June 25, 2019
Note: Before he died, Jerry McLeese and I interviewed 28 Winston-Salem citizens who have made significant contributions to the alleviation of poverty and/or other issues confronting the city. Among them was Mayor Allen Joines. Because he is seeking an unprecedented sixth term, and because those we interviewed had strong feelings about the issues, I thought it might be helpful if I resurrected that interview, in part, and integrated into it some of the observations made by the others we interviewed, as interpreted by me. I chose not to identify who said what or to highlight any of them because I am not providing all the context that preceded or followed the quote I used and some of the quotes have been lightly edited. Nonetheless, what I did use is faithful to the intent of their comments.
There is something reassuring about walking the halls of Winston-Salem’s meticulously maintained 93-year old City Hall. Despite the long history of challenges the city has faced in its 169 years, the images of all those past mayors adorning one wall and on another the more modern images of prominent women in service to the community create a sense of permanency, stability, and commitment. Perhaps that feeling can be attributed to the citizens of a city who formed the first Arts Council in the nation, established one of the first city Foundations in the South, prides itself on being a City of Arts and Innovation, and who, not content to become victims of globalization, most graphically expressed their determination to reinvent themselves by revitalizing downtown, turning 330-acres of empty buildings into a home for high tech enterprises entitled The Innovation Quarter, and obtained the Federal designation of a Comprehensive Cancer Center that establishes Winston Salem as one of the nation’s best regional health care centers.
Perhaps this transformation can also be attributed, at least in part, to a city government that had no choice but to take a leadership role in securing the economic future of Winston-Salem by arresting a decline that threatened to turn the city into a Southern version of a rust-belt casualty, the result of globalization, changing government regulations, and shifting demographics. Accompanying this change was a new set of problems that the city is still dealing with: changing employment requirements, the lack of affordable housing, new demands on the public school system, growth of poverty, and very little social mobility, among others. Most cities in American are dealing with the same issues, but even with these new challenges, it is unlikely that many in Winston-Salem would have doubted that the change was necessary. It was simply a matter of survival because, despite our flirtation with nationalism, most economists agree that globalization has become entrenched and is irreversible.
It is just as unlikely that any newly-elected mayor of Winston-Salem was as prepared to hit the ground running to deal with that necessary change than was Mayor Allen Joines, the longest-serving mayor of Winston-Salem who is now running for a sixth term. His popularity with the electorate makes it likely he will be reelected, but there is still much to be done to get a handle on poverty. After three decades as an employee of the city, rising to the position of Deputy City Manager, and ultimately mayor, Joines has become intimately familiar with the city’s problems and remains determined to do something about them despite the two steps forward, one step back nature of politics. There must be times he feels like Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill.
“By 2000, our economy was on a downward spiral. Bud Baker, who was Chairman of Wachovia, and several other business leaders spent a year studying the economy and it became clear that a change of direction was needed,” recalls Joines. The power of his elected office and the support of the electorate was essential if seminal change was going to happen because we had become too dependent on too few.
Because of his long tenure with the city Joines was a natural candidate for Mayor. He had become among those in the city who recognized that changing the economic foundation of the city was indeed a matter of survival.
“I am a shy person by nature, but as one of those complaining, I felt I had to either put up or shut up. I decided to run for mayor because it was clear that a change in leadership was necessary,” he said. “I felt I had to do it,” he added.
Although Joines had the advantage of many years working in city government, he knew from day-one that successfully addressing the need for change would require building trusting relationships with the many and varied “communities” within Winston-Salem. Again, he had a head start because he had chaired various initiatives to ameliorate specific problems, even enlisting the help of The United Way to tackle those issues that were not being fully addressed by their normal independent partners. Establishing trusting relationships with as wide a variety of vested interests as there are in Winston-Salem can be as challenging as three-dimensional chess, where every move can have an unanticipated outcome.
“As I entered office, I hoped that folks saw me as someone who is genuinely caring because I had worked on issues on a weekly and monthly basis for all those years, instead of just once every four years,” he said, intimating that he had earned the right to try.
Trying meant beginning with the fundamental economic structure of the city. The old system of benevolent patronage had to be replaced by a broad, community-based structure that would build some internal growth opportunities. As things have turned out, the city’s approach to revitalization took several forms. First, there was the creation of a fund to finance projects that would contribute to job creation and quality of life enterprises. Second, there was the establishment of collaborative efforts to address specific problems, such as homelessness, poverty, food insecurity, and obesity. Third, there was an energetic effort to restore downtown Winston-Salem as a good place to work, live, and play. It would be hopelessly Pollyannaish to claim that these programs were overnight successes or even that they have been fulfilled and the Mayor makes no such claims.
