Creative revitalization requires commerce and community downtown

by John Adamian

| @adamianjohn

You can’t say that the officials behind the Innovation Quarter are blindly banking on one specific thing to continue to revitalize Winston-Salem in its ongoing transformation from a tobacco town to a hub of technology, education, entertainment and culture. On Nov. 3, at the Center for Design Innovation, Eric Tomlinson, president of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, gave a recap of where the project stands today and where it’s headed in the coming years. An extended greenway system, an iconic archway over the interchange of Research Parkway and US 52, designs to transform the Bailey Power Plant into a mixed-use facility by mid 2017, and longer-term plans for 2.5 million square-feet of new construction in what’s called the Central Area over a 10- to 15- year period were all part of the quarterly presentation.

Tomlinson also pointed to wide-ranging food offerings, diverse entertainment programming, appealing living spaces, and the pursuit of what he called “soulful types of play” as crucial auxiliaries to any dynamic urban revitalization. All of this, he said, is aimed at fostering productive communication between the people who visit, work and live downtown.

“It’s pretty clear now that we’re starting to create a very exciting place, an inspirational place where innovation is taking place,” Tomlinson said.

The 145 acres of the project were once the cigarette manufacturing plant of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. But since 1986 the land has been sold or donated, making the Innovation Quarter initiative possible.

If Tomlinson stressed the importance of high-tech in the realm of overall jobcreation (“For every high-tech job that’s created, there are five service jobs”), he also pointed to qualities that might be slightly more difficult to quantify””like “racial harmony” and pride in public education””as being central to the success of the goals for the Innovation Quarter.

Tomlinson forecast that by the end of 2017 over 3500 people workers will be employed within the quarter, and an additional $237 million of investment will be funneled into the project as well.

Everything from two-or-three-person startups, to tech behemoths, university programs, places to walk a dog, the entrepreneurial spirit, public-private partnerships and culinary trends were wrapped together by Tomlinson as essential elements in creating the holistic hum that makes a city appealing and makes this initiative work.

“Food is very important,” he said. “Food trucks are coming in.” He also gave a hattip to the recently completed expansion of the popular Krankies Coffee, which added food to its menu, on the corner of 3rd Street and Patterson, as further evidence of the promising development surrounding the quarter.

Tomlinson said that the Innovation Quarter alone wouldn’t solve the problem of the city being a “food desert”””a down town with no large grocery story””but that officials with the project were working with other groups and organizations to address the issue.

“We are part of a conversation to end the food desert,” he said.

The launch of components of the MD program for Wake Forest School of Medicine within the Innovation Quarter by July of next year signals still more cross-pollination between the school and downtown.

“New programs coming to Wake Forest will amplify the offerings that the university has and will have a lasting impact on our city,” Tomlinson said.

Initial fears that university faculty and staff would not embrace the move down town

have so far proved to be unfounded, he said, based on the “overwhelming” interest.

The buy-in from professors and others might be hard to predict as something like the Innovation Quarter takes shape, but once a critical mass is reached, the fundamental economics can create a cyclical effect, said Tomlinson.

He said “it takes a lot of money” and the Innovation Quarter needs many partners to “accelerate the commercialization” and “bring industry” into Winston-Salem.

“We know that in a hot city, a job pays two to three times more than in cold city”” because people want to work there,” said Tomlinson. “It’s all market forces.” !