Tag Archives: winston-salem

Winston-Salem as a Proxy for Every Other Not-Huge City

Earlier this week the New York Times ran a story titled “Why Midsize Cities Struggle to Catch Up to Superstar Cities” and used Winston-Salem, NC as the focus. Of course, that caught the attention of those of us who live in the Camel City and as a result, many of us have read the article. I will say this: I think the reporter largely hit the mark on the challenges faced by Winston-Salem and other midsize cities in America.

The article rightly points out that a primary challenge for most smaller cities in the country is that they were largely built on the backs of manufacturing at a time when their less expensive labor pool made them attractive places for companies to locate their operations. When global trade happened in the latter part of the 20th century that advantage evaporated and, voila, seemingly every “non-elite” city in America was in the position of trying to reinvent itself for the new economy.

In Winston-Salem, that process started back in the ’80s and ’90s and the extended economic redevelopment work has begun to pay dividends. Fifteen years ago when my wife and I moved our family here the downtown was largely a ghost town after 5 p.m., but now it’s thriving. Hell, using the “Brewery Benchmark,” Winston-Salem is exploding. I can’t say there have been a whole lot of economic development home runs – things like Amazon’s second HQ – but there have been a whole bunch of singles and doubles. And honestly, I think that could be a good thing: growing slowly helps us avoid the boom town headaches of skyrocketing housing prices, traffic congestion, and overcrowded schools.

Probably my favorite part of the article, the part that I think really rings true when you look at Winston-Salem as compared to comparable cities, is this:

If any middling city can make a transition to a technology-centered future, however, Winston-Salem should. It is home to five universities, including Wake Forest, an institution that enrolls four out of its five students from out of state. Transplanted to Winston-Salem in the mid-1950s under the Reynolds family’s patronage from its original site near Raleigh, the university has a leading medical school, which it hopes will anchor a biotech ecosystem.

“The top talent is going to go to the coasts, no doubt about that,” said Graydon Pleasants, head of real estate development for the Innovation Quarter. “But there are plenty of smart people who will come here.”

The article points out what I see as Winston-Salem’s most pressing challenge as well: slow wage growth coupled with housing costs that are rising at a much faster rate. If as a community we can figure out how to fix that while continuing to grow then I think we’ll be in a much better place.

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.

Camel City’s Own Version of Making a Murderer

The Netflix series Making a Murderer, a documentary ten years in the making about a case in Wisconsin that exhibited some seriously flawed police work and downright shameful behavior by prosecutors, has shed light on some of the flaws of our criminal justice system. Here in Winston-Salem we have the Silk Plant Forest case, which began with a terrible assault in the 90s and resulted in the conviction of a man that many consider innocent, as our own example of a flawed justice system.

The case has been covered extensively by the Winston-Salem Journal over the years, but it’s an article in the Raleigh News & Observer about how the NC State Bar handled a complaint filed against the prosecutors in the case that highlights just how flawed the system can be. From the article:

The path to Coleman’s complaint began in January 2008, 11 years after Smith’s conviction and as Smith’s lawyers were arguing for a hearing to examine evidence not heard at trial. Duke law professor Theresa Newman, who directs the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic along with Coleman, received an email from Arnita Miles, who identified herself as a former Winston-Salem police officer.

Miles said she was the first officer to interview Jill Marker at the store after the assault. According to Miles, Marker said her attacker was a black male. She also said Marker dictated a letter that night, as a last message to her husband, and asked Miles to give it to him. Miles said she passed it on that night to the lead detective…

Because of the push for a new hearing, the SBI assigned an agent to assist prosecutors. Following the emails between Newman and Hall, the agent interviewed Miles. The agent turned up problems which he shared in a report to the prosecutors.

Miles did file a report following the attack. In it, she wrote that she was not the first officer at the scene. She wrote that Marker was incoherent and did not describe her attacker. Miles told the SBI she could not explain the discrepancy between what she wrote in 1995 hours after the assault and her 2008 claims…

The Duke lawyers learned of the signed and sworn affidavit in June 2012, following a meeting between District Attorney Jim O’Neill and Swecker, the retired FBI agent with experience auditing criminal investigations, including a critical 2010 audit of the SBI crime lab.

Swecker came to the same conclusion as the Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee: The investigation was deeply flawed and incomplete. Swecker did not conclude that Smith was innocent, but said he deserved a new trial.

At the meeting with Swecker and in a followup email, O’Neill cited the Miles affidavit as proof that Marker had identified her attacker as a black male.

