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News
Rockers hit hard by pandemic

HIGH POINT — Many tenant-landlord relationships have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, and one involving the city-owned stadium is no exception.

The loss of the High Point Rockers baseball season wiped out the team’s primary revenue source for the year. High Point Baseball Inc., the nonprofit that operates the team, has not paid the city the $300,000 for the lease of Truist Point and the $500,000 in naming rights proceeds that are due every Oct. 31.

The two sides report that they’re working on a compromise.

What options are under consideration? Modifications of lease terms? Extension of the deadline? The city isn’t saying.

“We are in talks with them,” Assistant City Manager Eric Olmedo said. “At some point, there will be a council discussion. That’s about all I can say.”

The financing plan that the city used to make the case for the stadium in 2017 relies on $300,000 in annual lease payments from the team to the city for 20 years and $500,000 a year for 15 years in naming rights donations from Truist Bank.

The naming-rights money comes to the city from the team, not the bank, Olmedo said.

Both revenue streams are supposed to go to pay off the city’s bond debt on the stadium, under the financing plan the city presented to multiple organizations in 2017, including the North Carolina Local Government Commission.

Other sources that the city plans to use for the bond debt include incremental property tax revenue from new development around the stadium, a portion of ticket sales from Rockers games and a $250,000-a-year commitment from Visit High Point.

The city’s total projected repayment on the stadium bonds, including interest, is $49.7 million through 2038. This year’s payment is $2.62 million.

Rockers President Pete Fisch said the idea of not passing on the naming rights money this year “hasn’t really been discussed,” but the loss of 70 Atlantic League home games poses a major financial threat.

“We’re looking at every element of our agreement with the city, and that includes the naming rights,” he said. “Our main source of business and source of revenue was basically not just slashed — it was eliminated. Obviously, this is an unprecedented year. I don’t think anybody putting together a lease or a user agreement could ever plan for what we’re going through. We would have never envisioned we would not play a single Rockers game during the season.”

The stadium has hosted more than 250 amateur baseball games this year, but state restrictions on mass gatherings limit the number of fans who can attend.

“We’ve opened for lunch. We’ve opened for dinner. We’ve shown that the ballpark is a viable venue, despite not having Rockers baseball,” Fisch said. “We’re looking at making sure, every month, we can take care of our responsibilities and get to next season.”

The goal is to get an Atlantic League schedule set for 2021 and begin planning for next season.

“I think we’re in a position where we should be able to do that without a problem,” Fisch said. “The city’s been a really good partner in opening the lines of dialog to talk about how we’re going to deal with this for this year and also going forward.”

pkimbrough@hpenews.com | 336-888-3531


News
Tragic 1970 blaze haunts fallen firefighter’s daughter

HIGH POINT

The call came in shortly after 8 p.m.

Fifteen-year-old Terri Gay, the daughter of a High Point firefighter, heard a brief news flash on WMFR — an anomaly, considering her family rarely listened to the radio in the evenings — but she didn’t give the report a second thought. Her daddy — Capt. Roy Gay of the High Point Fire Department — had been to countless fires, and he had always returned home. Always.

Terri’s mother, Betty Gay, normally didn’t worry when her husband went to fire calls, either. She understood the dangers of his job, of course, but she knew he was smart and experienced. Brave, but not recklessly so. Roy’s father, Elliott Gay, had been a High Point fireman, too, so Roy had the calling in his blood.

This night, though, was different for Betty. The Country Furniture Store on Idol Drive was going up in flames — it was a three-alarm fire, according to the radio — and Betty had a knot in her stomach.

“Something’s really wrong,” she told Terri.

“What are you talking about?” Terri replied.

“The fire — something’s really wrong.”

“Mom, don’t worry about it,” Terri said. “He’s fine.”

Within an hour, though, a car pulled into the family’s driveway on Pine Valley Drive. A moment later, the doorbell rang.

Betty knew.

“Terri,” she said, “your daddy’s dead.”

Terri pauses as she recalls her mother’s words.

“She said that before they had even told her,” Terri says.

Several decades later, it’s Terri who gets a knot in her stomach, every time the calendar turns to November.

“I tried remembering Daddy’s birthday rather than the day of his death,” she says softly, “but that day is just burned into my soul.”

That day was Nov. 1, 1970 — 50 years ago today.

Capt. Roy Gay joined a remarkably small, undesirable fraternity that night, becoming only the third High Point firefighter to die in the line of duty.

