News: CJ Exclusives

High Point getting closer to bringing taxpayer-funded stadium home

Local Government Commission OKs $35 million bond for facility to host Independent League team

Artist rendering of the High Point stadium complex. (Image from Odell Associates)
Artist rendering of the High Point stadium complex. (Image from Odell Associates)

High Point is closer to getting a professional baseball team.

The Local Government Commission on Wednesday approved up to $35 million in limited obligation bonds to build a multi-use stadium. The Guilford County Board of Commissioners has yet to approve the city’s request for county revenue.

City resident James Adams objected to using public money on what he and others believe is a risky venture.

“I am not against the stadium,” Adams said. He opposes the construction rush to host the unaffiliated Bridgeport Bluefish team for the 2019 season.

“Shouldn’t the community have a voice in matters such as this?” Adams asked, suggesting the bond package be part of a ballot referendum.

Local Government Commission Secretary Greg Gaskins said the city met commission minimum requirements for bond approval, to be paid back over 20 years. Standard & Poor lists the city’s bond rating at AA+. Fitch rates it AA-. The city already paid $16 million in land acquisition and other upfront costs.

Frank Boulton of New York owns the Bluefish, which is losing its stadium in Connecticut and will be strictly a road team in 2018. A nonprofit ownership group has been assembled in High Point to acquire the team. A sports foundation was formed, and it would pay any stadium costs above the $35 million bond cap.

The Bluefish play in the Atlantic League, which isn’t affiliated with Major League Baseball. The team would evenly split a 140-game schedule at home and on the road once a stadium is built.

Adams said many economists have concluded taxpayers rarely get their money’s worth from publicly funded sports stadiums. He cited ballparks in New Jersey. Camden and Atlantic City hosted Atlantic League pro baseball teams that failed to attract fans and revenue. The stadiums closed, leaving taxpayers footing multimillion-dollar bills.

Shuttered stadiums across the country have common elements, Adams said. More and more taxpayer money is spent, construction costs exceed initial estimates, and projected revenue doesn’t materialize.

Nearby Thomasville, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem all field professional baseball teams..

But City Manager Greg Demko said studies show a potential market of 230,000 people, mostly south of High Point around Archdale, High Point, and Trinity. Data shows those areas have higher median income than Greensboro and Winston-Salem to the north, and their residents are unlikely patrons of the existing baseball teams.

Demko told the Local Government Commission that bringing the Bluefish to High Point is vital to revitalizing the downtown core. The prospect already generated local commitments to build a children’s museum, events center, park, hotel, and 200 apartments encircling the stadium, with plans for restaurants and retail shops.

High Point University President Nido Qubein spearheaded a philanthropy committee that raised $50 million in pledges toward revitalization projects, Demko said.

“I’ve never experienced the amount of optimism in our city that I feel right now,” Demko said.

But the city needs the bond package. In the past eight years the downtown core lost about $125 million in tax value, as blight, drug issues, lack of zoning inspections, and other problems have surfaced.

“Our downtown resembles kind of a Hollywood movie set 48 weeks of the year,” said Demko, who cited idle furniture showrooms, Demko said. Those once-bustling buildings now buzz just a few weeks in April and October when about 80,000 visitors shop at popular annual furniture trade shows.

Because so much of the downtown is expansive showroom space the city can’t reclaim its unique business district in a traditional block-by-block renovation of restaurants and shops by private developers, Demko said.

City officials aren’t sure why Guilford County has yet to vote to support the project, but its contribution isn’t needed to make the deal work. High Point wants the county to plow any tax revenue generated from development of a 649-acre economic development zone into bond repayments. The county has said it needs more time to vet the proposal.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, Local Government Commission chairman, expressed reservations about approving the bond.

“My fear is as things get cranking, and more people throw more money at you, that you will not use money to ease this debt, that you will use it to expand something else,” he said.

He abstained from what was an otherwise unanimous vote for approval, hinting at concerns over publicly funded sports venues.

“I have had a long history with stadiums, and I can tell you no one in this room wishes you as much success as I do,” said Folwell, a High Point native. “Maybe you can be the shining example of how to do this properly.”