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Ray Gibbs working to make downtown High Point vibrant

HIGH POINT, N.C. -- The Furniture Market closes its twice-annual run and downtown High Point dies. For years, that’s been the general impression.

Ray Gibbs sees it differently.

“We don’t want to lose the market,” he told me during a recent interview. “We want to enhance the market.”

Gibbs is the currently the only employee of Forward High Point. It’s a public-private partnership nonprofit the city established in the late summer of 2016. It’s mission: make downtown High Point vibrant year-round.

Forward High Point gets $250,000 every year from the city and has a board that includes people in the business community, the mayor and the city manager.

Geographically, the plan is simple: everything south of the railroad tracks will be known as the “Furniture District.” It includes most of the big showroom buildings and will, for the most part, stay the same 12 months out of the year.

The area north of the tracks from an economic development standpoint, you could call it “the promised land.”

“Now there becomes other options for those property owners,” Gibbs said. “They don’t have a furniture showroom as the only option. They can rent to somebody who may want to open a restaurant, bakery or an artisan shop of some sort.”

But to get to that point, Gibbs feels you need catalysts: big things that automatically draw people downtown. No catalyst is as big as the more than $30 million stadium the city and Forward High Point plan to build.

While it’ll primarily be a baseball stadium, teams will also be able to play soccer and football there. It will also be capable of hosting concerts.

Gibbs feels the stadium will spur as many as 300 new residential units downtown, not to mention retail shops, restaurants and offices.

“Our timeline is very aggressive,” he said. “Our hope is we can have a team playing in April of 2019.”

The city recently approved $15 million to buy the land and pay for preliminary design plans as well as environmental studies.

Plans call for leveling the former High Point Enterprise building and several surrounding structures and put the stadium there.

Once built, the stadium will be owned by the city. But it’ll be leased to and run by a group that owns the baseball team that will play in it. Forward High Point already has a commitment from the independent Atlantic League for a team franchise pending completion of the ballpark and other stipulations.

Taxes will not go up. Gibbs says any debt the city accumulates from building the stadium would be paid off by several things including lease payments, the sale of naming rights and new tax revenue generated by downtown businesses the stadium will attract.

“We no longer just want to accept who we are,” Gibbs said. “We want to be better.”