“That was a sad, sad night for the High Point Fire Department,” recalls retired firefighter Jackie Baker, 82, who was at the Country Furniture Store fire that night. “He was the first fatality we’d had in years and years and years.”

Thirty-four years, to be exact. In 1936, veteran fireman Oscar M. “Oss” Hayworth had died when he was trying to repair a fire alarm and accidentally touched a high-voltage wire that caused him to fall 30 feet from a ladder to his death.

It had been even longer since a High Point fireman had died actually fighting a fire. In 1925, Capt. T.W. Stoner had died of severe burns suffered while battling a blaze at the Pickett Cotton Mill.

Even during High Point’s infamous “million-dollar fire” of July 1954 — which burned out three of the city’s industrial areas and caused approximately $1 million in damage — 16 city firefighters were injured, but none died.

That’s why Gay’s death in 1970 stunned the department so dramatically. High Point firefighters weren’t supposed to die, and especially steely veterans like the 40-year-old Gay, a former Marine and a well-respected fire captain. Amazingly, 50 years after Gay’s death, he’s still the last High Point firefighter to have died in the line of duty.

The irony, though, is that the department very nearly lost two firefighters that night.

Country Furniture was closed that evening, a Sunday, but the store’s owner — Coolidge Murrow, a state senator from High Point who was seeking to win another term in the following Tuesday’s election — was at the store working on a campaign speech.

According to newspaper accounts, Murrow said he heard a car drive up in front of the building around 7:45, then drive away a few minutes later. Cars often did this, he said, so he thought nothing of it.

About 15 or 20 minutes later, though, Murrow heard “a loud whoosh, like an explosion,” and he hurried toward the front of the store to investigate, he told The High Point Enterprise.

“The entire front of the building was blazing,” he said. “Smoke was billowing back through the door. I rushed back into the office, grabbed my coat, and got out of the building.”

Murrow escaped through a side door and ran to the front of the building, which he found engulfed in flames.

Firefighters began arriving shortly thereafter — a neighbor apparently had called in the alarm — and the unit made quick work of the blaze out front. Inside the 25,000-square-foot structure, however, they would have a ferocious fight on their hands.

“It was a terrible fire,” Baker remembers. “The whole room was consumed in fire. It took the whole night to fully extinguish it.”

Almost from the beginning, investigators believed the fire had been deliberately set — and rumors of a suspect ran rampant throughout the city — but no arrest would ever be made.

“Arson is one of the hardest crimes to try to convict somebody on,” Baker explains. “You’ve about got to see the guy strike the match, or it’s very hard to prove it.”

And on this particular night, short of Murrow saying he’d heard a car out front, no witnesses ever came forward.

As the crews battled the blaze inside the showroom, Gay and another firefighter — Lt. Arthur Davidson — relieved two firemen who’d been operating a hose in the intense heat. Gay’s station, No. 3, had been one of the later units to arrive at the fire, and he was eager to do his part.

“Even though he was a captain, Daddy was the sort of guy that was gonna get in there,” Terri says. “They needed someone to go in and relieve the others, and he volunteered.”

According to The Enterprise’s account of the fire, a sudden backdraft triggered an explosion — so violent it jarred Gay’s helmet from his head — and a scorching wall of flames trapped the two firemen. Davidson escaped by crawling through the inferno until he collapsed near an outside door. When firefighters dragged him out, he was more dead than alive, with permanently disfigured hands and severe burns that covered nearly half his body.

“I felt heat building up,” Davidson would later tell Fire Chief H.L. Thompson from his hospital bed, where he lay in critical condition. “All of a sudden, flames were all around me. I remember being dragged by firemen. I don’t know how I got out of there.”

Years later, Davidson would tell an Enterprise reporter the fire was what he imagined hell was like.

After Davidson’s rescue, another 20 minutes passed before firefighters could get that area of the building cool enough to enter and look for Gay. They found him sprawled on the floor about 15 feet inside the door, long since dead.

“That was a terrible, terrible night for the High Point Fire Department,” Baker says. “A terrible night.”

That was also a terrible, terrible night for Terri Gay, the fireman’s teenage daughter and only child.

Fifty years later, she still gets that same knot in her stomach as Nov. 1 approaches, a reminder of the scars she still bears from that fateful night so long ago.

“To this day, I don’t talk about Daddy a lot, and I think it’s because that pain is still just awful if I go back to it,” she says. “My world just fell apart, because I really was a Daddy’s girl.”

