Forsyth invests in its future
Wake Forest School of Medicine, the Center for Design Innovation, the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina and tech company Inmar all call Winston-Salem’s growing Wake Forest Innovation Quarter home.
Appeared as a sponsored section in the October 2019 issue.
Work, Play, Live
Wake Forest Innovation Quarter is recognized for its inventive new ways to merge work and life.
By Lindsey Chase
The Wake Forest Innovation Quarter has undergone quite the facelift over the last few years, but the work is far from complete. Home to 170 companies, including five institutions for higher learning, startup businesses, retail space, apartments and restaurants, the fixture has grown dramatically from its humble beginnings as Piedmont Triad Community Research Center, housing research teams from the Wake Forest School of Medicine.
The school, the Center for Design Innovation, the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina and tech company Inmar are just a few of the organizations that call the Innovation Quarter home. The diversity of companies and innovative approaches resulting in a “work-play-live” district earned the Innovation Quarter national recognition in June.
The Global Institute on Innovation Districts, a collection of leaders studying and developing innovation districts, named the Innovation Quarter as one of six areas to be represented on a steering committee that will further global research on innovation districts. These districts are zones in cities where public and private efforts are made to attract leading-edge companies, startups, business incubators, accelerators, research teams and others to one spot.
Graydon Pleasants, the head of real estate development at the Innovation Quarter, says this is proof that Winston-Salem is at the forefront of a growing movement toward work-play-live districts. Other cities on the committee include Pittsburgh, New York and St. Louis, along with Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Melbourne, Australia.
“Being selected as one of the leaders in [this study] is reinforcement that we are not alone in our thinking, but that this is happening all over the world,” Pleasants says.
The Innovation Quarter is nearly 20 years in the making, with buildings and projects continually added. Pleasants says the emphasis is on building a creative space that offers a one-stop shop.
“The Innovation Quarter has demonstrated that a vibrant, urban environment that has activity going on all the time is where workers want to be,” Pleasants says.
“They want to have a place where they can live, work, learn and play in an urban environment.”
Bailey Power Plant
A recent renovation in Innovation Quarter is the former Bailey Power Plant, which has undergone some major changes the last few years, according to Will Partin, senior director of development at Wexford Science & Technology, the company developing Innovation Quarter. “It was a mothballed, coal-fired, steam generating plant,” he says.
The five-story brick structure was built in the 1940s with two looming smokestacks used to power the area’s surrounding tobacco mills owned by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The company donated nearly 2 million square feet of building space and 40 acres of land to the Innovation Quarter in the early 2000s to kick off its development.
Now, it’s about 80% leased and home to entrepreneurs such as Fluree PBC, a database-management company, and the creative arm of Renfro Corp., the largest U.S. sock-manufacturing company. The fourth and fifth floors host the internal medicine department of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, while the ground level holds retail space and the popular Alma Mexicana restaurant.
Front Street Capital moves in The Bailey South building next to the former Bailey Power Plant is coming soon. With a scheduled completion date of June 2020 and a budget of $22.5 million, Front Street Capital is renovating the 75,000-square-foot space alongside local architecture firm STiTCH Design Co.
Once finished, the building will have two stories dedicated to retail and four stories for offices.
“The Bailey Power Plant block is really an opportunity to build a bridge between the downtown community with the Innovation Quarter,” says Coleman Team, a partner at Winston-Salem-based Front Street Capital.
After renovating the Bailey South building, Front Street Capital will turn its attention to the adjacent Morris Building. The project is now in the design-concept planning stage.
“The Innovation Quarter represents an opportunity to look to the future in terms of where our economy is going,” Pleasants says. “Clearly, innovation, collaboration and creativity are all components of that.”
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel for downtown Winston-Salem business owners now that the construction on Business 40, the highway that runs through the city, is more than halfway complete. The construction of the 1.2-mile stretch of roadway, which began in November 2018, has caused road closures, traffic rerouting and limited pedestrian access to parts of downtown. The upside will be a safer, less-curvy and more attractive thoroughfare adjacent to the Twin City’s revitalized downtown.
The project got off to a rocky start due to two major storms last November, but it’s set to finish in April 2020, four months earlier than planned. Of course, the weather is still a factor.
“We cannot predict what is going to happen with Mother Nature in the fall,” says Greta Lint, communications director for the Business 40 project through N.C. Department of Transportation. “If we have dry weather, then yes, we are on target for an April 2020 opening, if not sooner.”
The updates, which include new pedestrian bridges, walkways and a lower roadway to create more overhead space for busses and trucks to pass under bridges, are important for the 80,000 vehicles that travel the highway daily, according to NCDOT. “There is no other city in North Carolina that has a major interstate running through it,” Lint says.
Initial construction of Business 40, left, began last November after rain delays. The construction downtown has been disruptive for businesses, but many are glad to see the improvements to the highway. Well over halfway into the project and with an earlier finish date, residents and business owners are beginning to see portions, like the Main Street Bridge, right, open again.
Taking a new path
Winston-Salem is on track for a better downtown highway as construction accelerates.
Downtown feels the effects Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership for 13 years, acknowledges that there have been some negative effects.
“People don’t want to put up with detours and the challenges they have faced [when coming downtown],” he says.
However, Thiel says it’s caused residents and tourists to “support the businesses, in many cases.”
