W-S council brushes aside objections to entertainment district

by Jordan Green

Several members of Winston-Salem City Council told staff they want to forge ahead with a plan to create an entertainment district despite a recommendation by the City-County Planning Board that they explore other alternatives to encourage large-scale venues.

“The innovation part of it, the ingenuity part of it, that’s what I want to look at,” North Ward Councilwoman Denise D. Adams said. “Who would have thought 20 years ago that downtown would be growing at the seams? Our downtown is growing out and we now have to decide which direction we’re going. I don’t know whether our citizens would think bad of it. I don’t think they do. I think we need to go back as a council and look at it.”

The city council has been exploring the idea of creating an entertainment district at the northern end of downtown through a new zoning category since March at the prodding of Hank Perkins and Drew Gerstmyer, who are involved in developing the area around Ziggy’s. (Disclosure: YES! Weekly publisher Charles Womack is a part owner of Ziggy’s business; this reporter maintains an office in the building for news reporting purposes.)

Adams, East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery, Northwest Ward Councilwoman Wanda Merschel and Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor Jr. all said they favor creating the new zoning category during a public safety committee meeting on Monday. Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who chairs the committee, expressed no objections. “There are five people sitting here,” City Manager Lee Garrity said. “I can count.”

Taylor said downtown Winston-Salem is becoming an entertainment destination for young people from around the region, including Greensboro and High Point. He added that actor Owen Wilson has been seen hanging out near Ziggy’s.

“I think we’re on to something with this entertainment district,” he said.

Merschel said she favors the use of a new zoning category to create a “carrot” to entice developers to place nightclubs in protected areas so that they don’t spring up by default in places where they are disruptive or unwanted. She also said the zoning designation could be applied at a future time to the areas around Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Winston-Salem State University.

Staff’s primary objection to creating an entertainment district through a new zoning category is that the change wouldn’t address the primary objective of council and the developers, which is to create an area with a higher threshold of noise toleration to protect nightclubs.

But Perkins and Gerstmyer have held ongoing discussions with staff about noise levels in regard to the entertainment district concept. Based on information provided by staff, the two developers have embraced a model based on the regulations created for BB&T Ballbark with a measurable noise threshold outside of a buffer zone.

“[Fifty-five] decibel level was used as a basis for evaluating the impact of various noise resistant measures imposed upon the ballpark,” City Attorney Angela Carmon wrote in a memo to City Manager Lee Garrity on May 2.

After the meeting Perkins and Gerstmyer held an informal discussion with Carmon about the relative merits of an objective noise measurement versus the legal standard of “plainly audible.”

Taylor said contributions totaling $8,000 from Perkins and Gerstmyer to his unsuccessful state Senate campaign had absolutely no influence over his support for their initiative.

“We all want downtown to grow and flourish,” he said. “The largest factor for me is that we’re attracting and retaining young professionals…. We’ve got students at Wake Forest University, Salem College, and Winston-Salem State University. They graduate and they leave. And we find it difficult to find something for them to do. If we finally got something for them we have to protect that.”