“I am holding in my hand a sworn affidavit by Arnita Miles, who was one of the first officers at the scene and the person who spoke with Jill while she lay on the floor of Silk Plant Forest,” O’Neill wrote. “Despite this evidence, the Duke Innocence Project continued to parade the name of Kenneth Lamoureaux as the person who likely committed this crime, knowing full well that Jill Marker said her attacker was a black man.”

Definitely read the full article and see what you think. Personally this reaffirms my belief that in this case the prosecutors are less interested in truth and justice, and more interested in not losing a case. It’s also reaffirmed my belief that I need to research our current District Attorney Jim O’Neill, who is running for Attorney General, before I consider voting for him.

Traffic

Until 11 years ago I’d lived my entire adult life in Northern Virginia and had spent my time commuting to work in some of the worst traffic the United States has to offer. When we moved to the Winston-Salem area it felt like I’d gone to traffic heaven because rush hour literally didn’t exist. We kind of have a “rush quarter hour” but even that doesn’t feature the gridlock you find in most metro areas. Still, it’s all relative and I would regularly hear locals complain about the busy highways and I’d just shake my head and mutter to myself, “You have no idea how good you have it.”

That’s why I felt vindicated by this article relaying the news that our area has the second-best traffic experience (behind only Phoenix) according to data from Google’s WAZE traffic app. Here’s an excerpt:

You’re not just getting there, Friend. You are having a world-class automotive experience — at least according to a newly released study that suggests Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point offer some of the best driving scenarios on the planet.

The metropolitan area finished second, just behind Phoenix, Ariz., in overall driving satisfaction in the study by analysts for Google’s WAZE travel app who compared driving experiences in 32 nations and 167 of the globe’s most mobile communities…

The Triad finished first among the various metros for minimal traffic delays.

Motorists in the region average less than a half hour on the road in a commute that averages about 26 miles, the WAZE study found. A pittance compared to some places in the United States where commuters average more than an hour each way,

Interesting that it ends up my commute is almost exactly the average.

Gustavo the Disappointing Winston-Salem Painter

From a long New York Times piece on photographer Robert Frank:

Frank retains the spontaneous enthusiasm of a much younger man. In his tenth decade, he is still a free-form outsider seeking untried situations, fresh leaps — and nothing pleases him more than picking up on the scent of something exceptional. Last year, after receiving intriguing letters postmarked North Carolina from an itinerant laborer named Gustavo, Frank set off to find him. He discovered Gustavo in Winston-Salem painting a house, he says, but ‘‘I was disappointed in him. He was ordinary. He seemed not to be possessed by anything. He just drifts.’’

That’s truly unfortunate. There are soooo many people here in Camel City that I’m sure Frank would have found extraordinary.

Very Big Development for Downtown Winston-Salem

Wrote this for the blog at the day job today. Exciting news for Camel City:

A few years ago the mayor of Winston-Salem took a bit of a political hit for leading a public bailout of the development that would eventually become the BB&T Ballpark just off of Business 40 in downtown Winston-Salem. Really the mayor and the rest of the city’s leaders didn’t have a choice – if they didn’t come up with the financing to finish the construction the private developer had started, then the city would have a giant red clay mud pit on a site that was envisioned as a vital part for the redevelopment of downtown – and because of the recession that was in full swing at the time there really weren’t any private sector options. Since they took the political hit and came up with the dough the city now has one of the nicest minor league ballparks in the country, the baseball team regularly sets tremendous attendance numbers and thousands of people are regularly drawn downtown from spring through the early fall. Oh, and they were able to restructure the debt so that it would be payable over 25 years and could eventually net the city some money.

So why the brief history lesson? Because today we’ve learned that a private developer is planning a very large multi-use project that will help the city realize the vision it had for that part of downtown those many years ago. From the Triad Business Journal:

An Atlanta-based real estate investment group has announced plans for more than 1 million square feet of retail, office, hotel and residential property adjacent to Winston-Salem’s downtown ballpark.

The proposed development by Brand Properties, called the Brookstown District at BB&T Ballpark, would include 300,000 square feet of retail, 300,000 square feet of office space, 250 hotel rooms and 580 luxury residential flats.

If this comes to fruition then the overall downtown plan that’s been promoted by the city’s leaders for years, with the Innovation Quarter to the east as one bookend and the ballpark/Brookstown area to the west as the other, will take a HUGE step towards being realized.