Hope for a new direction in the Twin City

by Keith Barber

With the election of DD Adams, James Taylor and Derwin Montgomery on Nov. 3, Winston- Salem could be on the verge of a new era in local politics. The vestiges of the old way of doing things in this city of 225,000 residents are slowly disappearing.

Adams, a 55-year-old quality control engineer for Johnson Controls; Taylor, a 28-year-old juvenile justice counselor; and Montgomery, a 21-year-old Winston-Salem State University student, represent the future direction of the city and appear poised to take up the mantel of leadership.

City Councilman Robert Clark said it best during a Nov. 1 meeting of Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment. Clark, the sole Republican on the council, said Winston-Salem finds itself at a crossroads. The days of RJ Reynolds, Sara Lee and Hanesbrands are behind us. The big money and powerful influence of the founding families of Winston-Salem have waned. That is true. The old ways of doing things, however, are still alive and well and very much a part of city government’s modus operandi.

Adams, Taylor and Montgomery are all very bright, studious and well read individuals. So I’m sure they’re familiar with the axiom that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

There are many recent examples to illuminate that the old social order still exists in Winston-Salem. The downtown ballpark is a perfect one. The events leading up to the city council’s approval of the resolution to invest $12 million of taxpayer dollars into Phase I of the baseball stadium offers valuable insight into how business is done at the highest levels of city government.

Mayor Allen Joines, acting in his capacity as president of the Winston-Salem Alliance, signed an agreement with Billy Prim, owner of the Winston- Salem Dash, to assign Prim’s real estate development company options to purchase 38 properties the downtown ballpark site in December 2006. The transaction took place nearly a year before the city council approved the deal. County tax records reveal the alliance was purchasing options on properties near the ballpark site as far back as 2003.

After two contentious public hearings, the council unanimously approved a resolution to secure an additional $15.7 million to complete construction on the ballpark last June, bringing the city’s investment to nearly $28 million. Prim said he turned to the city for additional assistance because he had no other alternative. The fact that the city donated the $5.5 million it raised from the sale of Ernie Shore Field to Wake Forest University to Phase I of the project has often been overlooked in the ballpark controversy.

Giving $5.5 million to a multimillionaire to build a baseball stadium is just one example of how things have always been done in Winston-Salem. Prim, along with his ex-business partner Andrew “Flip” Filipowski, sold their company, Blue Rhino, for $340 million in 2004. Does anyone really believe that Prim needed a $5.5 million donation from the city? This is money the city will never recoup.

Considering the current state of our economy, couldn’t the city find a better usefor that $5.5million? How about investing in the city’s Economic DevelopmentRevolving Loan Program or revitalizing its workforce developmentprogram? Perhaps the loan program could help small businesses locatedoutside Winston-Salem’s Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area. Thecity’s economy will soon have to absorb more than 900 Dell employees.The nation’s unemployment rate currently stands at 10.2 percent, thehighest in a generation. Adams, Taylor and Montgomery all expressedgood ideas for helping displaced workers, but how successfully theybuild support on the council will ultimately determine theireffectiveness as public servants.

Adams,Taylor and Montgomery seized upon the issues of the downtown ballparkand Dell closing to contrast themselves from sitting council members.All three expressed support for the idea of a downtown ballpark butcriticized the council for how it handled the financing of the stadiumand the lack of transparency in the negotiations between Prim and thecity. With six members of council winning re-election, they will haveto strike a balance between building alliances while remaining true totheir positions on the issues.

Theresults of the Nov. 3 election reveal that Winston-Salem voters aresomewhat disenchanted with their current leadership. The incumbentsinvolved in competitive races — Molly Leight, Dan Besse and WandaMerschel — all won re-election, but it wasn’t easy. Leight, a one-termDemocratic incumbent, was unopposed in the general election, or atleast she thought. Last-minute write-in campaigns by Nathan Jones, aRepublican, and Carolyn Highsmith, a Democrat, generated a whopping 697votes. However, Leight scrambled her campaign staff days before theelection and managed to capture 958 votes or 58 percent of the ballotscast. Merschel, a three-term Democratic incumbent, had to wait untilthe final precinct reported on Election Night before she couldcelebrate a narrow victory over Republican Peter Sorensen. Besse wonhis race for the Southeast Ward seat by a more comfortable margin, butstill faced a significant challenge from Republican Ted Shipley.

Adams,Taylor and Montgomery can learn a number of valuable lessons from theircity council colleagues. Most of all, they should see clearly that it’sall too easy to fall back into the old ways of governance. Theyrepresent the hope for a brighter future in Winston- Salem, but only ifthey heed the lessons of history.