On Nov. 19, NCGrowth visited High Point, North Carolina, to learn more about the city’s unique legacy, recent developments and future revitalization efforts.
Marshall Yandle and Sandy Dunbeck of the High Point Economic Development Corporation hosted the day-long event, which began in the city council chambers with an overview of the city’s recent economic development efforts.
High Point was established in 1859, with its name derived from its location at the highest point along the North Carolina railroad. Jazz legend John Coltrane grew up there. Thomas Built Buses continues to build school buses at the edge of downtown, and the city has a strong manufacturing legacy—particularly in the furniture industry. Most prominently, the city is known globally for its twice-yearly furniture market, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors from around the world.
While High Point’s population has surpassed 100,000, it currently faces an unusual challenge in that the central portion of its downtown functions solely as furniture market showrooms. While locals refer to downtown as “mini Manhattan” during the market, the city has taken recent steps to generate more year-round vitality. These include a new ballpark-centered area to the north of the showroom district and revitalization of the city’s southwest quadrant, hit hard by deindustrialization, through place-based small manufacturing. Stakeholders present on the tour provided key insights into efforts to create sustainable jobs and bring economic growth to the city.
The tour began with a visit to Acme Sample, a maker of stack books and swatches that allow customers at furniture showrooms across the country to choose their materials. While Acme began as a family business in 1958, the P&A Group currently owns it, as well as a number of other legacy small manufacturers. The factory has received technical assistance from NCGrowth and has an eye toward the future. While vintage German machinery from the 1960s drew visitor attention, the company has made significant capital investments, added a second shift, and acquired a separate printing business that produces 210,000 golf scorecards a week.
After Acme Sample, the tour progressed to a very different kind of production facility: Cohab Space. Located in the heart of the southwest area, Cohab has renovated much of the former Melrose Mill and reconfigured it as a multi-use space. According to founder John Mouldoon, Cohab derives much of its revenue from on-site market showroom activity that blends retail and wholesale. This has allowed Cohab to attain enough financing to activate the ground floors, showcase the building and attract other tenants. The space has held pop-up events with food trucks and also houses a small bar. In the future, Mouldoon hopes to add a café and renovate the upper floor. While the market initially drew Mouldoon to the area, he sees a continued niche for high-end designers and producers and sees a need for a “cool” space in High Point and the city’s potential as a place for producers to grow in a price competitive industry.
At Cohab, Sumela’s Catering provided a delicious lunch, during the course of which community members introduced their organizations to the group. Dorothy Darr, founder of neighborhood and environmental advocacy group Southwest Renewal, discussed efforts to extend greenways. Ray Gibbs from Forward High Point provided an overview of the catalytic stadium development and discussed placemaking efforts such as an improved public library plaza. Jakki Davis told the inspirational story of how her nonprofit, D-Up, has grown from a mobile gym focused on teaching the fundamentals of basketball and simultaneously supporting students’ broader development to include a free summer camp and afterschool programs that expand upon that foundation. Artie Campana of Cisco Brothers told the story of his company’s operations at Highland Mills, a formerly neglected space that now produces artisanal furniture. The Los Angeles-based company first envisioned Highland Mills as a warehouse to access market customers but has since begun manufacturing and added jobs there.
Following lunch, Marshall Yandle led the group on a bus tour of High Point’s Core City. North of the railroad tracks that divide the city, the bus passed Plant 7, a future year-round furniture incubator and production space. Nearby, plans also exist for a new event center. Notably, zoning in the area north of the tracks bans new dedicated showroom space. In that area, the tour made its longest stop at BB&T Point, the new ballpark. More than just a stadium, BB&T Point provides a new community gathering space. It has a wide outfield promenade, intended for fan interaction, and the street in front closes for a festival every weekend during the summer.
Before proceeding to the southwest quadrant, the tour made a pit stop at city hall, where Maria Mayorga discussed her work with the Latino Family Center. Continued manufacturing employment and the low cost of living have drawn recent immigrants to the area, and today, roughly 10 percent of the city’s population is Latino. The tour then passed the restored Tomlinson Chair factory, now a showroom, and Pandora’s Manor, a high-end bed and breakfast owned by a furnishings company. On the way into the southside, the tour also passed Fairview Elementary, where collectively, students speak more than 22 languages.
Tony Collins of the Southside Neighborhood Association gave a brief neighborhood tour along a complete section of greenway, which he envisions as a place to build community. On the way out of that area, the bus passed Calvary Baptist Church, the oldest African-American church in High Point, and several new LEED certified row houses. Residents in the area can qualify for the Core City Homebuyer Program that provides up to $5,000 in assistance.
The tour concluded with a visit to Verena Designs, a long-time small manufacturer in Southwest High Point. Verena has designed and manufactured ladies’ eveningwear in the city since 1989 and draws her experience from the lace tradition in her hometown of Plauen, Germany. Verena has endless stories that include the intricate nature of her work and anecdotes on clients that have ranged from royalty to Hollywood stars. Today, her son helps run the business, which also includes on-site sales and a web presence that will help prepare it for the next generation.
By the end of the visit, it became clear that High Point may be one of the most unique cities in North Carolina, and the immersive revealed the depth of knowledge, collaboration and commitment that exists there. Rather than forget its roots, the city and its southwest quadrant appear poised for a new, reimagined generation of production and vitality.
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