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Winston-Salem celebrated as statewide model in using arts for economic development

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

When state arts leaders came to town for the unveiling of the Downtown Theatre District concept in early September, they trumpeted Winston- Salem as a model for using arts to promote economic development across the state.

“I would say that you and the city of Wilson in this program are probably ahead of everyone else, and the projects that you’re doing are going to be models for the rest of the state to see how you do this work,” said Wayne Martin, director of the NC Arts Council.

Winston-Salem was one of four cities that were awarded SmART Initiative grants, and used the money to develop a “visionary conceptual plan” for a new theater district flanking Spruce Street around the Milton Rhodes Arts Center that would tee into the vibrant restaurant row on West 4 th Street.

The concept garnered enthusiastic praise from Jim Goodmon, chair of the SmART Initiative Task Force. Goodmon is the CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, whose properties include WRAL-TV, the Durham Bulls and the American Tobacco Historic District. He’s a significant player among economicdevelopment leaders in the Triangle.

Citing Creative Class author Richard Florida, Goodmon told arts and business leaders in Winston-Salem: “The most important decision you’re going to make is where you’ll live.”

The arts are one of the best ways to stimulate economic development, he argued.

“So you get your downtown cooking with the arts community, including old buildings,” he said. “You’re doing it all. Y’all should be making a contribution to the SmART Initiative. You’ve got a terrific plan here, and you’ve got all this going.”

As a bonus, Goodmon made a pitch for diversity, noting that every city is talking about how to create business incubators.

“They’re all talking about the same stuff,” he said. “But they’re not talking about one really important thing. And this is why the arts are so important. The most successful cities and regions are those cities and regions that do the best job at diversity. That is a fact. We are becoming a more and more diverse community.”

That insight is borne out by the inclusion of a National Black Theatre Hall of Fame, along with an “iconic” public park, the new city library, a 500- 700-seat theater and renovation of the Stevens Center, which is owned and operated by the UNC School of the Arts.

“We do consider the inclusion of the National Black Theatre Festival Hall of Fame a key component of the Downtown Theatre District, knowing that it would make Winston-Salem a destination for visitors from throughout the nation and the world,” said Greg Scott, a local lawyer who serves as chairman of the Winston-Salem SmART Initiative Downtown Theatre District Committee.

Scott laid out the value proposition of the hall of fame, while cautioning that it’s far from certain that the facility will be located in the conceived district.

“The National Black Theatre Festival will launch a fund drive in 2015 to create a National Black Theatre Hall of Fame honoring African-American stars of stage, screen, television and theater professionals,” Scott said. “Its board has stated that it is committed to the theater district concept and they want the hall of fame to be part of the Downtown Theatre District. However, at this early stage of planning and fundraising the festival has made it clear that it is too early for it to commit to any particular location.”

The concept is bold, and also pointedly differs from the proposed performing arts center in Greensboro, which seeks to replicate Durham’s success.

“More is definitely going to be better for Winston-Salem,” Scott said. “Other cities have proved that creating a campus for performing arts and venues around an iconic gathering place prompts the development of condos, hotels and certain types of retail, plus creates a regional destination with broad economic impact. Another is that Winston-Salem, which has one of the most robust arts communities in the Southeast, should build on its strengths of high-quality, diverse arts organizations and not try to replicate what neighboring cities and communities have done.”

Proponents of the Downtown Theatre District readily acknowledge that making the concept a reality will require cooperation and buy-in from a wide range of players.

In the case of the new city library, the siting is entirely up to the Republican-controlled Forsyth County Commission, a majority of whose members reside outside of Winston-Salem. But Commissioner Everette Witherspoon, a Democrat who represents urban District A, said he doesn’t anticipate the site location will become a partisan or sectional issue considering agreement has been reached that the new library should be in a centrally-located part of downtown.

Although he supports the concept of the theater district, Witherspoon said he is leaning towards the old Sheriff’s Office, located on West 3 rd Street between Liberty and Cherry streets, as a site for the new library. Other locations under consideration include the Winston-Salem Journal parking lot at 5 th , Spring and Marshall streets; Broad Street near Brookstown Street; the Southeast Gateway area; Chestnut Street immediately adjacent to the Forsyth County Government Center; and the current site on West 5 th Street between Poplar and Spring streets.

Commissioner Dave Plyler, a Kernersville Republican who frequently votes with the two Democrats on the commission, said he’s not taking a position on the site of the new library, but supports the theater district concept.

“As described, it’s an economic engine,” he said. “It’s something that cannot be matched by Hanes Mall or any enclosed shopping center. It is keeping in the tradition of the arts council because the arts council is the first in the United States. I don’t know any community that has so many artsrelated items in one district unless maybe it’s Broadway in New York City.”

The idea of relocating the library to the Spruce Street corridor, where it would be incorporated into a cultural and arts destination designed to attract high-end retail and upscale condos, gives pause to the Rev. Russ May, a Moravian pastor whose ministry involves people who are experiencing homelessness. A Festival of Shelters celebrated by May and some of his friends across the street from the library concluded on Wednesday.

“We have some basic practices, and they include public rest and sleeping outdoors, public eating, public meeting and, for those who want to be part of it, public worship, too,” May said. “Our intent with coming out here is to remember in a faith sense in this season of Sukkot how God cared for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness when they were displaced. We remember that God provides care for those who are vulnerable.”

The annual gathering takes place on a vacant lot owned by Centenary United Methodist Church. May said the library has also proven to be a solid partner.

“With the public library relocating to the Spruce Street area, is that kind of partnership likely?” May asked. “Can we have a cooperative project like the Festival of Shelters? Can we do that in the middle of a major development? I could be wrong, but I think that partnership is a lot less obvious.”

The cost of the project, carried in part by Winston-Salem taxpayers in the form of bond referendum, is another critical factor that will determine whether the concept moves forward. Greg Scott argued that failing to effectively cluster projects will squander taxpayers’ money.

“If you scattershot this money, if you just let it go wherever it’s going to go — to the cheapest project, to the cheapest piece of land — you’re gonna end up with stuff scattered all over downtown,” he said. “You get no synergy. You’re gonna get no bang for the buck out of it. This is taxpayer money. This is private organization money. If you respect it enough to have a plan and a plan is giving everybody major leverage for their strengths, that makes sense.

Scott deflected a question about whether an estimated $79 million investment would continue to provide returns beyond the 20 years it is expected to take for the projected economic impact to recover that amount. He said in answer that the investment would create a “cultural beating heart,” similar to the restaurant row on nearby 4 th Street.

“Think of that kind of community, that kind of public space stretching itself down Spruce Street where you have families walking along on their weekend with the strollers, going to the shops that are out here, catching the three to four music events, theater events that are happening. It’s going to become a destination. That buzz and that energy are going to be going on here all the time.”

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