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Thursday, June 20, 2024

NC trend: High Point’s efforts to remain vibrant year-round

High Point Mayor Jay Wagner

When Jay Wagner steps down as mayor of High Point this winter, constituents won’t have to think hard to identify his legacy. He started the ball rolling on his hometown’s brand-new uptown.

As mayor since 2017, Wagner presided over construction of Truist Point, the city’s new multi-use ballpark, and the privately funded Congdon Yards development next door. The city pumped almost $70 million into the area, while the Congdon family and other private investors added more than $65 million to the project, called Catalyst.

They dream of a city center filled with small businesses, restaurants, and an assortment of housing and entertainment options. The goal is to provide a memorable downtown gathering place for the growing city of 112,000.

High Point’s downtown is unique, given now that it is swallowed by 11.5 million square
feet of furniture showrooms. Many spaces are palatial and breathtaking, but they aren’t very busy  outside of two weeks each fall and spring amid the famed furniture markets
that attract an estimated 75,000 visitors annually. The rest of the year, downtown is
largely somnambulant. 

“[The market] put this city on the map,” says Wagner, 56. “But it never made sense that for 48 weeks of the year, we have to wait for the other four. You can have a great place for the people who live and work here, and you can have the market, too. It can be our Super Bowl. It can be the cherry on top.”

The Catalyst project aims to transform High Point’s future. The city’s leaders are “pulling in the same direction,” Wagner says. That hasn’t been the case, historically.

High Point attorney Aaron Clinard, a former law partner of Wagner who helped keep the downtown revitalization drive alive for decades, says the key deterrent to change downtown was city government. Afraid of upsetting furniture market leaders, or the status quo, City Council wouldn’t support changes to spur alternative developments, he says.

That changed 10 years ago when famed urban planner Andres Duany of Miami whipped up interest with a revitalization plan commissioned by city business leaders. Named “Ignite High Point,” Duany’s typically outrageous plan raised the temperature. A key moment came when the council refused to pass a zoning plan that banned new showrooms in the area north of the historic downtown, which was targeted for the Catalyst effort.

Not passing the measure “really ticked off the people who had contributed some fairly big bucks to bring in Duany, and who saw the importance of creating some kind of a downtown,” says Clinard. “It became obvious to all, right then, that we had to get a new mayor, a new council.”

They got one, with help from a new political action committee driven by Patrick Chapin,
the CEO of Business High Point, the city’s chamber of commerce. The pro-growth High Point Political Alliance raised more than $100,000 for the 2017 city races, and backed the winner in every council race. Their favorite, Wagner, won the mayor’s race by 53 votes
over Bruce Davis.

The new council promptly created the new zoning district and started efforts for a baseball stadium. High Point University President Nido Qubein agreed to lead a private campaign to raise dollars for amenities associated with the proposed new downtown, then stunned even his biggest admirers by raising the $32 million goal in three weeks. (Since taking his post in 2005, Qubein has overseen the multibillion expansion of his university, building enrollment from 1,400 to 6,000.)

Some of that money went to the Nido and Mariana Qubein Children’s Museum, which is not part of the Catalyst project. But most went for stadium-related projects. Either way, it accelerated the building momentum.

Then, the Congdons entered the picture. David Congdon, who was then CEO of Old Dominion Freight Line, chaired the chamber’s board at the time. He was also looking for how the new Earl and Kitty Congdon Family Foundation, honoring his parents, could make
a splash. When Business High Point landed a $1.5 million grant to create a business incubator, he found a cause.

The incubator needed 10,000 square feet. The Catalyst needed more than a ballpark. The Congdons combined the two projects by buying and refurbishing the old 200,000-square Adams Millis hosiery mill next door to the stadium. The foundation’s investment totals nearly $50 million.

Congdon Yards houses business tenants, meeting space, an art gallery, and a 13,000-square foot coffee shop and public meeting space. The Congdon foundation leases the property to Business High Point for $1 a year. Business High Point holds the leases and uses the rental income to fund the entrepreneur center and building operations. The project had positive cash flow in its second year, says Rachel Collins, who succeeded Chapin as the chamber’s CEO in February.

The Congdons have been active in High Point since the early 1960s, notes Megan Oglesby, David Congdon’s niece and the executive director of the foundation. “Our long-standing philanthropic focus is to invest in education, critical community needs and economic development to support stabilization.” 

She’s heading up an investor group that is bringing an MLS Next Pro team to High Point. The Carolina Core FC and High Point Rockers baseball team will share the stadium, which is undergoing a $7 million, city-funded upgrade. Truist Point is expected to host about 200 events next year.

“The stadium was never about going crazy over a baseball team,” Wagner says. “It’s about bringing people to an area. It’s about economic development.”

Among the many faces behind the Catalyst, most point to Wagner
as the critical piece. He’s a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill with a law degree from N.C. Central University. He was a banker and teacher before he practiced law.

“You’d never have brought all this together, or kept it moving, with sharp elbows,” says Collins. “I think the mayor has used his elbows the right way. He has an uncanny ability to listen to people and say the right thing at the right time, and really is quite a visionary. And then when dollars are involved you have to be pragmatic, and he is that, too. It’s fair to say the Catalyst wouldn’t be here without him.”

The city of High Point’s spending on the downtown project, including repaying a stadium construction loan, is largely funded through a 490-acre special financing district, created in 2016. Since then, the district’s tax value has increased by 37%, or $250 million, to $934 million. That growth exceeded an expected $100 million gain in 10 years.

“So, half the time, more than twice the amount,” says Chapin, the former Business High Point leader.

Continued growth seems likely. High Point-based Peters Development has assembled 14 parcels with a tax value of $8.3 million within a few blocks of the stadium, Congdon Yards and the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist’s 351-bed High Point Medical Center. Peters CEO Dr. Lenny Peters is founder of Bethany Medical, a chain of physician practices in the Triad.

City leaders say developers from Charlotte and Raleigh have made inquiries in recent months. For now, the city is under contract with Maryland-based Elliot Sidewalk, as the project’s master developer. Elliott developed the Stock & Grain Food Hall, an entertainment/food court just outside of the stadium.

The city’s role will grow, too. The City Council recently authorized the purchase of a nearby building on a 1-acre lot, where it may build a new city hall and a parking deck. That would add several hundred employees and 10,000 monthly visitors to the area.

Wagner expects his successor to help continue the momentum. Among the four mayoral candidates, city council members Victor Jones and Cyril Jefferson are the clear favorites. Both have been solid Catalyst supporters. 

“I don’t see a push to undo anything we’re doing,” says Wagner, who announced in October that he will run for Congress. “The momentum is on our side. Now, this isn’t going to happen tomorrow. This kind of thing takes 20 years, maybe more. But you can see now it’s going to happen. I’m looking forward to living to see it.”

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