Remaking Winston-Salem: after several false starts, North Carolina's most famous tobacco town shows signs of rebirth.

Author:Martin, Edward
Position::Cover story
 
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Slowly, the afternoon shadow of the old brick chimney with its terse "R.J.R. Tob. Co" overtakes the young woman. As if steeled for the chaos the medical student will one day face treating patients in an emergency room, Jennifer Taylor is unruffled by chattering jackhammers across North Patterson Street.

Poring over notes at a table outside Cafe Brioche Doree, she's surrounded by buildings like hers, 525@Vine. In her early 20s, she came east to attend one of the nation's 10 best physician-assistant schools at Wake Forest School of Medicine. "Now, I'm in the midst of hundreds of like-minded people." Around her are more than a dozen former factories, most with reflective windows, skylights and bright interior atriums, where medical, university and community-college students, researchers, biotechnology technicians, business executives and staffers work and study. "You really feel like you're part of all this."

Fifty-five years ago, the same chimney cast its shadow over Harold Bledsoe. He's 73 now, busy in his woodworking shop across town, but he was 18 then. His first job was cataloging incoming hogsheads, huge wooden barrels packed with tobacco from farms in the Carolinas and Virginia. In 1962, $1.59 an hour was good money. "I'd been making $1 an hour in a grocery store."

Late in the day, as the sun ducked behind the chimney, he and thousands of others would head home, their khakis and overalls--like the city itself--infused with the pleasant, toasty aroma of cured tobacco.

Jennifer Taylor and Harold Bledsoe are different generations of Winston-Salem, a city undergoing a metamorphosis that may be unparalleled in North Carolina for magnitude, drama and audacity. Once called Camel City after the cigarettes made by the billions in factories here, it played itself in Barbarians at the Gate, the dark 1990s depiction of Wall Street avarice and painful corporate relocation. Now, it has a new pulse.

Its heart is this, the hulking R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. industrial complex begun in 1875 and once one of the world's largest cigarette factory complexes, now known as Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. It covers 145 acres and represents more than $700 million in public and private investment that has created 2.8 million square feet of space for about 70 technical and service companies and five academic institutions. Unlike North Carolina's crown research-park jewel, the 7,000-acre Research Triangle Park, this is an intentionally gritty, walk-able, human-scale enclave that proudly displays its past, even if checkered. Durham and other Tar Heel tobacco towns have changed too, but not as dramatically as this, the state's fifth-largest city with more than 240,000 people.

The remaking of Winston-Salem into an apex of biomedical research, education and technology is propelled by Wake Forest University and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and School of Medicine. They have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into these old factories. Along with the city, state and a private Maryland-based company, developer Wexford Science & Technology LLC, the consortium is challenging the traditional suburban office-park model.

"That's significant because Wake Forest University is a beautiful, pastoral suburban campus," says President Nathan Hatch. "Now, we can combine that with an urban, edgy, dynamic campus downtown." Wake opened its first satellite campus in Innovation Quarter in January and plans to house 350 biomedical science and engineering students there. "It'll greatly enhance the experience of students who want both," Hatch says.

"Historically Winston-Salem has been a difficult place to recruit to," says John McConnell, CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the region's biggest employer. He also oversees the medical school. "We now compete with Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley for talent."

Transformation hasn't been painless. Some ask if Innovation Quarter is creating jobs or merely shuffling them, and why historically black Winston-Salem State University doesn't play a bigger role. At times in the last two decades, it even appeared Innovation Quarter would be just another Winston-Salem disappointment.

But it has survived as the latest iteration of an irony that haunts North Carolina. Winston-Salem owes a fair share of its existence--universities, banks, hospitals and all--to the tobacco farms and factories that in the last half-century became regarded as purveyors of the ultimate...

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