Will I die in a Mediocre City?

Several years ago a Guilford County Commissioner told me, chuckling, that he had just heard Jim Melvin, Greensboro’s former mayor, defend some of his ideas for Greensboro’s downtown improvements by saying this: “I don’t want to die in a mediocre city.”

The sentiment resonates.

Last week WordPress sent me my blog statistics for 2013.  Among other data (e.g. this blog was read by folks in 67 countries, thanks mainly, I’m sure, to Google and key search terms), I learned that my post with the most hits was “Fixing a Screwed Up City,” an essay on the travails of my hometown, High Point, and the city’s decision to hire Andres Duany, called the “father of new urbanism,” to develop a master plan to fix High Point’s woes.

As I stated in that post,

“High Point’s population doubles during each of the fall and spring International Home Furnishings Markets.  As a wholesale trade show event, none of the furniture showrooms, which occupy a vast majority of the downtown space, is open to the public either during or between markets.

 In other words, we have a downtown that is permanently closed to the citizens of the city.

 On top of that we have little to no downtown public space, one way streets designed to move cars as quickly as possible from points A to B without an ability (or interest) to stop at points in between, a Main Street with an average actual speed between 45 and 51 mph depending upon time of day, and our hottest entertainment area is an outparcel-heavy district on Highway 68, three miles from downtown.

  “Screwed up,” perhaps, is a polite understatement.

One year earlier, my most read post was titled “Death of a Hero,” a tribute to Max Heller, the former business leader and mayor who led the sleepy textile city of Greenville, South Carolina into a period of renaissance that no southern city has yet to fully emulate.

The differences between High Point and Greenville are many, but the main difference is this: Greenville has been led by risk-takers with a vision.  High Point seems to be occupied by a critical mass of citizen-naysayers who fight any vision other than “what is.”  When your downtown is permanently closed to the citizens of your city, an alarm bell should go off that something is wrong and must change.

Allow me to be repetitive.  Other cities take steps to give people reasons to visit their downtown.  In High Point the issue is not just finding a reason. The real problem is finding a business that hasn’t intentionally locked us out.  Except for one hotel and one isolated restaurant, I cannot think of a single building on Main Street in our downtown that, come Monday morning, I would be allowed to enter.  I’m an outcast in my own city, and unless you own one of the downtown furniture showrooms, you are too.

In stunning contrast, when I visit my law firm’s Greenville office later this month I will join a parade of people on its Main Street trying to decide which of the many restaurants and stores to walk into for lunch or coffee.

As the Duany plan I earlier wrote about has materialized, it has rightfully been subjected to questions and criticisms.  That’s not the problem.

The problem is that for decades High Pointers have complained that we have no downtown similar to other cities.  No entertainment and restaurant district inside the city other than (1) strip areas farther north on our Main Street cluttered with signs on poles and over-head wires and (2) areas that are technically inside the city but which are closer to Greensboro than the city’s core.  Now that we’ve hired a world-renowned urban planner to give us ideas, the carping and whining seems to have gotten louder, only now the object of scorn is the plan for improvement.

The Sunday before Christmas, the retired editor of the High Point Enterprise wrote a long column that supported nothing about the Duany plan, did not acknowledge the in-your-face problem with how this city has developed, and offered no alternative vision.  Rather, he presented a series of petty, nit-picking, disgruntled comments. His column referenced the Duany plan complaints he heard at various Christmas gatherings, and it followed months of letters to the editor decrying the Duany group ideas and the costs of implementation.

This was not an isolated occurrence.

When Nido Qubein became president of High Point University in 2005, the city fought his efforts to transform a sleepy regional college into a major employer and driver of cultural life in the city.  Rezoning neighboring rent houses for gorgeous new campus buildings and the erection of a billboard on campus were hard fought battles.  When growth came fast, the university was actually asked to declare the outer boundaries of its expansion and to promise never to go beyond them.

The public’s opinion about HPU has changed.  But my point is that, as a city, our natural bent was to fight this vision and change until the results were too compelling to deny.

Great cities – like great institutions and great people – don’t become great by accident.  Greatness requires vision, hard work, risks, and the ability to acknowledge and learn from failure and move on.

Greenville has taken many chances, and in the process it has nurtured a culture of “yes, we can do this.”  High Point has business leaders and council members capable of leading in this type of environment. But too often it seems they swim against the tide of a local culture sadly epitomized by our former editor who thinks that throwing rocks and complaining is, in some twisted way, a contribution to the city’s success.

HPU’s president, Nido Qubein, spoke at a Chamber of Commerce event a few years ago and said (in paraphrase) something like this: A community is like a business.  Sometimes it has to change its culture in order to move forward, but a city can’t change its culture until it changes its attitude.

For High Point to do what Greenville and Wilmington and Salisbury and Charlotte and Greensboro and Winston-Salem and Asheville and even Fayetteville have done, it needs a new culture and a new attitude.

I don’t want to die in a mediocre city, either.

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Comments
3 Responses to “Will I die in a Mediocre City?”
  1. Spence says:

    While coming home for the holidays to HP, my favorite time was listening to my stepfather’s stories about High Point back in the 50s and 60s and how amazing of a city it was. There was no regret or longing, just fascination about the heritage of my hometown. Having lived in Chicago and LA now since graduating college, I come home and see so many opportunities to take small risks to improve our city (I only care about downtown- not the sprawling desperation towards GSO). It’s a beautiful place in many ways.

    With the recession, many young professionals in HP moved back in with their parents and stayed in HP. The town now has more skilled 20 somethings with college degrees than it has since 2000…and they have little to enjoy except for working at North State or visiting a “Blue” restaurant- I saw all of them…they were at the bike race in front of IHFC last year that nobody knew about.

    Interesting post…would be great to get a room together of young folks with some wiser enterprising and successful business leaders in HP to get more engaged….aside from attending Ducks Unlimited banquets.

  2. Justin says:

    Tom,

    Here is another blog post you may find worthwhile. Chuck Marohn is an advocate of the traditional development pattern and recently toured through NC. His thoughts and analysis of High Point are interesting. Even empty 50 weeks out of the year, downtown is the most financially productive area for the city. Imagine if it were allowed to expand and improve as Duany has proposed.

    http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2013/12/20/best-of-blog-the-foolproof-city.html#.UssGHvRDsWY

  3. I appreciate your well written and thoughtful words. I grew up in High Point and I am now raising my young family here.

    I’m the chair of the Art and Graphic Design program at HPU and I hear so many young people almost begging for something to appear downtown so they can connect with the city that hosts their University.

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