WFU Biotech Place: Innovation Took Form, But Failed To Transform Winston

On June 4, 2010, city, county, and state officials joined local elites in celebrating the start of Wake Forest Biotech Place’s transformation from shuttered tobacco building to a modern research facility. The event was called “Innovation Takes Form.” Mayor Joines and leaders at the Piedmont Triad Research Park (today’s Innovation Quarter) filled locals’ imaginations with notions of innovation and transformation the way R.J. Reynolds’ factories filled the city with the sweet smell of tobacco decades prior. But the future predicted on June 4, 2010, never came, despite articles in Politico and the New York Times that suggested Winston had successfully transformed itself, “from Tobacco to Technology.”

Sure, Wake Forest’s Innovation Quarter has continued to grow, with Bailey South and the Link Apartments Innovation Quarter opening most recently. But it hasn’t lived up to the lofty projections of yesteryear. At the “Innovation Takes Form” press conference, ‘Mr. Economic Development,’ Allen Joines stated that today’s Innovation Quarter has the “good potential to create upwards of 30,000 good jobs over the next 20-25 years. But According to Greater Winston-Salem, the WFU Innovation Quarter currently employees just 3,700 workers in addition to “8,000 workforce trainee participants.” We’re halfway into Joines’ 20-25 year window, and we are a whopping 26,300 jobs short of his prediction.

“The Innovation Quarter currently comprises 1.9-million square feet of office, laboratory and educational space on more than 330 acres” in the heart of the city. The Innovation Quarter wasn’t easy to organize, and it didn’t happen overnight. It took the combined efforts of Wake Forest, the City, and the County under the leadership of Winston-Salem Alliance President and Mayor, Allen Joines. It was a project for the elites by the elites that principally benefited Wake Forest and well-connected real estate interests. The Innovation Quarter was supposed to lure companies to Winston. Instead, Wake Forest Health Sciences, the Innovation Quarter’s parent conglomeration, is now part of Charlotte-based health care giant Atrium Health. The IQ was supposed to propel Winston back into the big leagues. Instead, Winston is a mid-sized city looking with envy at Charlotte and the Triangle.

Despite all the tens of millions of dollars taxpayers showered on the Innovation Quarter, there are very few affordable housing units in the Quarter. Rents are high, and many of the jobs in the WFIQ require advanced degrees, making them of little value to the blue-collar types that decades ago could have graduated high school and gone over to R.J. Reynolds with a reasonable expectation of landing a decent job with benefits.

Sure, the Innovation Quarter has helped the City’s tax base. But if even half of the public resources invested in the Innovation Quarter over the last 15-20 years were invested in education and affordable housing in East Winston, then the entire city would be a better, less violent, less segregated place today, where children can more easily escape poverty.

Wake Downtown

“The second thing you need is public support and public funds. As you look at the cost to revitalize the North District, the cost is immense. And without public support, this is a project that just never would have happened. And here we are benefiting from three levels of support, federal level-through historic tax credits, and new market tax credits. State-level through the mill-rehab credits. And in particular, the mill-rehab credits were very valuable to this project. I hope it’s a program that continues in this state. And the last thing is infrastructure support, as we have heard coming from the City and the County. These funds allow us to create world-class, state-of-the-art research space at an extremely affordable price.” 

-James Berens, Wexford Science, and Technology

“We are witnessing today, a miracle of sorts, a worn-out industrial plant turning into a modern biotech laboratory. That really is amazing.”

“The motto of Wake Forest, as Doug suggested [Doug Edgeton], is Pro Humanitate, for the common good. And this project is an example of the good things that come out of strong partnerships where shared interests and entities can join together and make big things happen.” 

-Dr. Nathan Hatch, Wake Forest University

Blueprint Tax credits



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