Clark champions economic development for Winston-Salem

by Keith Barber

On Sept. 21, Winston-Salem Dash owner Billy Prim announced to the Winston- Salem City Council that he had secured the necessary financing to move forward with construction on the downtown baseball stadium. For Councilman Robert Clark, Prim’s announcement offered a glimmer of hope that the city’s investment of nearly $28 million in the ballpark might actually begin to pay dividends. In the big scheme of things, however, the construction of the downtown ballpark represents just one piece in the bigger picture of Winston-Salem’s economic future.

Clark, the vice-chair of the finance committee that approved the city’s original $12 million investment in the stadium, said he had grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the financial negotiations between Prim, Wachovia/Wells Fargo, BB&T, Bank of America and Prim’s former partner, Andrew “Flip” Filipowski.

“It seemed like every time we jumped one hurdle, there was always another one there,” Clark said. “That was what was so frustrating and it didn’t look like the race was never going to end because we kept hitting another hurdle.”

Last month, the city council passed a resolution that it would give Prim a Sept. 21 deadline to get all the necessary financial documents signed.

“If we hadn’t put that date on it, they may still be negotiating,” Clark said. “As a business person, my experience is you do need deadlines to force the hard compromises that are needed.”

Clark, who has represented Winston- Salem’s West Ward since 2001, is the owner of Lessona — a maker of industrial production equipment for the textile industry. Clark is running unopposed in this year’s municipal election as he did in 2005. His reasons for running haven’t changed in the past eight years, he said.

“My number-one goal in running was to get this city moving again from an economic development standpoint,” Clark said. “This city historically, as well as this region, has been a furniture, textiles and tobacco manufacturing environment. All three of those are non-net job producers.”

Transforming Winston-Salem’s manufacturing based economy to a vibrant 21 st century economy will not happen overnight, he said..

“It’s going to take a whole generation.”

Clark cited intelligent manufacturing, like Dell’s operations in Forsyth, as one of several key areas the city needs to get into to create good paying jobs.

“Contrary to what has been publicized and said, I think Dell is a homerun success for this city,” Clark said. “Dell has been here five years and they are the third-largest private for-profit employer in town. I would love to have two or three more Dells.”

Clark said other areas of emphasis for Winston-Salem’s future economy include the biotech industries, the healthcare field and transportation distribution, Clark said.

Clark’s 2009 platform also includes enhanced regional partnerships; more investment in downtown research park; emphasis on regional manufacturing utilizing Greensboro’s FedEx hub; revitalization of older neighborhoods like Happy Hills and Kimberly Park; and continued support for the arts. But in tough economic times, the most important task for any city councilman is bringing good paying jobs to the area, Clark said.

The news that Pace Airlines is laying off its 337 area employees dampened the excitement of an earlier announcement by Wachovia/Wells Fargo that it would be adding 150 new employees to its Winston-Salem operations. For Clark, it’s a sign of the times and a reminder that the recession is far from over.

“You’ve got to live where you’ve got a job,” he said. “Unless you have a good employment base, you’re in trouble. A good job is where all of this starts.”