It can be hard to tell the difference between the incumbent and the challenger in the race for the North Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council.

Political change is stirring in Winston-Salem, and both candidates for the North Ward seat on city council feel it.

At minimum, two seats are guaranteed to turn over due to the retirement of Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke in the Northeast Ward and Dan Besse in the Southwest Ward.

“We have 22 people running for city council this year,” said Eunice Campbell, who is challenging incumbent DD Adams for the North Ward seat. “That is unheard of. If that is not a sign that the voters are ready for a change, then I don’t know what is. I feel welcome to be a part of the change…. It validates those conversations I’ve been having with people. They’re not happy with the city council.”

Adams said she welcomes the increased engagement from constituents.

“People are more engaged now than I’ve seen them since the 1960s,” she said. “My generation was attuned, whether it was Vietnam, the environment or segregation. People are more attuned to what they expect from their leaders.”

The 65-year-old Adams, who retired seven years ago as a quality-control engineer at Johnson Controls, won her seat in an open contest in 2009, but that election also saw two long-serving incumbents involuntarily retired in upsets.

“I would be remiss to take anyone for granted,” Adams said. “I would say everyone should be challenged.”

Campbell reeled off a list of challenges and needs in the ward during a recent interview: gentrification, road upkeep, public transportation and a relative dearth of retail and grocery stores.

“I thought about if we were going to meet in a nice coffee shop in the North Ward, and I couldn’t name one,” said Campbell, who has lived in the ward for 25 years.

“When I go to shop, if I want to buy an outfit and I want to stay in the North Ward, what options do I have?” Campbell asked. “As far as being a fifty-something-year-old woman looking for a certain type of dress, I have Burlington Coat Factory…. It’s not for me. As a city as a whole, they tended to put all of that in the Stratford Road area.”

The North Ward captures a small chunk of downtown and winds in a northwesterly direction to the city’s fringe beyond Historic Bethabara, loosely bounded by Highway 52 to the east and Reynolda Road to the west.

North Ward map (courtesy Forsyth County Board of Elections)

At the heart of the ward is the massive Whitaker Park, tucked between Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Wake Forest University. The industrial park once anchored RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s tobacco manufacturing operations before the company shifted production to Tobaccoville.

Adams commiserates with Campbell, noting that Reynolda Road was envisioned as a retail hub similar to the Hanes Mall area in southwest Winston-Salem, but the closure of the Whitaker Park tobacco works dampened its prospects.

Her family’s relationship to Reynolds Tobacco is at the heart of her connection with the North Ward. Adams’ parents bought their first house between the Boston-Thurmond and Kimberley Park neighborhoods 50 years ago when her father worked for Reynolds. Adams herself worked as a tour guide at Whitaker Park on summer break during college. She describes the facility as akin to an Amazon hub, with a thriving cohort of trucking businesses that shipped the company’s products and restaurants that fed its workers.

When the facility finally closed for good around 2012, local leaders launched the Whitaker Park Development Authority. Through incentives, the city persuaded Cook Medical, which had threatened to relocate from Winston-Salem to Stokes County, to set up a medical-devices plant in Whitaker Park. Reason to Believe, a company that manufactures cosmetics products, also moved into one of the renovated buildings in the complex.

Adams is most proud of the residential component of the revitalization project, led by developer Chris Harris, a retired NFL player. Adams said she met with Harris when he was leading the Plant 64 project in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, and asked him to take a look at Whitaker Park. Harris’ company plans to build 164 loft apartments at Whitaker Park.

“Some of this is about relationship, and you have to market your story,” Adams said. “I have a connection — I’ve never let go all my life.”

Campbell expressed skepticism about the project, questioning whether it will bring development to the ward without benefitting its residents.

“How is that going to help the residents of the north-side area?” she asked. “During the presentation, I remember the words, ‘as we look to the city,’ all pointed towards downtown, like there’s nothing behind it…. Those people and those residents, they’re marketing downtown to them, not the surrounding area, not the Northside Shopping Center, not the Patterson Avenue area.”

Specifically, Campbell objects to a proposal to cut Indiana Avenue in two at a railroad crossing near Whitaker Park. Transportation planners contend the closure is necessary so they can add a railroad crossing for a new road that would connect Whitaker Park to Smith Reynolds Airport.

“That is a plan, and I don’t support it,” Adams said of the proposal to bisect Indiana Avenue. “I’m not moving on it. My constituents have made it clear.”

Both Campbell and Adams noted that the street provides a vital link between the eastern and northern portions of the city. Indiana Avenue links Cleveland Avenue to Northpoint Boulevard, which connects in turn to Silas Creek Parkway. The network of streets forms a kind of inner loop through the city.

Both candidates argue that if a road is needed to the airport, authorities should find funds to pay for a bridge rather than closing an existing railroad crossing.

The two candidates both want to promote infill development, worrying that low density makes it more difficult to connect residents with employment opportunities, and for the city to efficiently provide services.

“We need restrictions on predatory investment, on speculative investment,” Campbell said. “Predatory investors come into a city. People are buying properties and leaving them vacant. If you have a progressive land tax, you pay a bigger tax on an empty piece of land than you do if it was occupied.” Washington, DC and Pittsburgh have experimented with similar programs.

Both candidates want to change zoning ordinances, which are part of a unified system shared by the city of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

“Work together to change zoning regulations, to change density, so we can build more houses,” Adams said. “Build tiny houses, housing for children exiting foster care, for people who were formerly homeless.”

Campbell echoed support for the idea.

“We’re going to have to change some of our zoning regulations to get rid of urban sprawl,” she said. “I am an advocate for tiny houses. You could put four or five on a foundation, and have a common patio for seniors, with one or two people per household.”

Although she’s served on city council for more than 10 years, Adams presents herself more like a challenger than an incumbent.

She rates the city’s current leadership a modest 6 for workforce development, and says she doesn’t like touting accolades, such as recent numbers released by the national Bureau of Labor Statistics that found that Winston-Salem outpaced, Raleigh, Charlotte and Greenville, SC for job growth from August 2018 to August 2019.

“I don’t buy into all that,” Adams said. “Constituents are going to tell you: ‘If we’ve got all these Top 10 financial wins, why doesn’t my life reflect it? How can you tell me that when our neighborhoods aren’t safe, when our children aren’t learning in school?”

Campbell said the city has placed too much focus on revitalizing downtown to attract millennials.

“When they have kids, they’re not going to want to live in downtown,” she said. “Make sure the North Ward is an option. I want it to be attractive enough. These people that are making a good living, I want them to buy a house in the North Ward. I want them to shop in the North Ward. I want them to have nice neighborhoods, sidewalks and parks when they come. We need that now. Bring the resources, bring the transportation, bring the workforce development. Not just for a few, but for the many.”

Candidates for the North and Northeast wards will speak to voters during a forum at the Winston-Salem NAACP headquarters, located at 4130 Oak Ridge Drive, on Thursday at 6 p.m.

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