Category Archives: Wake Forest U

Gown Towns Thrive

Yesterday I was in a meeting with several people involved with local real estate development and they were asked what the top business priority is for their county (Guilford, NC) going into 2017. Their response, as has been the case for every year in recent memory, was that job growth will continue to be the most critical issue for their businesses. In the course of answering the question quite a few of these people referenced other cities in North Carolina that seem to be thriving – Raleigh, Cary, Charlotte and “even Wilmington” – were the names I remembered. What stuck out, to me, was that no one mentioned Winston-Salem.

Now let me state up front that I’m not prepared to offer any statistics that compare the jobs situation in Winston-Salem to those in Guilford County’s two cities, Greensboro and High Point. But I will say that if you were to poll most people who pay attention to business in the region, they will tell you that Winston-Salem’s economic recovery from the nuclear annihilation that has befallen this region’s traditional economy is further along than its neighbors to the east. For some reason, though, leaders in Greensboro and High Point seem to ignore what’s going on just 30 miles to their west (and in all fairness the reverse is also true), and as a result no one seems to know why there’s a difference between these two very similar neighbors.

A personal theory is that there are a lot of complex and interwoven factors at play here, but one big one is the presence of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. The university, and in particular it’s medical school, has been a partner with the city and local companies as the city moved away from it’s traditional tobacco manufacturing base toward a “knowledge economy” with a niche in the area of medical research. Starting over 20 years ago Winston-Salem’s civic and business leaders recognized the need to re-position the city’s economy and Wake Forest played a significant role in those plans. The results are plain to see in the city’s Innovation Quarter, which is booming and is primed for exponential growth over the next 10-15 years.

30 miles to the east Greensboro actually has more schools, including NC A&T and UNCG, but they don’t seem to have had the same effect on the city’s economy. Yet. We’re starting to see much more activity there, including the Union Square Campus that recently opened and is already bearing economic fruit for the city and there’s PLENTY of potential for even more growth. As long as the city’s leaders continue to keep their eye on the ball there’s a very good chance this will happen, as it has in other college towns.

This article in the Wall Street Journal has a lot of data showing how cities in the US that have strong colleges, especially those with research programs, have recovered from the decline in the manufacturing sector over the last two decades. Here’s an excerpt:

A nationwide study by the Brookings Institution for The Wall Street Journal found 16 geographic areas where overall job growth was strong, even though manufacturing employment fell more sharply in those places from 2000 to 2014 than in the U.S. as a whole…

“Better educated places with colleges tend to be more productive and more able to shift out of declining industries into growing ones,” says Mark Muro, a Brookings urban specialist. “Ultimately, cities survive by continually adapting their economies to new technologies, and colleges are central to that.”…

Universities boost more than just highly educated people, says Enrico Moretti, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. The incomes of high-school dropouts in college towns increase by a bigger percentage than those of college graduates over time because demand rises sharply for restaurant workers, construction crews and other less-skilled jobs, he says.

And here’s the money quote as it relates to local economic development efforts:

Places where academics work closely with local employers and development officials can especially benefit. “Universities produce knowledge, and if they have professors who are into patenting and research, it’s like having a ready base of entrepreneurs in the area,” says Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser.

Let’s hope our local leaders take full advantage of what our colleges have to offer, for all of our benefit.

Winston-Salem as a Case Study

Since moving here in 2004 I’ve found Winston-Salem to be a fascinating study in how to revive a city that had been hit by multiple economic tsunamis in recent decades. It seems that others have taken notice, including a writer who penned a piece for the Christian Science Monitor about how a few US cities can teach the country a little something about democracy (h/t to my Mom for sending me the article). You can find the full article here (second story down), but here’s the segment focused on Camel City:

Winston-Salem, N.C., lost 10,000 jobs in 18 months after R.J. Reynolds moved its headquarters to Atlanta and several other homegrown companies failed in the late 1980s. It was the first of several waves of job losses as the city’s manufacturing base collapsed. Civic leaders chipped in to create a $40 million fund to loan start-up capital to entrepreneurs, hire staff for a local development corporation, and fund signature projects. One of them was the renovation of a 1920s Art Deco office tower into downtown apartments.

This activity helped spur Wake Forest University’s medical school to undertake an ambitious project to create a research park in former R.J. Reynolds manufacturing buildings next to downtown. The school has filled 2 million square feet of empty factories with high-tech companies and world-class biomedical researchers. An adjacent African-American church has turned 15 acres in the area into lofts, senior housing, and businesses. Downtown has attracted $1.6 billion in investment since 2002.

Now people gather to sip coffee, attend concerts, or take yoga classes in a new park in the shadow of the looming chimneys of a former Reynolds power plant. The plant itself is being repurposed into a $40 million hub of restaurants, stores, laboratories, and office space. Students, researchers, and entrepreneurs mingle in the halls and atria of all the former factory buildings, creating the kind of synergetic environment the innovation industry now craves.

