Winston-Salem Partnership hosts ‘downtown university’

by Eric Ginsburg

Circular kiosk maps help orient visitors to downtown Winston-Salem, one of a number of initiatives of the partnership designed to enliven the center city. (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

People around the city were pouring their morning cups of coffee, still feeling groggy as they prepared for work. It was a couple of minutes past 9 a.m. — too early for many. It was the middle of the summer, but three staff members of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership were preparing for an unconventional school.

The “downtown university” program has been running for about eight years, now offering five different seminars ranging from an hour and a half to three hours. The courses are aimed at business owners, both current and potential, who are vital to the partnership’s aspirations for the city.

Surrounded by maps depicting various aspects of downtown Winston-Salem on the wall, director Jason Thiel presented the partnership’s work and vision for the heart of the city as part of “Downtown 102 — Downtown Overview” to a smaller-thananticipated crowd.

All of the “downtown university” courses, including ones focused on helping people start a business, understand insurance and liability, and navigate social media, begin at 8 or 9 in the morning. The upcoming social media event is popular enough to draw large crowds in the morning hours; in fact the session is almost fully booked for November. For the Downtown Overview, however, two out of the six people who sent an RSVP were in attendance.

Unlike ac tion greensboro’s center city park, however, thiel said the park in the middle of winston-salem would ideally be city owned.

“It could have been very valuable if there had been more people,” said Ed Koos, owner of Center City Frame Gallery. “The Downtown Partnership is… getting things moving downtown and I think they’re doing a good job of marketing downtown [but] there weren’t enough people to have a basic discussion of anything.”

The event was Koos’ first with the partnership, and he said he’s already marked out the next few on his schedule but is particularly excited about “Downtown 202 — Social Media.” So was Sandra Miles, who said it was her third event in the series. Miles aims to open a home-style buffet, and has her eye on a property on 4 th Street. After the event, she scheduled a meeting with Thiel to talk more specifics about opening her business.

Much of the presentation focused on explaining what the partnership is all about, outlining not only its recent accomplishments and current projects, but also its longer-term goals. Through short videos, maps and a tour of a comprehensive website, Thiel articulated what he called the “downtown agenda.”

The organization’s vision is to make downtown a destination spot for everyone through building a vibrant city center with numerous types of attractions, and the partnership’s leaders aren’t short on ideas for how to do it. Like Downtown Greensboro Inc., the partnership is part of the NC Downtown Development Association, and Thiel said they exchange ideas as part of a positive collaboration.

The majority of the organizational funds come from private sources, with only 5-7 percent coming from local government. Its board is made up of 46 members representing diverse interests, Thiel said, and the various committees perform a significant portion of its work.

One of the projects downtown leaders are considering is a park in the city center. Unlike Action Greensboro’s Center City Park in neighboring Guilford County, however, Thiel said the park in the middle of Winston- Salem would ideally be city owned, with the partnership contributing to amenities and maintenance. Miles was excited about the park, which is right near where she hopes to locate her business.

“We have to go through the difficult process of finding a funding source [for the park],” Thiel said. “We remain hopeful. It’s a vision that’s not going to go away.”

More immediately, the partnership is focused on the Pepper Building adjacent to a proposed park site along 4 th Street. The building is already owned by the partnership, which plans to make renovations so that businesses can move in soon. The building sits near the county courthouse and old RJ Reynolds headquarters, which the partnership sees as key potential sites.

Koos, whose business is on Liberty Street, would like more businesses to open near him, especially a restaurant. Thiel said the area is part of the focus for creating a “walkable core” downtown, drawing foot traffic through a number of initiatives including access to parking, a variety of business attractions including entertainment options, and an “uninterrupted walk” where people could stroll from place to place without passing by many empty storefronts.

The partnership has launched a number of initiatives to improve downtown, including circular kiosk maps oriented the way a pedestrian would look rather than with the cardinal direction north at the top. It also helped create discounted parking for downtown customers, a shuttle to weekend Dash games, Salute! wine festival, a summer music series and the Big Eat discounted dining during the winter.“We’ve had a lot of positive things with businesses opening on 4 th Street and Trade Street,” Thiel said. “The biggest thing people will say to me is the need for a grocery store downtown.”

Thiel agreed there is a need for access to food downtown, something that is also a hot topic in Greensboro. While noting that people living in suburbs usually drive to the grocery store too, Thiel said a downtown grocery store would fit with the partnership’s goal of promoting walkability.

“One of the things I’m excited about is hopefully getting some more bicycle racks downtown,” Thiel said in an interview. “We strive for ‘complete streets.’ Our vision for downtown is very bicycle friendly.”

Complete streets, Thiel explained, offer space for pedestrians, bicyclists, businesses and vehicles to operate safely. He said more and more places across the country are looking to this model, and he hopes Winston- Salem will be one of them.

Downtown has recently seen a spike in demand for housing options while the housing stock has stayed the same.

“What that’s meant is I’ve spent a lot of time with developers trying to put together rental projects aimed at market rate product that will satisfy demands,” Thiel said. “We’re always cognizant of the potential for [gentrification]. There’s a tremendous opportunity for more depth in the rental market.”

The event was designed to allow significant time for questions, but the small turnout didn’t foster many. Thiel said the partnership might host the event again at night to accommodate people’s schedules. After thanking everyone for attending, Thiel invited people to get involved and sign up for future classes.

“Our message is that downtown is for everyone,” Thiel said later, “and we urge everyone to get involved, whether it’s with us or with another downtown organization.”