RJR should donate building

by Jim Longworth

In the late 1920s, real estate prices took a nose dive, triggering a full-blown depression by October 1929. Earlier that same year, the Reynolds building opened in downtown Winston-Salem. At 395 feet in height, it was the tallest building south of Baltimore and served as the model for the Empire State Building. Now, 80 years later, we are in a quasi depression which was triggered by falling real estate prices and the company whose name adorns the Reynolds building has just put it up for sale. The symmetry of it all is inescapable.

Built of Indiana limestone, the 21-story, art-deco structure was designed by the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, and was occupied primarily by RJ Reynolds Tobacco company, whose only product then was Camel cigarettes. Eventually, some of the space was leased out to a variety of concerns ranging from doctors and dentists to attorneys, insurance companies and railroads. And while the marbleladen lobby was the focus of attention for those who entered, it was the exterior lighting that stood as a beacon to those who passed by, especially during the Christmas holidays when green and red lights illuminated the top floors. It is a landmark that we all expected to last forever and to be occupied by its namesake company until the end of time. Unfortunately, RJR has suffered massive lay-offs in this decade and no longer needs the towering space for its employees.

Reynolds Tobacco company paid $2.4 million to construct its elegant headquarters, and today they are listing it for roughly six times that amount.

It’s a fair price and no doubt once the economy improves, some well healed American developer will make RJR a reasonable offer. But it’s also possible that some Chinese or Saudi businessman might show up with cash in hand before the ink on the marketing brochure is dry. Either way, there is always the remote possibility that in the hands of strangers, the Reynolds building could be significantly altered, gutted, neglected or even imploded. That’s why the best way to honor and preserve this iconic structure is for the community in which it is located to benefit in perpetuity from its proper preservation.

The first step is for Reynolds Tobacco Company to donate their building to a charitable trust or other similar funding entity,such as the Winston-Salem Foundation, with assurances from the city ofWinston-Salem that all property taxes be waived indefinitely so long asthe building becomes and remains home to not-for-profit agenciesexclusively. The Winston-Salem Foundation, for example, was formed 10years before the Reynolds building opened, and has as its long-standingmission to support non profit organizations. What better way to do thatthan to provide a permanent, affordable home for those sameorganizations?

Groupslike Legal Aid, the Better Business Bureau, the Urban League, OutreachAlliance for Babies, Cancer Services Inc., the Arts Council, theTourism Authority, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and countless others wouldbe invited to headquarter their offices in the Reynolds building. Assuch, the historic structure would convert from a towering symbol ofcorporate profit into one of corporate philanthropy and communityservice. The main floor could be developed into a full-fledged museumto honor all things Winston-Salem. Meanwhile the upper floors could beconverted to conference and banquet facilities which the tenants coulduse for their fundraising events, and could also be rented out toprivate groups.

Irealize that Reynolds Tobacco Company has no obligation to donate itsgrand old building, nor does it even make good business sense to walkaway from millions of dollars which they would net from its sale. Stillthese are extraordinary times, and our community has extraordinaryneeds. Fortunately, Reynolds is led by an extraordinary woman in SusanIvey, who should now take extraordinary steps to ensure that theReynolds building can once again reach new heights. In so doing, Iveywould stand tall too.

JimLongworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cablechannel 15).