few High Pointers think Qubein wants to operate a mall, particularly a mall that was dying before the university bought it. But when Sims asked Dudley if the university was still seeking tenants, he replied in the affirmative.
"There obviously has been no influx of businesses into the mall," Dudley said. "But, yes, that's the case."
Councilmember A.B. Henley, a friend and neighbor of Qubein, limited his comments to congratulating the university, which is in the middle of a $2.1 billion construction buildout, for spending money on pictures and plans to show the City Council and the public. Henley said such things cost money and are appreciated.
At the end of the meeting, Dudley went around the table snatching each copy of the Campus Master Plan map back from the councilmembers, as if they were stamped "Top Secret" and the High Point City Council didn't have a security clearance.
To see the map, click here