Friday was a perfect day for baseball in Downtown High Point.
The weather was just right. There was music, giveaways, crowded bleachers, even a first pitch. Really, it was everything baseball except the actual baseball. But that didn't much matter.
"I'm a second grade teacher at High Point Friends School," Amelia Catanoso said, surrounded by excited children. "We brought our second grade class and our kindergarteners out today to represent our school and support the community. This is an awesome project, and I know the kids are stoked."
"I guess it's just the anticipation of what's going on," Gwen Nettles said as she filmed the event with her tablet. "I'm just looking forward to 'greater.' You know, always looking for 'greater.'"
Catanoso and Nettles, along with hundreds of others, were on hand for the official first day of physical work on the High Point stadium project. They called it "Demo Day."
Come spring 2019, if all goes according to plan, the people who gathered Friday near the corner of Church and Pine in Downtown High Point may be sitting in a $30-million stadium watching baseball next to this outgoing Mayor Bill Bencini.
"We didn't really promote this event that much and we've got a very very big crowd here," Bencini said, shortly before throwing out the day's "first pitch." "I think there's a lot of enthusiasm today for what's getting ready to happen. I think there's a lot of enthusiasm for what High Point is becoming."
Bencini is one of the many people who pushed to make this economic development project happen.
The whole shebang – a stadium, children's museum, hotel, event center – is a public-private partnership, which means there's taxpayer money on the line and a question in the air: do projects like this really light a fire under downtown growth?
UNC Greensboro economist Keith Debbage says they do. Sometimes. And the best of those projects have committed partners behind them.
"The projects that do succeed, you have a flag bearer who leads the charge," he says. "In the case of High Point, you couldn't have a bolder, [more] high-charging flag bearer than Nido Qubein."
Qubein is the charismatic president of High Point University who raised tens of millions of dollars in private commitments for the downtown development. Debbage also points to BB&T and mega-developer Roy Carroll as vital parts of the equation.
But he also sees headwinds. After all, this is a first of its kind project in a city with a unique rhythm.
"It's a very peculiar, sort of twice-a-year downtown in the sense that it comes alive when the furniture market's there. But after that it's not quite the downtown it is during market time."
North Carolina A&T economist Scott Simkins agrees. He says when you're adding new attractions to existing ones – say a restaurant opening near a performing arts center – you're adding value. People will stay and spend money. But when you're essentially building something new, the question of whether or not outsiders will see it as a destination is vital.
"The big benefit comes when there's spending that comes into the area from outside the area," he says. "If it's just redistributing spending that otherwise would have occurred somewhere else in the city, you're not going to have an overall big impact on incomes or jobs."
Which isn't to say the High Point project can't succeed. It can, and Simkins says even if this project doesn't have economic benefits quite as big as advertised, it can still be important. After all, reducing crime in blighted areas, raising property values, and lifting morale are all arguably good for a region having a tough time.
"If a city doesn't do these sorts of things then they may continue a downward trend," Simkins says. "So doing these things still can be beneficial at stopping the downward trend."
Whatever the case, both economists says patience will be key in gauging the ultimate success of the final project.
Back at the stadium site, the demolition has begun, and all this econ talk doesn't matter much, at least for now.
High Point resident Kimberly Patrick came with her friend to the groundbreaking. She's excited for Downtown High Point now, even though she used to live in the city next door.
"I've been in Greensboro most of my life, and so of course I know about the Grasshoppers. And [I'm hearing] about the new baseball team that's going to be here," she says excitedly. "I'll be here! Every game. I hope they have fireworks."
If Friday's turnout is any indication, many folks here are ready to see the fireworks too.