Making Smart Growth Happen
High Point, N.C. — Creating a year-round downtown destination
Cities dream about becoming a world-wide destination. But it’s not necessarily a dream come true when the city is a destination only twice a year.
That’s the dilemma facing High Point, N.C., popularly known as the Furniture Capital of the World. Twice a year — in April and October — more than 75,000 exhibitors and attendees come to High Point for the world’s largest home furnishings trade show. That’s a big economic driver for a city with a population of slightly more than 100,000. Twice a year, hotels, restaurants and retail shops are booming. Twice a year the economy spikes. But a city’s retail, commercial and residential market can’t thrive on two annual economic peaks.
“High Point doesn’t have a traditional downtown. We have beautiful buildings that are empty most of the year,” says Nicole Arnold, government affairs director for the High Point Association of REALTORS® (HPRAR). “We’ve realized we need to change our view of downtown. We need a heart-and-soul downtown.”
With the goal of attracting new residents and more frequent visitors, High Point’s community leaders are working together on a plan called Ignite High Point that will turn under-utilized portions of the city into a bustling, thriving downtown that will make it a year-round destination. Ignite High Point kicked off its planning efforts with a week-long series of presentations and workshops, also known as a charrette, earlier this May that attracted hundreds of participants. HPRAR was a sponsor of the event and also secured a $15,000 Smart Growth Grant from NAR to help fund the charrette.
Architect and urban planner Andres Duany — the well-known leader of New Urbanism — spoke to the crowd of 500 community and business leaders and concerned citizens about how High Point can turn economic spikes into sustained prosperity. During the charrettes, participants learned about and discussed such topics as transportation; streetscapes and curb appeal; and the need to grow retail downtown. Duany said the time is right for action.
“This is a place that’s awake. You may be in decline, but you’re not in trouble,” Duany said during his opening presentation. “You’re economically viable and you’re catching the decline early.”
To stem the decline, Duany told the charrette participants that removing excessive regulatory red tape — which he called a ‘pink-zone approach’ — will allow retailers to invest in the downtown and help attract regular visitors. Duany said that central to any revitalization plan is to attract Millennials to High Point. He noted that every year 50,000 college and university students graduate within a 75-minute drive of High Point. These graduates are looking for their next step and often prefer living in established downtowns that offer transportation, retail and entertainment. Convincing Millennials to visit and move to High Point would invigorate the economy now and in decades to come.
To achieve that dream, Duany had several recommendations that would provide an aesthetic redesign and quickly help boost the perspective of downtown. Those initial recommendations include implementation of a roundabout to alleviate traffic congestion around the Health Center; changes in the traffic flow around and the addition of green space to the downtown library area; and using an existing city-owned parking area known as The Pit as an open-air festival area. The roundabout has already been constructed with positive results. All of the proposed changes are designed to help transform the downtown and create a destination experience.
HPRAR, with the help of a second $15,000 NAR Smart Growth grant, is helping keep the momentum for Ignite High Point going. This second grant will help with the planning of the library redesign and Pit project. Arnold says city and business leaders, residents and HPRAR members are excited by the transformative energy surrounding Ignite High Point.
“Ignite High Point has helped our members realize they have a collective impact on their community,” she explained. “They know that as REALTORS® they are ambassadors for the community on an individual and collective level. This whole process has demonstrated the strength of the association and has been a real confidence builder. Our members believe they can make a difference.”
Richard Wood, board chair of The City Project which is the collaborative umbrella organization of Ignite High Point, agrees enthusiasm and engagement are essential to any successful long-term revitalization. Wood says High Point has a history of bucking conventional wisdom; citing the city’s unlikely position as the hub of the furniture market as an example. He says High Point has a penchant for finding and capitalizing on unique opportunities.
“Every town in America is trying to rejuvenate its downtown,” Wood said during a recent local television interview. “So many things have been done here in High Point and done successfully. High Point’s always been able to do things people say they couldn’t do.”
“The Ignite High Point process has encouraged the city to not think of this as another pie-in-the-sky idea, says Arnold. “There is no denying that people are intently interested in the project. It’s very exciting.”
Strong city hall and community participation and positive outcomes from some first-step initiatives are already spelling success for Ignite High Point and supporters are confident they will continue to create and implement a revitalization plan that will turn the dream of sustainable vitality into reality.