From Tobacco to Tech

The New York Times covers the revitalization of Winston-Salem’s downtown over the past 15-20 years, with a particular focus on the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter that started in 1986 when RJ Reynolds moved operations out of downtown, and then really picked up steam 5-10 years:

Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, rising on a 145-acre parcel on the developing east side of this midsize Carolina city, is a partnership between the city and state, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Wake Forest University and Wexford Science and Technology, the Baltimore-based primary developer. The development, initially named the Piedmont Triad Research Park, was once the site of a cigarette manufacturing plant owned by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.

The irony of the Innovation Quarter’s focus on data analysis, biotech health research and medical education is not lost on the project’s developers. Neither is the design emphasis on light and air.

Skylights and spacious interior atriums open the dark, early 20th-century, multistory concrete factory buildings. The $517.5 million development also features new construction to house state-of-the art biomedical laboratories and classrooms. In all, the Innovation Quarter encompasses 2.5 million square feet of office, laboratory, classroom and residential space in 16 buildings surrounding an urban square.

But as those of us who live here know, the Innovation Quarter is just the largest piece of what has been an ongoing rebuilding puzzle for the Camel City:

From 1875, when Richard Joshua Reynolds founded the company that bore his name, through most of the 20th century, Winston-Salem moved with the rhythm of the tobacco harvest and the shifting domestic market for cigarette sales. During World War II, 15,000 people worked in the buildings the company owned on the city’s east side.

What remains of that economy and culture are sturdy structures being converted to new uses. The R.J. Reynolds Art Deco 21-story headquarters, designed by William F. Lamb and opened in 1929, is said to have been a model for the Empire State Building, completed in 1931. Later this year, at a cost of $60 million, the first seven floors of the Reynolds Building will open as a 211-room Kimpton Hotel. The other floors will have 150 residences.

The hotel development, said Mayor Allen Joines, was influenced by the Wake Forest project, two blocks away. The city, he said, is intent on forming medicine, information management and biotechnology into a new brand for Winston-Salem. “Since 2000, we’ve had $1.2 billion in real estate investment in our downtown,” Mayor Joines said. “The Innovation Quarter has been a big part of why that’s happened.” (Emphasis mine)

It’s nice to see that the remarkable transformation of Winston-Salem is getting noticed in other parts of the country, and it really has been something to behold. The combination of public-private initiatives, the transition from an “old” economy to a “new” economy, and the evolution of a sleepy (really dead) downtown social scene to one that is brimming with great restaurants, theaters, art institutions, etc. is something that could and probably will be studied by cities that find themselves in similar situations to Winston-Salem’s a generation ago.

Sure we still have a long way to go. We still suffer from underemployment in this area, high rates of food insecurity in homes and other major socio-economic challenges that need to be addressed, but we’re definitely in much better shape than we were when I moved here with my family ten years ago. If you aren’t from around here then I recommend you come check it out.

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