Lint and the team at NCDOT have also taken extra steps to support business owners during the construction.
For example, NCDOT brought on a small business consultant in 2015, who checks in with businesses and provides support. The NCDOT Facebook page is used to answer people’s questions regarding road closures or active construction zones.
Will Kingery, owner of Willow’s Bistro, referred to the area surrounding his restaurant at South Liberty Street and Business 40 as the “corner of death and destruction” when it was closed during construction.
He took a hit in sales during the time of the Liberty Road closure but doesn’t think the construction kept locals away. The bigger problem was that out-of-towners didn’t know ways to get around, he says. Business bounced back once the road was reopened.
“They reopened [the road] on a Saturday, but no one realized it,” Kingery says. “By Monday, when people found out, our sales had doubled.”
Kingery, along with Thiel, praises the work crews and point out how quickly the project is moving along. “The efficiency of the construction crews has made it much more palatable,” Thiel says.
Business 40 will open in a less curvy state, and it will look a lot better.
The Creative Corridors Coalition, a local nonprofit, partnered with the NCDOT to work on design and development projects around the city over the last 10 years. That includes the Business 40 Betterment project, which involves two pedestrian bridges that will intersect portions of the new highway, updates to the design and landscaping of the land adjacent to the road and updates to the Twin Arches, the bridge at the interchange at U.S. 52.
“It’s important for people who live in a place to have pride in their city,” says Bill Davis, vice chair of CCC.
“I think people are proud of the Twin Arches, and I think they will be proud of this roadbed. People will look at it and think, ‘This city cares about itself.’
Going with the Flow
The 500 W 5th building is becoming a hub for entrepreneurs and promoting growth in Winston-Salem.
The original GMAC insurance building, a staple of the Winston-Salem skyline for nearly four decades, is getting a makeover.
The 18-story tower with a glass exterior was purchased by 500 West Fifth LLC, a Flow Automotive Cos. entity, for $6.15 million in June 2017 and has been in a state of metamorphosis ever since. Renamed 500 W 5th, the renovations are the brainchild of local business leader Don Flow, owner of Flow.
Over the last two years, Flow has moved his business’ headquarters to the top four floors and begun leasing the remaining levels while updating the interior. The company, which owns 37 car dealerships in eight cities and employs more than 1,200, has said it planned to spend at least $10 million renovating the building and lobby, while adding a fitness center and, eventually, a restaurant on the main level. Buddy Thomas, director of real estate for Flow, says no detail is overlooked.
Building tenants include Grubb Properties, FlyWheel Coworking, local nonprofit Winston Starts and private equity firm Teall Capital Partners. The ninth, 10th and 11th floors are vacant, but Flow is talking with potential tenants.
The third floor is leased by Wake Forest University, Salem Academy, Forsyth Country Day School and UNC School of the Arts, so students can work on projects in a communal environment.
“The core area of that floor is all common space that is divided up between training rooms, board rooms, breakout space and cafe space that all the universities on that floor can use for their purposes,” Thomas says.
Flow sold the building adjacent to 500 W 5th, originally the South GMAC Tower, to Grubb Properties for the development of a 230-unit apartment complex and retail space. Demolition recently began on the two-year project.
Diversity in startups
One organization calling the building home is local nonprofit and startup incubator Winston Starts. Don Flow, the primary funder of the incubator, started the nonprofit in February 2018 and moved them in the same month.
The nonprofit develops startup companies over three and a half years, during which they work with industry members, a mentor team and Winston Starts board members to develop and implement a business plan. Starting with 12 founders in early 2018, the program has grown to 23 businesses involved and one graduate.
Companies involved in Winston Starts span a range of industries, including visual health care, digital, consumer goods and cybersecurity.
“Half of the founders within the current cohort are women, which is kind of unusual in the entrepreneurial world,” Steve Lineberger, president of Winston Starts, says.
Because of this, Winston Starts has launched Women Starts, an internal initiative to provide further mentorship and resources for the female founders.
“We have a rumbling of women who are interested in supporting and investing in female-owned companies or simply helping them network,” says Lineberger.
Another initiative of the nonprofit is Art Starts, a group of students from universities such as Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State who are beautifying the building with large murals. So far, the students have painted the interior of three flights of stairs. Eventually, they’ll paint all of them.
“It’s a great way for students who are interested in pursuing an arts-based career to come to an environment where they can let their creativity flow,” says Lineberger.
Revitalization of downtown
The Flow initiative comes during an exciting time for downtown Winston-Salem. Nearly $2 billion has been invested into the growth of the central business district since 2000, according to Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce data. There’s also been an upswing in population and employment growth, with more than 11,000 individuals adding to the labor force in the last five years.
Bob Leak Jr., president of Winston-Salem Business Inc., says this growth is reflective of the efforts of community leaders who have driven life into downtown through new development, including apartment complexes on Fourth Street, Hotel Indigo on Main Street and office spaces under development in the Innovation Quarter.
The low cost of living makes the city an attractive place to live and do business. According to Sperling’s Best Places, Winston-Salem’s cost of living is below both the national and state average.
“People are looking for a vibrant community that provides more than just where they work,” Leak says. “They want to have things to do, including restaurants, nightlife and parks. Winston has evolved into that over the last 10 or 15 years.”