As much as High Point leaders love it each spring and fall when more than 70,000 furniture makers, exhibitors and buyers descend on the city for the High Point Market, they know their downtown needs more than the showrooms that dominate it. For one thing, most of the approximately 180 buildings, which contain 12 million square feet of exhibit space, are used only a dozen or so days each year — each market is six days. The lack of activity the rest of the year makes it hard to attract restaurants, stores and other businesses downtown.
The solution, officials say, is to set boundaries on where showrooms can be established. It’s a controversial topic that has been discussed by City Council at least two years, and it’s scheduled to come to a vote this month.
Most opponents are downtown property owners outside the proposed 249-acre district. They worry that values will go down if the buildings can’t be used for showrooms. Among them is Rod Townsend, who owns Union Square. He is sympathetic to the city’s goals but says some of the land excluded from the district has no other use: “There are abandoned buildings, a taxicab stand and an old bus station. It doesn’t make much sense to me to exclude this area when there’s no other use besides showrooms.”
Despite his misgivings, Townsend seems resigned to the district. Mayor Becky Smothers, initially a supporter of the district, isn’t so sure anymore. The markets contribute $1.2 billion a year to the state’s economy. She acknowledges it’s risky to mess with success and won’t predict how the council will act. “To try to encourage other activity becomes a double-edged sword. We started this to try to create opportunity for underutilized property in the immediate downtown area. Because of the current economy, it has become improbable that it would work because there’s not as much investment going on.”
Regardless of how the vote turns out, she believes the discussion has improved downtown. Some showroom owners have found alternative uses for their property between market weeks. For example, she says, one showroom owner recently held a beach-music concert. “The ultimate goal was trying to jump-start activity for underutilized properties. We feel like there is an opportunity for the temporary showrooms to have life after market.”