For nearly a century, Winston-Salem, N.C. was a major hub of tobacco manufacturing. It was home to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which employed nearly 30,000 of the city’s residents at the height of its operations in the late 1950s. But as the decades wore on, Winston-Salem’s economy began to falter. Years of medical research about the dangers of smoking had taken its toll on the tobacco industry, and the city’s traditional manufacturing base began to dissipate. By the end of the 1980s, Winston-Salem had lost close to 10,000 jobs across multiple sectors, while R.J. Reynolds downsized the majority of its local workforce by 1989.
“Everything had been going so well,” says Gayle Anderson, former president and CEO of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. “We really didn’t feel the need to import any businesses or import talent.”
But they don’t call Winston-Salem the City of Arts and Innovation for nothing.
Since the late ’80s, Winston-Salem has revolutionized its stagnant economy with support from local business, educational institutions and emerging artists. In 1992, the Chamber of Commerce teamed up with nearby Wake Forest University to begin renovating the abandoned R.J. Reynolds factories in its downtown district, now a thriving research and business park. Dubbed the Innovation Quarter, it is a 330-acre space that employs 3,700 people and houses 170 companies and five academic institutions.
There’s been a rebirth of the city’s arts community, too. Spearheaded by local developers like John Bryan, the city’s once-vacant downtown transformed into a cornucopia of artisan shops, restaurants, breweries and even a Muay Thai studio.
Despite these positive developments, Winston-Salem isn’t without its troubles. A 2017 study by Winston-Salem State University found the city and surrounding Forsyth County ranked third-to-last out of a total of 2,478 U.S. counties in terms of economic mobility, and many of the residents most directly impacted by a lack of economic opportunity are African-American. This inspired Goler Community Development Corporation, a local urban real-estate nonprofit, to get involved, helping ensure all residents enjoy a share of the city’s recent success.
“When you concentrate poverty on a particular part of town, you’re not going to have great outcomes,” says Michael Suggs, president of Goler CDC. “In order to have a sustainable community, you need these different incomes together.”
Watch the full documentary above to see how Winston-Salem rallied its citizens to shape the future of its economy.