Our very own Jeff Smith, of Smitty’s Notes, provides the money quote:

“It wasn’t one person or thing that made it all happen; it was everyone from the grass roots to the corporate leaders coming together,” says Jeffrey Smith, who runs Smitty’s Notes, an influential community news site. “We realized it would take all of us to get this hog out of the ditch.”

Much of the foundation for this renewal had been laid by the time I moved here with my family in 2004, but community leaders have continued to do what’s necessary to keep building upon it. For my job I get to spend a significant amount of time in neighboring Greensboro, a city that is slightly larger but quite comparable to Winston-Salem, and it’s been interesting to see how the two cities have proceeded from their respective economic crises. Winston-Salem has a lot of momentum, and it’s redevelopment seems to be benefiting from consistent collaboration among its community leaders, including elected officials as well as corporate and civic leaders. Greensboro, on the other hand, is making progress but it seems to be in more fits and starts; its progress seems to occur in spite of local leaders’ lack of cooperation and collaboration.

Sure, Winston-Salem has its problems and leaders sometimes disagree on how to proceed, but for the most part its leaders have shown how to lead a community out of the ditch and back on the road. Hopefully we keep it going for decades to come.

Wake Forest Lab Developing Frankenweenies

Not sure how this escaped the local press, or if it didn’t escape the local press how I missed it when they covered it, but it seems that Wake Forest’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine has graduated from creating lab-grown bladders to lab-grown penises:

Penises grown in laboratories could soon be tested on men by scientists developing technology to help people with congenital abnormalities, or who have undergone surgery for aggressive cancer or suffered traumatic injury.

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are assessing engineered penises for safety, function and durability. They hope to receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and to move to human testing within five years.

While it is fun, in a very immature way, to play word games with this story it really is serious science that will mean a lot to the men it helps. It’s also quite cool that it’s happening here in Winston-Salem.

FYI, they’re working on a LOT more than bladders and penises:

Atala’s team are working on 30 different types of tissues and organs, including the kidney and heart. They bioengineered and transplanted the first human bladder in 1999, the first urethra in 2004 and the first vagina in 2005.

Finally, a random fact for you: the plural of penis can be either penises or penes. Who knew?

Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter Highlighted in Wall Street Journal Piece

In today’s (4/16/14) Wall Street Journal, Winston-Salem’s very own Wake Forest Innovation Quarter plays a starring role in the paper’s Deal of the Week segment about the role of historic preservation tax credits in redeveloping mills and factories in North Carolina:

The old plants are worth preserving because they represent North Carolina’s “industrialization at the turn of the 20th century,” said Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. “The textile and tobacco industries provided the capital for the rise of our modern banking and energy industries.”

A big user of the tax-credit program is Wexford Science & Technology, a unit of San Diego-based BioMed Realty Trust Inc., BMR +0.66% which has renovated three former R.J. Reynolds tobacco factories in Winston-Salem. The old tobacco factories are part of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter biomedical-science and information-technology hub, where researchers are working on treatments for smoking-related ailments.

This redevelopment is leading to new apartment communities being developed as well, including one of PTAA’s newest members, Plant 64.

Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem

*Please note that this is a cross post of a piece I wrote for the blog at work.

Lifestyle and Urban Revitalization

Recently Fred Wilson wrote a blog post about urban revitalizations and highlighted what he thinks are the critical elements necessary for it to work:

We’ve seen that things can be turned around. The economic and cultural juggernaut that is Brooklyn right now is a perfect example. The grandchildren of the people who fled Brooklyn in the fifties and sixties are now coming back in droves, attracted to its lifestyle, its coffee shops, bars, restaurants, art and culture, parks, and affordable real estate. And the tech companies are coming too. Attracted by all the talent that is there.

I’ve been asked by civic leaders from places like Newark, Cleveland, Buffalo, and a number of other upstate NY cities that have suffered a similar fate how they can do the same thing. They all talk about tax incentives, connecting with local research universities, and providing startup capital. And I tell them that they are focusing on the wrong thing.

You have to lead with lifestyle. If you can’t make your city a place where the young mobile talent leaving college or grad school wants to go to start their career, meet someone, and build a life, all that other stuff doesn’t matter.

This immediately brought Winston-Salem to mind. The city's downtown is definitely enjoying a renaissance, but it's easy to forget how long the road has been and where it all began. Ten years ago when my family first moved to the Camel City there were tax incentives for restuaranteurs who set up shop downtown. I remember thinking it kind of odd because there didn't seem to be a whole lot that downtown offered outside of those restaurants and I wondered who would venture down just to eat. Some restaurants did indeed fail, but it ended up being a small, important piece of the downtown puzzle. Combined with the evolution of the arts scene on Trade Street, the growth of UNCSA's downtown presence, and yes, the maligned-at-the-time BB&T Ballpark project, you have the critical lifestyle element that Wilson identified in his piece. It's no wonder that people now want to live there (see the Nissen Building, Winston Lofts, etc.) and that businesses are moving to the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

In short, if you're looking for evidence that supports the importance of culture all you need to do is look downtown, whether in Winson-Salem, Durham or Brooklyn.

