By: Jane Margolies (Photo courtesy of Travis Dove for The New York Times)
A redevelopment project in High Point, N.C., is creating a new district to replace a downtown that no longer functions as one.
HIGH POINT, N.C. — On a recent evening, the Rockers were getting ready for a professional baseball game at BB&T Point, the new multipurpose stadium in High Point, a small city about 90 miles west of Raleigh.
On a bulldozed lot just behind the giant scoreboard, a developer was preparing to break ground for a condominium. And beyond the condo site, an old brick textile mill will soon be turned into a hub for furniture makers and design professionals. Also in the offing: an office and retail building, a hotel, apartments and an events center.
They’re all part of an evolving master plan to create a new downtown district for High Point, a city known as the home furnishings capital of the world because of its biannual furniture market, which attracts exhibitors and buyers from across the globe.
“We are the catalyst project,” Ken Lehner, president of BB&T Point and the Rockers, who play in the independent Atlantic League, said on the main concourse of the 4,000-seat stadium.
BB&T Point, named for a regional bank, opened in May after 18 months of construction at a cost of $36 million. From the vantage point of the stadium, the surroundings don’t look like much. But community leaders are determined to create enough activity-generating development to make the area the new center of gravity in High Point, replacing a downtown that no longer functions as one.
“In a lot of ways, we’re building a downtown from the ground up,” Mayor Jay W. Wagner said.
Downtowns in decline are an old story, but this one has a twist. The furniture industry has long been the big economic engine in town, and the downtown area was all but swallowed up by furniture showrooms, most of which are not open to the public on a regular basis.
“We have a downtown essentially devoted to a wholesale trade,” Mr. Wagner said.
The city, which has a population of 114,000, was once a manufacturing powerhouse. After World War II, almost 60 percent of all furniture made in the United States was produced within a 150-mile radius, according to the High Point Museum. Textiles, including women’s hosiery, were made here, too.
In this century, however, companies seeking to reduce costs moved manufacturing overseas, like others in countless industries. Plants were shut down, and workers were laid off.
What saved High Point was its furniture market. Started over a century ago, it’s the largest furnishings trade show in the world, said Tom Conley, president and chief executive of the High Point Market Authority, which orchestrates the event.
Every April and October, furniture companies display their new collections for retailers, interior designers, magazine editors and design bloggers, all of whom pour into town, packing hotels and restaurants.
The market attracts more than 150,000 visitors annually and is North Carolina’s largest economic event, generating more than $6.7 billion a year, according to a recent study by the Duke University Global Value Chains Center.
For High Point, the market is both “a blessing and a curse,” said Patrick Chapin, president and chief executive of Business High Point — Chamber of Commerce.
The event depends on furniture showrooms, which opened at first in the early-20th-century buildings on and around Main Street. In time, enormous structures, some as tall as 13 stories, were erected, looming over neighboring buildings. There are more than 180 showrooms in all, totaling about 12 million square feet.
The showrooms provide tax revenue and support the furniture market. But for most of the year, they are dark, and downtown is quiet. You don’t see people ducking in and out of shops on foot as you do in vibrant urban centers with a mix of retail offerings.
Other cities in the state, including Durham and nearby Greensboro, have revitalized their downtowns, but High Point’s has languished.
In 2016, community leaders put together a strategy, which has involved the city’s buying land a couple of blocks north of the old downtown and earmarking it for the new district. New furniture showrooms are prohibited there.
Covering 11 acres, including seven for the stadium, the new district has been laid out by Elliott Sidewalk Communities, a developer based in Baltimore. The company is spending $80 million to develop five buildings on the remaining four acres in a project called the Outfields. Construction of the mixed-use building next to the stadium will begin in August, said Tim Elliott, a founder and managing partner of the company, and Cana Development of Baltimore will open a food hall on the first floor.
In addition, a children’s museum, a park and a playground are in the works. That might sound ambitious for a small city, but there’s considerable money behind the projects.
Nido Qubein, the president of High Point University, said he had raised $63 million from private sources, some of which went to equip the stadium and pay for a team to play in it. A nonprofit organization was set up to serve as the team’s owner.
Mr. Qubein said some of the students at his school, which has an experiential learning approach, would gain real-life experience working at the stadium and other new projects.
“We wanted downtown to be more vibrant because that is good for us,” he said.
Some of the money came from David Congdon, the executive chairman of the board of Old Dominion Freight Line, who steered funds to the stadium through his family’s Earl and Kathryn Congdon Family Foundation.
Mr. Congdon also bought the 1932 hosiery mill that will be Plant 7, a co-working and maker space. He is leasing the building for $1 annually to Business High Point — Chamber of Commerce, which operates it.
On a recent tour led by Louis Cherry, founding principal at Louis Cherry Architecture, which is planning the renovation of the four-story mill, enormous mushroom columns soared to the ceiling of the second floor, which will become the co-working area.
On the floor below, the maker space will have 3-D printers and other machinery for use by furniture makers and lighting designers. They will be able to display their wares in gallery spaces on the third floor. Renovation of the building is scheduled to begin in November.
“We can never bring mass manufacturing back, but we can support small-batch manufacturing,” Mr. Chapin, the chamber of commerce leader, said.
Mr. Congdon also plans to buy the 1929 former mill next to Plant 7, where events will take place until the new events center is built.
At the stadium, attendance was more than 53,000 fans through 27 home games, according to the Rockers website.
“They’ve won every game I’ve been here,” said Laura Ruiz, a district manager for Circle K Stores who was at the stadium before the Rockers took on the Barnstormers of Lancaster, Pa. “I love baseball.”
That night, the home team notched a win, 8 to 2.