Sixty-five and living in Virginia Beach, Virginia, she’s Terri Hutchinson now — a widow, mother and grandmother.

But she’s also still a daughter — a grieving daughter who will always look up to the father she lost, the man who took her fishing, took her to doctor appointments, and even let her tag along when he went to make estimates on house-painting jobs, his side career.

“To this day, I just miss him so much,” Terri says, “and I always think about how my life would’ve been different if he hadn’t died.”

When she thinks back to 1970, Terri remembers the day her father was laid to rest at Floral Garden Park Cemetery. Flags flew at half-staff across the city, and The Enterprise eulogized Capt. Roy Gay as a fallen hero.

“He exemplified the best in a firefighter,” The Enterprise wrote, “and he was engaged in the performance of his duty, directing his men in the fight against the fire, even going before them into the danger, when he lost his life.”

As the somber funeral procession passed Station No. 3 on Rotary Drive — her father’s station — Terri remembers noticing a firetruck had been pulled out into the driveway, a white wreath adorning its grill. A row of firemen stood by the truck, sharply attired in their blue dress uniforms and white gloves, solemnly saluting their captain.

“That just hit me really hard,” she says softly. “I remember thinking, oh my god, it’s not just my dad that we lost — the fire department has lost somebody. The whole city has lost somebody.”

And 50 years later, the memories — and the scars — remain.

jtomlin@hpenews.com | 336-888-3579


News
Most election returns could appear quickly
  • Updated

HIGH POINT — The monumental election season has generated a host of uncertainties and questions about outcomes, but voters may get answers quickly on Tuesday night on North Carolina’s votes.

The unprecedented turnout of voters through absentee ballots and early voting means that state election officials should be able to reveal a significant number of vote tallies not long after the Election Day polls close. Last month, State Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell said during a conference call press briefing that 70% to 80% of the general election vote in North Carolina could be cast before Election Day.

The goal of the N.C. State Board of Elections is to release absentee ballots and early voting results when all the polls close Tuesday night, said public information officer Patrick Gannon in Raleigh.

“It should be sometime fairly soon after all polls close, taking into account that if one polling place stays open later because of a problem during the day, no results can be released or reported,” Gannon told The High Point Enterprise. “Results will only be released after all polls are closed.”

If early votes and absentee ballots make up about three-quarters of the total votes cast, then voters could see trends when those returns are posted initially. But voters need to keep in mind where the votes might be coming from before making assumptions about outcomes, said Carla Cole, political science instructor at Davidson County Community College.

“The early votes are likely to lean more toward Democrats,” Cole told The Enterprise. “As results are posted initially, Democrats will have an advantage that could be diminished as more precincts report their in-person totals from Election Day.”

One indicator to watch is the margin of the lead by the top candidate after early votes and absentee ballots are counted compared to the number of remaining votes cast on Election Day. A candidate could have such a commanding lead that the Election Day votes can’t make up the gap.

“You could have a situation where the number of outstanding ballots won’t make a difference. It depends on the decisiveness of the count,” said Martin Kifer, chairman of the Political Science Department at High Point University.

A wild card in determining the outcome of close races on election night involves mail-in absentee ballots that arrive at election offices after Tuesday. The State Board of Elections voted last month to extend the acceptance deadline from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12 for absentee ballots to arrive in the mail, a move that survived a U.S. Supreme Court challenge from Republicans last week.

“There could potentially be races that we can’t call on election night,” Cole said.

But the majority of contests won’t be held in limbo because of outstanding mail-in ballots.

“If you see somebody up 10 percentage points, it’s unlikely that gap is going to be closed by ballots that trickle in after Election Day,” Cole said.

The unprecedented number of early votes and absentee ballots in North Carolina and other battleground states could impact the calling of winners by media outlets, said John Dinan, professor of political science at Wake Forest University.

That is particularly true because some states, including Pennsylvania, seen as a key battleground, don’t begin counting any absentee ballots until after the polls close on Election Day.

“There is always a possibility that networks could look at the early vote results once they are reported on election night and — if coupled with exit polling results that are consistent with a certain outcome — they could then make a call in various races,” Dinan told The Enterprise. “I would be surprised if networks make an early call just on this basis, though, especially in a situation where networks have tried to hold off on making premature calls after having some early calls turn out not to be on target on several occasions.”

pjohnson@hpenews.com | 336-888-3528 | @HPEpaul