 

Doing Things the Right Way

College sports, at every level, is about winning. That's particularly true at the highest level for the major-revenue sports like football and basketball. The pressure on the players and coaches to win is tremendous and for the coaches if you don't win then you won't have your job for long. With that kind of environment it's no wonder that programs come under scrutiny for putting the sports above academics and doing whatever it takes, right or wrong, to get talented athletes on the field. And that's why Jim Grobe, who resigned his position yesterday, has been such a remarkable football coach for Wake Forest.

Coach Grobe is a man, so undoubtedly he's made mistakes and surely there are things that have happened in his program that weren't great, but by all accounts he's done things the right way. He's held his players to high expectations, he hasn't run afoul of NCAA regulations and he's built a tremendously positive culture at the second-smallest of all the FBS schools in the country. In the process he also built a win-loss record over 13 seasons that was close to break-even, which to anyone familiar with the history of Wake football knows is damn-near a miracle.

Unfortunately for those of us who hate to see him go Coach Grobe's record was a winning record after eight seasons, but a string of five straight losing seasons took him to a losing overall record at Wake. He inflicted his own judgment on that trend by stepping aside rather than searching for answers for another season or waiting to be pushed out. That should not come as a surprise to anyone who's watched him over the last 13 years.

I'll let Dan Collins, who covered WFU Football for the Winston-Salem Journal, tell you what you need to know:

Over the countless times I've been around Jim Grobe, he's always been the same guy. And he was that guy today while announcing he was stepping down after 13 seasons as the Deacons' head coach…

Emotions did begin to show when Wellman got up to announce Grobe was stepping down. With eyes glistening, Wellman professed not only his admiration and respect for Grobe, but his love as well.

Thankfully, he recognized it as a universal sentiment.

"When you cut through it all, Jim Grobe was a winning football coach but he was a better man,'' Wellman said. "Whenever I talk with anybody, whether it be other athletic directors across the country, whether it be conference personnel, whether it be other head coaches across the country, the first thing they ask me when I talk with them is, `How is Jim? How is he doing?'

"And it's always with a smile. They usually end the conversation by saying `Jim Grobe is one of the best men I know.' I will tell you he's one of the best men I know. He's not only a friend, but he's a tower of a man.''…

But I'll close now by saying that for all the emotions in the room today, there were few present who had more reason than me to be sad over the realization that Grobe has coached his final game at Wake.

Jim Grobe has been good to me every day he's been at Wake. That's not because I'm special. It's because he's special.

Truth is, he's been good to everybody.

Before resigning Coach Grobe was the only FBS coach to have a losing record for five straight years. It's a testament to how he built this program that he was able to stay around for that long. Losing while doing something the right way sure is easier to take than winning while doing something the wrong way and the folks at Wake seemed to realize it. Let's hope Coach Grobe's successor sees things the same way.

In Support of Coach Grobe

Some folks in Demon Deacon land have been grumbling about Wake Forest's football coach Jim Grobe. His teams haven't had a winning record since the 2008 season and he has a .500 record as Wake's coach since 2001.  Personally I love having the guy lead Wake's football team and here are just a few reasons why:

  • His record is the best since "Peahead" Walker had a 77-51-6 record from 1937-50.
  • He's coaching one of the smallest  FBS schools in the country.
  • As the coach has said himself, it's a challenge coaching an "academic" school.
  • His team plays in a tiny stadium relative to other schools in the ACC/FBS.
  • Those last three items combined make Wake a tough place to recruit.
  • He runs a clean program.
  • He holds his players accountable.

That last point is a big one, and the following quote from a recent piece about Grobe's handling of a couple of players who aren't living up to behavioral expectations is a perfect example of his approach:

"I try to tell our football team – and they don’t always listen – talented people are a dime a dozen, people with really good talent,'' Grobe said. "And the last thing in the world that you want to have happen is 10 or 15 years from now, everybody is still talking about your talent but not talking about what you did. There’s a lot of kids that before they can blink their college careers are over.

"Of course, honestly, football is not really as important as ultimately being a good dad, being a good father, being a good worker, having a meaningful career and helping others – all those kinds of things that we know are more important than football.

"But you hate to see guys have all the talent in the world to play football and not use it. We’ll see going forward. The key word in all of this is hope.''

Personally I'll take this and a .500 record over a winning record and a program running amok any day.

Another note: I suspect fans might be a little less anxious about the football program if the basketball team hadn't been so atrocious the last few years.  In other words he's getting sucked into the "Fire Wellman/Bzdelik" vortex, which will hopefully start to disappear after this upcoming basketball season. It better or there could be a serious housecleaning afoot in Winston-Salem.