Producing bold new civic accomplishments is no walk in the park. It takes more than just a shared vision. It takes a willingness for those with a vision to stick their necks out and use whatever influence they have to make them happen. Dr. Doug Maynard recalls when he and former Chamber of Commerce executive Gayle Anderson joined forces to try to convince the Winston-Salem business community that supporting a bold intent to make Winston-Salem a national leader in medical technology could be a game-changer. Their audience listened politely, asked few questions, and then expressed their faith in the concept even though they readily admitted they were acting on faith rather than complete understanding. Thus the city’s transformation from heavy industrial to information-based technology took building a consensus around a vision and was probably launched more on hope and faith than certainty. It remains to expand the number of out-of-town companies relocating to the Innovation Quarter and to minimize the impact of job losses from the departed industrial base. Regardless of what must happen next, the city has come a long way and the palpable sense of faith in the future that characterizes Winston-Salem helps balance out the disappointments and keeps us working on solutions.
Sidebar: Anyone wishing to understand the level of effort and the extent of involvement of government, business, and educational institutions it took to get the Innovation Quarter up and running should read Frank Elliott’s book, “From Tobacco to Technology.”
This faith in the future surfaces when Joines talks about issues that had to be overcome sometimes by embracing new ways of doing things. I believe we all understood that the changing nature of the workforce meant we had to make our educational system more responsive to changing skill sets required by business.
“The role of Forsyth Tech has been critical,” Joines says, citing an example when a local company, claiming they could not find qualified employees with analytical skills necessary for their business, threatened to move from the city and take their 800 employees with them. Forsyth Tech agreed to establish a training program on site for new employees. The willingness of Forsyth Tech to go off campus to ensure pertinent education for workers was central to attracting Caterpillar to the city and demonstrated a willingness take a chance. Today, on-site training is a staple in the services Forsyth Tech offers companies needing new skill sets. Also, Forsyth Tech Foundation has a program that helps ensure that those students who have almost completed their requirements to graduate don’t drop out because of family or financial issues. The foundation provides small grants to enable the affected students to stay in school and finish and the Transit Authority has designed a number of routes that gets students to class on time.
While being designated one of the top fifty metro areas in America remains a goal of Joines, it “is a stretch goal for us,” he says, requiring that 10,000 new jobs be created over a period of years. “We’re not there yet,” he admits. Job creation requires an educational system that prepares graduates for work in professions that were the stuff of science fiction twenty years ago. Assuring that the school system is meeting the challenge has led some employers to become active partners in developing curricula and beefing up their on-the-job training programs. We need the schools to supply a steady supply of skills the company must have if it is going to compete in the digital world.
Becoming one of the top fifty metro areas in America may be an aspirational goal and a numbers game now, but there are many in the community who feel it is inevitable. They point to the spurt of new apartments springing all over the city and the number of new hotels that dot downtown. This spurt in apartment building is meant to attract more of the hundreds of young professionals working and studying in an environment that breeds businesses that have changed the demographics of the city. Even so, the largest growth in the population will probably be in the group over sixty and that creates more pressures on senior services.
Nonetheless, the most excitement is generated by the earnest pursuit of new businesses that contribute to solidifying the high-tech, health care, and information services that make up the “new economy.” In particular, officials of Downtown Winston-Salem look skyward at the twenty-story former GMAC building that had stood vacant since the Great Recession until purchased in 2017 by the Flow family of auto dealerships and turned into their corporate headquarters. Reflecting the faith in the city’s future, the Flow family set aside several floors for below market rate office rentals to start-up companies. Now the lights burn at night at 500 W. Fourth, sharing the skyline with the former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company 22-story headquarters building on the near east side of town. At night, it now glows with vibrant colors after being vacant for years until the Cardinal Group turned it into a boutique hotel and rental apartments and added a restaurant to growing number of dining establishments that are filling up what was once too many empty storefronts lining Fourth Street. Building on a long-established reputation for world-class cultural and entertainment attractions, the addition of so many new hotel rooms is expected to make tourism not only a source of new funds, but a giant job creator. Recognition of this employment potential has helped gain the Forsyth County Tourism Development Authority the largest budget increase ever for FY2019-2020 and a new slogan to stand alongside “The City of Arts and Innovation:” “Visit Winston-Salem: Look Forward, Travel Back.” The arts community has always struggled to finance the maintenance, improvement, and expansion of the arts and cultural attractions of the city and has always depended on a comparatively few generous donors. We are now on the cusp of being able to being less a city of Art(ists) and Innovation and more the City of Arts and Entertainment as well as Innovation, because we will be better able to point to the flow of revenues into city because it is more of a tourist destination. This may very well establish Winston-Salem as having a cultural and entertainment community worthy of much broader support.
