Winston-Salem skyline looking east from the west end of the city.

Downtown Winston-Salem: A Renaissance 15 Years in the Making

TRIAD NEXT

By Justin Catanoso

These are the voices of downtown Winston-Salem, a small city with a sprawling central business district that’s remarkably vibrant in every quadrant. Their enthusiasm is now commonplace, and it underscores s steady renaissance more than 15 years in the making.

On a chilly Friday morning earlier this month, Amy-Ruth Hallett of UPS peers into storefronts along the 400 block of Liberty Street. What was once a desolate, sketchy stretch of downtown’s core is now filling in with retail, offices, a cross-fit gym and a newly announced art park. Hallett needs a location for a new store, one close to the bustling high-tech and medical operations in the nearby Innovation Quarter.

“Liberty is primed for redevelopment,” she says. “This is not a street we would have considered a few years ago.”

Across town on 600 block Fourth Street, Kit Rodenbough has become the first retail business anchored in downtown Greensboro to expand to downtown Winston-Salem. Design Archives, adjacent to the popular Foothills Brewing Co., sells vintage clothing and handmade goods such as soaps and jewelry.

“I had customers come to my Greensboro store (on South Elm Street) and say, ‘What about Winston-Salem? I wish you were into Winston-Salem,’” Rodenbough says. “I knew I wanted to expand. I looked at Durham; it was too expensive. Then I came to Winston-Salem. I was listening to the young, creative people and what they wanted. I was feeling that energy, that cool factor. I looked around, and the downtown just spoke to me. Acting on that instinct, I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’”

On North Main Street, where former Hanes textiles factories stood empty and decaying for decades, Amy Foster, property manager of the two Factory Lofts buildings, stands watch over a more than $30 million investment.

All 171 units are leased, with rents ranging from $925 a month (one bedroom) to $1,895 (three bedrooms). The developer, Clachan Properties of Richmond, is now spending $8 million to turn the old county courthouse on Fourth and Main into 58 apartments.

“I got here five years ago when everything was starting to bloom,” Foster says. “I was worried at first, having moved from Richmond. But things have really come on. Trade Street is totally developed. Restaurants and bars are opening all the time. The Reynolds tower is getting renovated. The new Biotech Place is amazing. And the research park is driving a lot of development. You see all this happening and you have to think it’s a trend that will stay the same.”

Liberty Street, once dreary and desolate, is now primed for redevelopment. Photo by Julie Knight

A long time coming

From Krankies Coffee on the east side to Camino Bakery in the center to Moselles Fresh Southern Bistro in West End, downtown Winston-Salem — which, unlike downtown Greensboro, preserved so much of its original architecture, from storefronts to factories — is alive and buzzing and growing.

There are 3,100 residential units downtown, most of them built since 2006. Some 700 have come online in the past year, with more planned. Rents are high; vacancy is low. People are everywhere, a significant factor in the downtown’s steady upward trajectory.

Yet to truly appreciate all that’s happened and continues to happen — look at the new deluxe apartments in Plant 64, look at Mast General coming to Trade Street — it’s important to remember how desolate and dreary this huge swath of town was just a decade-and-a-half ago.

With few local developers willing to risk a nickel, elected leaders recruited someone they hoped would be a center-city savior. His name was John Elkington. He had resurrected Beal Street in Memphis and promised to do the same here.

Elkington planned to buy up Fourth Street and turn it into Restaurant Row. He planned to buy the empty 18-story Nissen Building and turn it into apartments. He promised an amphitheater. His plans were grand. But no one followed. After several years of trying, he left downtown no better than he found it.

No backsliding

But Elkington’s vision was sound, even if his execution was lacking, says Jason Thiel, who has led the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership for nine years. Elkington presented the fundamentals of walkability, of concentrating restaurants on Fourth and art galleries on Trade. He talked about building on success two blocks at a time.

After years of fits and starts that left many wondering if progress was possible, that’s essentially what’s happened, Thiel says. But only with lots of individual investors, not one master developer.

Elkington’s, of course, wasn’t the only plan. The Piedmont Triad Research Park, launched two decades ago to repurpose what was once R.J Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s manufacturing base, is now hitting stride with Wake Forest’s broad investments finally paying off and private developers following suit.

There is plenty of credit to go around, starting with a mayor and city council who have consistently made downtown revitalization a priority (hence their stepping in five years ago with a risky, $28 million bet to save a faltering downtown ballpark). Ben Sutton’s $10 million decision to relocate his sports marketing empire, now IMG College, to Trade Street was a big vote of corporate confidence some six years ago.

“We’re going to still have our positives and negatives,” Thiel tells me as we drive around downtown in his white Ford Taurus. “We still have some gaps to fill. But the future now is how we manage things. And small things really matter, like clean streets and safety and parking. We’re working on those.

“But the idea that downtown is going to go back downhill, like happened so many times in the past, that’s not in the cards.”

Justin Catanoso, executive editor from 1998 to 2011, is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His column appears monthly in the Triad Business Journal.