I feel like an ocean liner at full speed ahead trying to make a sharp right turn. It’s not happening fast, but slow and steady the turn is coming thanks to an hour-long chat with a guy named Ralph Huff. More about him later.
I’m talking about my take on this baseball stadium that has consumed the Fayetteville City Council and many of the downtown supporters this past year. I was never against it, but I had my doubts. I want to say it’s the realist in me when in fact it could be the curmudgeon in me.
You see, I’ve witnessed many projects that were supposed to catapult our downtown to that higher level of livability. While each added something to making downtown a purposeful destination, none brought it over the top.
I was there as a Fayetteville Observer city reporter when they moved the Stein Library (now Arts Center) into the new and modern downtown Cumberland County Public Library, complete with public art and a hospitable lobby for the homeless. The library on Maiden Lane replaced an automobile dealership.
I was there when they tore up Hay Street and put in the $7 million Transit Mall, consisting of beautiful pavers, landscaping and Hurley pots. The Feds paid for most of it, and the deal was no cars on the mall, only buses. City Councilman Milo McBryde coined the term “Hurley pots” in jesting honor of downtown revitalization champion and then-Fayetteville Mayor Bill Hurley. Not everyone supported the transit mall. In fact, McBryde and his father moved their optometrist shop from Hay Street to Bragg Boulevard. He and some merchants argued that taking away on-street parking directly in front of their stores would hurt business.
I was there when they razed Hay Street’s infamous 500 block, killing off the Seven Dwarfs and a dozen other seedy watering holes.
And I served as the city’s spokesman when it refurbished the former Highsmith Rainey Hospital (turned into a 1960s Woolworths) for a City Hall. Oh, they renovated the nearly vacant Prince Charles Hotel into a historic showpiece as part of the City Hall project. It didn’t last.
Each was a spark in downtown revitalization but never a sustaining flame. Apparently, none of the sparks were big enough to ignite revitalization.
The heck with sparks. Here comes 67-year-old Ralph Huff with a flamethrower. He’s a former realtor, company manager, company owner, homebuilder, real estate developer, and now an apartment and commercial builder. He nurtured 1990 pocket change into wealth that lets him support a variety of civic and cultural programs that he says will make Fayetteville a better place to live.
Two years ago, he and about 100 friends raised $65,000 to promote the city’s parks and recreation bond referendum that pledged a tax increase to building and upgrading recreational facilities. The passing of the referendum spurred him and those friends to form Vision 2026. It’s a committee of about 125 people committed to making Fayetteville a better place to live.
The committee has a plan: build a baseball stadium in the right place, renovate the Prince Charles Hotel into a 60-unit apartment complex with a first-class hotel next door, support the Civil War History Center and build a performing arts center.
“The day we pay off the Crown Coliseum mortgage, we ought to be laying the cornerstones of the performing arts center,” Huff said.
But first, the baseball stadium. Huff finagled the City Council to move the stadium from what he called “the wrong location” to the area adjacent to the Prince Charles Hotel. He wrangled them one by one and showed them the site behind the Prince Charles, describing how the stadium would fit on the site and in the greater scheme of things.
“I told them that the business community would not back a baseball park that was not walkable from downtown,” he said.
Maybe this time it will be more than a spark. Maybe it’ll be a home run.