It is obvious that there is a pretty new face on much of Winston-Salem. What is not so obvious is the soul-searing impact of the loss of hundreds of industrial jobs that moved off-shore and which have to be replaced by jobs with a different set of skills. There is no hiding the fact that Winston-Salem has a ways to go before it can say with pride that everyone who wants a good job can get a good job in Winston-Salem and live in affordable housing. Joines can take justifiable pride in the reduction of those who live at the poverty level in Winston-Salem, which no longer appears on list of Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas having a twenty percent poverty rate. But getting a better handle on how to make a real dent in poverty in Winston-Salem is now in its fifth year as the highest unmet priority.
Sidebar: “Getting a handle of poverty” starts with defining what poverty is. The Federal government pegs poverty for a family of four at $25,100. According to the U.S. census office, the median income for Winston-Salem was $42,219 the last time it was calculated, and the median income for “a family of four living in poverty” was $26,668. Some data-tracking organizations put Winston-Salem’s poverty rate at 24.1%, others at 23.3%, and one at 21.8% (in 2016), any of which puts the city among those in North Carolina with greater than the statewide poverty rate of 15.4%. (For the SMSA, the rate is under 20%.) Under the traditional model for determining what constitutes poverty, there were 40 million Americans living in poverty in 2017. Another measure, becoming more popular, but far more difficult to calculate, is “poor and low-income,” which takes into consideration cost-of-living differentials and other factors. Under this definition, there are 140 million Americans, or 48 percent of the total population, considered poor or low income. Given the increase in poverty in all of America since the Great Recession, just holding the line on poverty is regarded as a kind of victory. From that perspective, the “systemic” nature of poverty in Winston-Salem should be more malleable.
If the many components of poverty, such as but not limited to affordable housing, adequate transportation, food deserts, and educational and income disparity, were to ranked, the top spot would probably go to job creation. As one low-income person at a recent meeting put it, “The problem with poverty is lack of money!” However, affordable housing in Winston-Salem would be a tough competitor for first place. There is a need for 15,000 new units of affordable housing. The looming threat of gentrification is best illustrated, for the moment, by the pending sale of Crystal Towers for conversion to market-rate rentals. Residents must find alternative housing before the sale can be consummated and, because of the shortage of affordable housing, private homes are renting single rooms to the displaced. There is another huge gap between what constitutes “affordable” rent versus market rate, which makes it difficult to attract developers of affordable rental housing when there is a growing demand for market-rate rentals.
In 2015, Joines established a “Poverty Thought Force,” to come up with initiatives that would actually reduce poverty, as in treating the cause rather than the symptoms. Two years later there were 56 recommendations, which are being tested for validity today by The Partnership for Prosperity program. The operative word in the title of this new anti-poverty program is “partnership.” The leadership of the Partnership is committed to making a real connection with those in need so that the path to prosperity is less faint. This means involving those who need the services must become a part of the solution. The standard set by Joines for every program initiative to reduce poverty that emerges from this joint enterprise is that they must be community-based and be likely to succeed. If the community responds,, then the tattered remnants of “Plantation Politics,” may finally fade away, if not forgotten, and the “been there, done that,” attitude nurtured by past shortfalls will disappear.
Many mayors in America share Joines’ concerns about job creation and civic revitalization, but a good number of Joines’ priorities have a human face, such as ending chronic homelessness and encouraging better nutrition to prevent obesity, especially among children. He led the implementation of the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, a project that remains in force and is directed by
Andrea Kurtz. (Chronic homelessness is different from temporary displacement, which cannot be anticipated and is dealt with on an “emergency” basis.) Providing affordable housing and assisted living works because there are inherent efficiencies in having a safe environment that allows social programs to take hold and work better.
Kurftz and her colleagues have reduced chronic homelessness so substantially that it is considered manageable. The numbers tell a story of the kind of success that most engaged in the war against poverty would envy. When they started the program early in Joines’ administration, Winston-Salem could count about 200 chronically homeless, including veterans. Today, homelessness among veterans has been effectively eradicated and the chronic homeless in the city at large has been reduced to eleven. The program continues to be administered now by the United Way.
“For us to have a healthy city,” Joines says, “and to have a clear vision of where we want to be, we had to get folks to understand that we had to move away from the mindset that the big corporate folks will take care of us. We had to change to an economy based on knowledge industries and smaller businesses that can provide everyone an opportunity to prosper. That takes time and patience.” It also takes a commitment by all the citizens that the eradication of poverty must always be among the highest priorities. The success of the chronic homelessness program should give us the encouragement – and the justification – for funding a robust attack on poverty in all its forms.
So, even with this solid track record and solid political support, Joines still has a plateful. Reducing poverty remains the top priority because it carries so much baggage with it: educational opportunity, better transportation, better housing, and better nutrition. Better everything. First steps were taken almost five years ago and today The Partnership for Prosperity is asking everyone which ones to recommend for implementation. Poverty divides the city as surely as (Route) 52 does. It remains a barrier to be bridged.
© 2019 WD Publishing