Tale of two cities
The seeds for Winston-Salem’s renaissance were planted in the late 1990s, prior to Jason Thiel’s arrival in the city. The conversion of West Fourth Street from one-way to two-way, streetscape improvements and sidewalk widening set the stage for the street to become a regional fine-dining destination. Meanwhile, the city created a Restaurant Row revolving loan pool to help restaurateurs get started. The Meade Willis Revolving Loan Program, administered by the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, later augmented the city’s loan program — both providing gap financing that is subordinate to the entrepreneurs’ debt to their primary lenders.
2015 ownership of downtown Winston-Salem
Winston-Salem owners: 58.2%
Owners from rest of NC: 12.7%
Out-of-state owners: 29.8%
Thiel credited the Millennium Fund, created around 2000 by corporate leaders with about $40 million for investment in downtown redevelopment, as an early win for downtown. One of the first projects supported by the fund was the renovation of the Nissen Building, an 18-story skyscraper with luxury apartments.
Thiel recognized an array of dynamic organizations — including the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, the Goler Community Development Corp., Old Salem and the Downtown Residents Association — with moving downtown forward in a cooperative spirit. Mayor Allen Joines, who has led the city since 2001, has acted as a constant cheerleader for revitalization.
2015 ownership of downtown Greensboro:
Greensboro owners: 82.1%
Owners from rest of NC: 9.9%
Out-of-state owners: 8.0%
In contrast, Greensboro has had five mayors over the same period, with corresponding fractiousness and struggles to define their mission among an array of nonprofits tasked with reactivating downtown.
From the inception, the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership has taken a strategic approach.
“Many cities tried to create walkable areas all over,” Thiel said. “Way back in 2006 we decided to create three to five blocks that were highly walkable, and then it would naturally expand.”
Thiel said the city’s adoption of an overlay district with new design standards played a critical role in promoting downtown’s growth. The ordinance requires downtown property owners to build to the street, provide transparency in at least half of their ground floors and place doors every 100 feet to encourage pedestrian use.
A 2010 effort led by Downtown Greensboro Inc. to create design standards stalled out due to resistance from local property owners, chief among them developer Roy Carroll.
Gary Brame, the chair of Downtown Greensboro Inc. credited former mayor Jim Melvin with bringing a new ballpark to downtown Greensboro in 2005; Winston-Salem followed suit with a ballpark of its own to the west of its downtown. Brame also commended Action Greensboro for building Center City Park, which opened in 2006. Both of those projects attracted new visitors to downtown.
Downtown Greensboro has tried a number of approaches to instigate growth, including marketing local businesses and providing grants for façade improvements. While Brame said the programs made a difference, the organization has opted to discontinue them. Downtown Greensboro also recently handed off its Clean and Green program to the city. Currently, the organization is heading up a volunteer effort to plant flowers around downtown in advance of that National Folk Festival in September, and searching for a new CEO while coming under fire from some city council members for alleged ineffectiveness.
Both cities have major new investments underway or on the horizon, with no signs that the growth is slowing. In Winston-Salem, Clachan Properties, the Richmond, Va. company responsible for the Winston Factory Lofts, is renovating the old Forsyth Courthouse for new apartments. A partnership between PMC Property Group of Philadelphia and Kimpton Hotel & Restaurants of San Francisco is renovating the historic Reynolds building as a high-end hotel with restaurants and retail on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors. And last week, the city announced that a consortium of local and out-of-state investors will build a $96 million mixed-use development next to BB&T Ballpark with 300,000 square feet of retail, 110,000 square feet of office space, 250 hotel rooms and 580 residential units.
In Greensboro, the construction of the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts alongside the forthcoming LeBauer Park promises to expand the civic space around Center City Park, the Central Library and the Greensboro Cultural Center. Occupying a space between Newbridge Bank Park and the city center, Roy Carroll’s Bellemeade Village will contain upscale apartments and a hotel. And south of Gate City Boulevard, the city recently broke ground on the Union Square campus, which will house a nursing program jointly operated by UNCG, NC A&T University and GTCC.
“Contrary to what many people believe, it’s not just the big investments that drive downtown growth,” said Thiel with the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership. “All investment is the sum of many small investments with big ones wrapped up in between. It is a long-term effort. If you keep working, you start to see improvement and people buy into it. Some people use the term ‘critical mass’ — possibly an overused term. You start with restaurants; people didn’t believe we could do it. Then housing; we faced skeptics. Then the innovation quarter — people were even skeptical of that.
“What I enjoy most about being downtown, it is the people who own businesses and the employees,” Thiel continued. “If they are excited and feel a vibe, that’s the best marketing you can have. If you must know, it’s from the ground up. The big investments are made off small investments.”
Methodology: Using current and 2010 historic property values provided by the Forsyth and Guilford county tax assessors, Triad City Beat aggregated overall values of Winston-Salem and Greensboro’s downtowns, tracking growth from 2010 to 2015 and identifying the largest players. The author used corporate records on file with the NC Secretary of State to determine the underlying ownership of companies on the local tax rolls. The Winston-Salem study reviewed 944 properties covering 358 acres of an area roughly bounded by Highway 52 to the east, Business 40 to the south, Broad Street to the west and West Sixth Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the north. The Greensboro study reviewed 1,174 properties covering 390 acres in an area roughly bounded by Murrow Boulevard to the east, Gate City Boulevard to the south, the future Downtown Greenway to the west and the Fisher Avenue to the north. While the two study areas necessarily exclude some outlying properties with high levels of activity and investment that could easily be considered part of downtown, the boundaries were drawn to achieve comparable sizes and compactness.
Nia Hill contributed research for this story as part of Triad City Beat’s investigative reporting program.
Note: Information in this story has been amended and updated since its publication on May 13, 2015 to correct for an omission of a number of properties from the original survey and to reflect Roy Carroll’s purchase of the CityView properties.