High Point, North Carolina, is furnishing itself a new economic development gambit — a stadium.
The furniture manufacturing hub located 75 miles north of Charlotte is selling $35 million in taxable bonds this week to finance a 5,000-seat stadium for the local Bluefish minor league baseball team. The stadium is part of the city’s plan to revitalize its downtown with restaurants, shops and new apartments.
The project comes as the manufacturing sector in the city, which calls itself the Home Furnishings Capital of the World, recovers from the recession. City manager Greg Demko said the project will help fight urban blight in an area where the commercial tax base has declined by an estimated $250 million since 2008, an 11% drop, according to city estimates.
“The construction of a stadium is like an anchor for the revitalization and development of a downtown,” Demko said. “What we’re really interested in is not necessarily the stadium but the development around it.”
Still, revitalization won’t come cheap, and such stadium projects don’t always bring about the economic development promised. The city will pay back the bonds with lease revenue, facility and parking fees, naming rights, and general fund appropriations, according to S&P Global Ratings, which rates the deal AA+.
A private fundraising push led by High Point University President Nido Qubein raised $50 million to help buy the team and to support the creation of projects near the stadium, such as a children’s museum and an events center.
The city, which is home to the World’s Largest Chest of Drawers, is celebratory of its manufacturing history. But like many cities reliant on such an industry, it was hit hard due to competition with cheaper labor abroad. The number of manufacturing jobs in Guilford County, which is home to High Point, is down 36% from January 1990, the earliest year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While the local furniture manufacturing industry has constricted, other types of manufacturing jobs that need the same skills from workers have expanded post-recession, said Loren Hill, president of the High Point Economic Development Corporation. About 56,400 people were employed by the manufacturing sector in November 2017, which is the highest figure for a month since December 2008, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Thomas Built Buses, a bus manufacturing company, is a major city employer and last year said it would expand further, according to bond documents. Aviation manufacturing company HAECO also said last year it would construct a new facility at the nearby Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, documents note.
“The companies are expanding because we have the workforce here that’s used to manufacturing,” Hill said. “Furniture is still extraordinarily important to us. It’s just changed.”
Officials want the project to add 500 jobs and 15 to 20 new restaurants and shops in the area, according to city documents. Already, 164,000 people come to the city for the High Point Market, which is the world’s largest international home furnishings trade show, bond documents say. Demko said he’s hoping to stadium will boost the number of visitors to the city even more. The Bluefish, which will likely start playing in High Point in 2019, is part of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. The league was attracted to High Point because city officials were prepared to build a new stadium, said Frank Boulton, founder of the Atlantic League.
While using taxpayer money for stadium projects is controversial, Boulton said the High Point case is unique because of the amount of private money being used.
“This is really about pride in your community,” he said, “quality of life.”
By Amanda Albright