Citizens’ Capital Needs Committee gathers input from Winston-Salem residents, stakeholders

by Keith Barber

The second of two public hearings held by the Winston-Salem Citizens’ Capital Needs Committee last week to assess public support for more than $500 million in unfunded capital needs drew a number of residents who could all agree on one thing: The final list of capital projects submitted by the citizens committee to the Winston-Salem City Council will likely be significantly pared down.

“We’re on the cusp of being a fabulous city; we have a terrific place to live and work,” said Milton Rhodes, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. “I think we’re going to build a city that’s going to be world class and it’s going to be the envy of many others if we do things correctly over the next few years.”

Rhodes defined doing things correctly as supporting infrastructure projects that are pivotal to the success of Creative Corridors project.

Rhodes leads the Creative Corridors Coalition, a local group formed last year with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The coalition has contracted a design firm to create a master plan and a set of design guidelines to influence the engineering and construction of new bridges that span Business 40. The NC Department of Transportation has allocated $250 million for the infrastructure project.

Rhodes said he estimated that more than $1.5 billion will be spent on infrastructure projects in Winston-Salem over the next decade, and a future municipal bond referendum would be a key element in the process.

In his remarks to the committee, Rhodes extolled the virtues of forward thinking as it relates to building connections with other cities via transportation projects such as light rail. Rhodes suggested the committee take a hard look at the viability of extensive suburban development, which includes big-ticket infrastructure projects such as road widenings and the construction of new fire stations and new schools.

Rhodes was one of 15 residents who spoke during the public hearing. The projected cost of road-widening projects comprises nearly $110 million, roughly a fifth of all unfunded capital needs. Rhodes said city leaders should rely on the Legacy Plan to help rein in urban sprawl.

“We want to try to figure out where our Legacy Plan fits together, where our silos that we’ve built that are top quality such as Winston-Salem State, [UNC] School of the Arts, Salem College, Old Salem, the Career Center, the Goler Project, and the downtown projects like the streetcars, the civic plaza and courthouse square — how those projects unify us as a city and how we can continue to connect in that density that’s needed for our city to grow and to be a top-flight place,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said a proposed streetcar system, which bears a price tag of nearly $66 million, makes sense when one considers the soaring price of gasoline, the costs of increased urban sprawl and the importance of a cleaner environment. A streetcar system is also part of a larger initiative to connect all parts of the city, Rhodes said.

The list of unfunded capital needs compiled by the city totals more than $540 million. The projects would be funded by a municipal bond. City Manager Lee Garrity said the bond amount has not been set, but

$75 million is the amount the city could cover without a tax increase.

Lee French, president and CEO of Old Salem, also addressed his concerns to the citizens committee. He described the committee’s task of paring down the list of more than $540 million to a project list that totals $75 million as a “brutal and painful exercise” and a balancing act between investment in new projects and aspirations for the city while recognizing the importance of maintaining existing assets like Old Salem. “There’s not a single category here that if executed even a certain percentage of it wouldn’t have a positive impact on Old Salem,” French told the committee. “We are clients of all the roads systems and certainly a partner in parks and recreation.”

Transportation projects on the list of unfunded capital needs total nearly $340 million, while the listed recreation and culture projects total $39 million.

French was one of five speakers that voiced support for the Creative Corridors project.

“Creative Corridors is a concept in my view that is as important as anything we have going on,” French said. “It’s a once-in-ageneration opportunity to make a statement to Winston-Salem visitors. This is not a pioneering idea — great cities do this. It builds economic investment.”

French said he also supports the development of environmentally-friendly public transportation like the proposed streetcar system, provided there is a north-south component. Old Salem is located south of downtown Winston-Salem.

“Old Salem is an economic driver — we’re a retailer, an employer and we deserve to be here and be part of the process,” French said.

Harold Day said he did not support the $21.6 million set aside for community and economic development in the list of unfunded capital needs.

“I think we need to get out of the development business and get it back into the private sector where if they think they can make money they’ll go to it and do it,” Day said.

Day described a transportation project that would extend Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Reynolda Road as “ridiculous.” Day said he is also opposed to a streetcar system.

“Do we think we’re at Disney World?” Day asked. “We went down that track one time, and it’s not something we need to spend money on again.”

Five speakers stated their support for the $3 million set aside for renovations to Winston Lake Golf Course. Christine Gorelick, vice president for external relations for the arts council, also touched on the recreation and culture portion of unfunded capital needs.

Gorelick asked the committee to include capital improvements to Winston Square Park in the list of projects. Gorelick pointed out that there is not a functional public outdoor performance space in downtown Winston- Salem, and the park’s location adjacent to the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts makes it a natural progression of downtown development.

The Citizens Capital Needs Committee will evaluate and prioritize all projects and make a final recommendation to the Winston- Salem City Council by April 18. The city council will make the final decision regarding approved projects.