Twin City innovation outpaces its neighbor

by Jeff Sykes

As a boy my mother would often take me on Friday’s to the parking lot outside of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s Plant No. 64 on Fifth Street to wait for my grandparents to come out of a small door hidden from my view by a series of walkways above the street.

They labored happily inside, content to manufacture cigarettes and earn a living, with which they enjoyed a good life. One of my own parents worked in various office towers for the same company, sometimes at the Reynolds building downtown, other times at the world headquarters out near Whitaker Park.

I knew downtown Winston-Salem in terms of who worked where in those childhood years, defined for me as the years between Watergate and the dawn of the Reagan era.

So when I was sitting on a wooden bench outside of the Black Lodge at Fourth and Patterson streets a couple Wednesday’s back looking across the new Bailey Park at the backside of the former tobacco complex, I was overwhelmed just trying to take the transition in.

It’s one thing to read about the investment going into the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, but quite another thing to sit there and take it all in, in real time, with the vivid past welling up alongside each memory.

I’ve mentioned before how amazing it is to me to see an entire section of abandoned industrial facilities given a new lease on life, cleaned up and given a digital polish for 21st century activities.

As I sat, sipping a quite strong Old Fashioned in the warm, early spring air, commerce buzzed all around.

Dozens of workers up in the air continued to revamp part of the facility, with only the exterior frame left and a wealth of construction activity inside.

Up on Trade Street I took a meal at Finnigan’s Wake before walking over to Fourth Street. The air had begun to cool, much like those early April nights at Ernie Shore Field long ago when my dad would caution me to wear extra layers since it would get cold once the sun went down. But it wasn’t too cold on this night.

Trade Street was sparse, understandable for a Wednesday night, but once I made my way down Fifth and up Cherry to Fourth, things changed.

Fourth Street was abuzz from Tates to Camino, past a/perture and the Mellow Mushroom. I followed a group of teenagers eating ice cream, giggling about where to go next, until I waited to cross Marshall Street outside of Jeffrey Adams.

The teens had run across traffic, stopped by a man on the other side who asked them if they’d just come from the play at the Stevens Center. They hustled on and when I crossed the street the man asked me the same question, which was strange since I was coming toward the theater and was hardly the demographic for the play itself.

I passed countless people outside eating in makeshift seating areas, or in patio seating carved effortlessly from the sidewalk itself.

My destination was Bull’s Tavern, where YES! Weekly editor Britt Chester holds court at trivia on Wednesday nights. Afterward, we sat outside, the crowds on the block growing, the conversational din pulsating, and I thought about the many Wednesday nights I cruise Elm Street in Greensboro.

It’s a far cry from the energy of Fourth Street. Mostly small groups, or individuals, hustling from one place to another are the Elm Street norm. Very few people linger, or talk with each other while waiting at the corner. It feels desolate at times.

A decade ago I would have laughed if you told me that Winston-Salem would have a more buzzing downtown than Greensboro. Today, it’s a maniacal laughter coming from the movers and shakers in downtown Winston-Salem, others chuckling while actively recruiting businesses away from the Gate City.

To be fair, not a lot has changed about the larger areas of Winston- Salem I’m familiar with. Driving to an aunt’s funeral service on Silas Creek Parkway last month I was struck at how stuck in time that area, the northwest arteries, and even the West End/Ardmore areas feel.

Both Greensboro and Winston- Salem are gripped with increasing poverty throughout their populations, but the success of Downtown Winston-Salem is undeniable.

The relationship, and vision, shared by Reynolds, Wake Forest University, and city leaders has transformed an entire section of downtown into an economic powerhouse. Combined with the arts and entertainment districts along Trade and Fourth streets, it’s a complete integration of urban renewal in the making.

Perhaps Greensboro’s sprawl is a factor here, preventing the crowds and the innovators from going all in for downtown.

Or it could be leadership. After all, Winston-Salem transformed an entire quarter of its downtown from dilapidated tobacco plants into 21st century businesses.

Greensboro can’t transform two parking spaces in front of a bookstore into a public seating area without all hell breaking lose. !